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None Cooler Than The Fonz

Henry Winkler takes inaugural ATX Television Festival award

By Richard Whittaker, 9:30AM, Mon. Jun. 9

"My lawyer said, if you stay at the table long enough, the chips come to you." Henry Winkler takes home the first ATX Television Festival Achievement in Television Excellence Award.
photo by Rod Machen

"Tenacity and gratitude." With those two words, Henry Winkler summed up his career as he received the first ATX Television Festival Achievement in Television Excellence Award.

As Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzerelli, Winkler is the epitome of the TV icon: So much so that his leather jacket made it into the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. But he's also fought long and hard to retain a career. After Happy Days ended in 1984, he became a producer, director, and now holds down recurrent roles in four series: Lovable rascal Eddie R. Lawson in Royal Pains: The often-hornswoggled Dr. Saperstein in Parks and Recreation; incompetent attorney Barry Zuckerkorn in Arrested Development: And lunatic administrator Sy Mittleman in Adult Swim's Childrens Hospital. That's where the tenacity undoubtedly comes in. Winkler humbly told the audience at Saturday's award presentation, "My lawyer said, if you stay at the table long enough, the chips come to you."

Then there's the side career in books. As a best selling author through his Hank Zipzer kids' books, he's been awarded the title of Literacy Hero by the UK's National Literacy Trust. Then there's the fact that the French government made him a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Artes et Lettres. And now, he's the first recipient of the ATX Festival's newest honor. "Or," as Royal Pains producer Michael Rauch joked, "as we call it in Hollywood, the triple crown."

In a friendly Q&A session with Rauch, Harry and Anna Winkler's boy laid out an anecdotal history of his trip from Manhattan kid to Yale graduate to one of the world's most recognizable stars (as he noted, his parents started calling themselves his co-producers after he found success.)

The Henry Winkler of 2014 is the same nervous guy who lived through Happy Days's cancelation and couldn't get an acting gig for nine years. The same guy who was told he was wrong for the Fonz ("They wanted a tall Italian guy," he said, "they got a short Jewish guy.") He's still the same kid with undiagnosed dyslexia who was so shy that his parents wrote his name on his tie so people would talk to him – but his reading issues were so bad he saw "Henry" as "Heavy." Not great for the developing ego.

But there's an undeniable sense that, well, Winkler's just a likable guy. He told a story about the one and only time he and his Happy Days co-star Ron Howard talked about his rising star. After all, the show was supposed to be a Howard vehicle, and suddenly he's playing the straight guy to the charismatic Fonz. Winkler recalled Howard putting it all into context. "You did nothing to make this happen, except be good, and that's good for the show. You are my friend."

And that's the one constant in Winkler's life. He's not been big on ego, as Rauch, and a video introduction/roast by Happy Days producer Garry Marshall made clear. "I only think of the fame as practical," Winkler said. For example, it helps to line-jump in a rain storm outside of the cinema in Los Angeles. Or when visiting Austin, it means not having to wait in line at certain famous BBQ joints. Winkler said, "I called them from LA, and they're saving meat."

(Side note: Marshall also praised Winkler as a fine softball pitcher. Winkler, in return, explained that "Gary is an idiosyncratic eater. He eats pasta only with ketchup.")

That idea of fame as a tool parlayed well into his interim post-Fonz career as an executive producer on shows like McGyver. But again, there was that sense of worry, of self-doubt, of an urge to make everyone feel wanted that came from his own lack of confidence. When he was a first-time bit-player on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, everyone broke for lunch, and he was left, standing alone and confused, in the middle of the set. "I felt horrible," he said, and he swore that, as long as he had any say, no one on a set where he was working would ever feel that way.

Not that there's a lack of disarming steel under that charm. Whenever a guest star was acting up or refusing to leave their RV, he would knock on their door, and put their hubris in check with one simple sentence. "Can I see your fan mail, because I'll show you mine."

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