Skip to main content

Being Henry: The Fonz...and Beyond


Being Henry: The Fonz...and Beyond

Ask any Gen Xer or millennial over 35 if they’ve ever heard of Henry Winkler’s iconic character, The Fonz, and you’ll probably get an impromptu “Ayyyyyyyyyyye,” the popular refrain of the king of cool from “Happy Days.” Ask Gen Zers if they’re familiar with Winkler, and they’re likely to point to “Barry” or his Hank Zipzer series of children’s books. All over the world, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know Winkler or his work. Five decades of this have made him iconic, with Fonzie’s leather jacket on display in the Smithsonian Institution to prove it.

But where did Winkler’s journey start? Born to German Jewish immigrants who escaped Nazi Germany just in the nick of time, Winkler began his life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in relative material comfort. His father, a lumber importer/exporter who expected his son to follow him into the family business, and his mother were strict and sullen people who often referred to their youngest as “dummer Hund” --- German for “dumb dog.” School was always a struggle for young Henry. (A diagnosis of dyslexia would be decades away.) His poor grades just made his parents even more frustrated.

"BEING HENRY is a charming and entertaining chronicle of Winkler’s amazing life and career, told in a breathless, fast-paced, conversational style. It’s as if he’s sharing his best stories over lunch with a friend, and the reader is that lucky friend."

Despite his academic struggles, Winkler attended Emerson College and the Yale School of Drama, where he solidified his desire to be a professional actor: “When I was on a stage, playing someone else, I was transported to another world, one where pretending made you successful. What I was miserable at was being myself.” After some years doing stage work in New York City, he was given valuable advice from an agent: “If you want to be known in New York, stay here. If you want to be known to the world, go to California.” So he headed to Los Angeles, determined to make it as an actor.

It wasn’t too long before a momentous thing happened on the Paramount lot. A new sitcom for ABC was being cast. Producer/director Garry Marshall thought Winkler hit it out of the park with his audition. In his eyes, Winkler was perfect for the role of cool “greaser” Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli. The show was based on the recent film American Graffiti and was supposed to be a lead vehicle for child actor Ron Howard. Premiering in January 1974, it didn’t take long for “Happy Days” to become a huge hit. The Fonz was created to be a peripheral character, but soon his popularity couldn’t be denied, and his part kept increasing week to week. The show ran 11 seasons, and he ended up taking center stage, especially after Howard’s departure to pursue directing.

The runaway success Winkler experienced was a decade-long roller coaster. He was recognized all over the world and garnered attention from all ages. Paul McCartney even stopped him on a New York City street, suggesting that they hang out one day. (What follows is a funny story of Winkler earnestly trying to set up that meeting.) The opportunity to play such an iconic character is both a blessing and a curse. As much as Winkler loved playing The Fonz, the next few decades would be an attempt to prove that he had more range than just starting a jukebox with his fist.

The 1990s and early 2000s found Winkler doing a lot of voice-over work, some directing (Cop and a Half) and even a little producing (“MacGyver”). He also tried his hand at writing, starting with the aforementioned children’s book series about Hank Zipzer, a young boy who learns he has dyslexia. (Winkler discovered that he himself was dyslexic when he was doing research for these books). He also spent time with his beloved family, including his wife of almost 50 years, Stacey.

The ups and downs of Hollywood has taught Winkler many important lessons: “Only now do I understand that things come in their own time. That you couldn’t have known then what you know now. That only the process of living gets you there: you must do the work in order to eat the fruit of growing --- of being. In my late seventies, I am trying very hard to live in the moment and enjoy every moment. I’m thrilled, elated that I’m here now, at a kind of new beginning.”

BEING HENRY is a charming and entertaining chronicle of Winkler’s amazing life and career, told in a breathless, fast-paced, conversational style. It’s as if he’s sharing his best stories over lunch with a friend, and the reader is that lucky friend. In addition to his incredible work ethic, what’s abundantly evident about Winkler is his sweetness and his desire to encourage and inspire young creatives. Also palpable is his gratitude for it all.

“No matter where we come from, no matter what the color of our skin is, we all want exactly the same thing. We want a house, we want food to eat. We want our children not to be malnourished and die from hunger. We want clean water. We want love. I have had all these things --- and still have them --- in abundance. And my gratitude is abundant, too.”

Henry Winkler is such a mensch!

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on November 3, 2023

Being Henry: The Fonz...and Beyond
by Henry Winkler

  • Publication Date: October 31, 2023
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Celadon Books
  • ISBN-10: 1250888093
  • ISBN-13: 9781250888099