The actor: Henry Winkler, best known as Arthur Fonzarelli from Happy Days, is firmly planting his foot in the modern comedy landscape. His turn as family attorney Barry Zuckerkorn in Arrested Development was well-received, and he’s also appeared in a bunch of recent Adam Sandler movies. He joins Arrested Development showrunner Mitch Hurwitz—along with most of the show’s cast—as a voice actor in the animated show Sit Down, Shut Up, which debuted last Sunday.
Sit Down, Shut Up (2009)—“Willard Deutschebog”
Henry Winkler: The first time I saw it was when we did an evening at the Museum Of Television And Radio, and they showed us an episode. I look over at Mitch, who is the genius behind this show, and he’s rewriting it. I swear to God. He just said, “Oh my God, that’s not funny.”
The A.V. Club: Isn’t it a much longer process to rewrite something for an animated show?
HW: A year! It’s unbelievable. What happens is that you pick places where it’s on the back of the character, or you do it right to the flap of the lips. You have to be very careful.
AVC: How did you get involved with this show?
HW: I auditioned like everybody else. I sat in these metal chairs in this big room in a recording studio somewhere down by the airport. And the room was filled with every great voice artist and every good actor in this city. And there I was. It was unbelievably intimidating. But I heard in my mind, my character’s mantra is [Deep, whispery voice.] “If I believed in reincarnation, I would kill myself tonight.” The voice just came out, so I just went with my instinct.
Arrested Development (2003-2005)—“Barry Zuckerkorn”
HW: First of all, there is not a human being, no matter where I go in the world—I just came back from England, where I was doing a play—who does not stop me on the street and say, “Is there gonna be a movie?” That is the question of the year. And Mitch told us all that he is writing it this summer. Doing the show, Jason [Bateman] was the keeper of the logic. Jason was very intent on making sure that everything made sense. He is the core. I met Michael Cera when he was 16, and you think to yourself that this man could literally run the world. He was so incredible, even at that age. Jeff Tambor, he just was phenomenal. It was incredible standing next to him, it’s hard to concentrate. Because out of the sides of his mouth, he would throw these asides in the middle of the scene, that were incredible. Will Arnett is…
AVC: Are you going to go on like this for everyone?
HW: Not everyone. But when you think about them… David Cross. Oh, Portia [de Rossi]… beautiful and funny and warm! It was truly a family, because the boys, all the brothers, would just beat each other to a pulp, you know, waiting to shoot a scene. They were either hitting each other in the arm, or they were throwing a football. It was really a wonderful ensemble.
I went in for one episode, directed by the Russo brothers. And during the scene when I meet the family as the lawyer, I just all of a sudden saw a Danish and thought, “Oooh!” And I took a napkin and took a Danish and put it in my briefcase. They allowed me to do that, and we were off and running, and then I was invited back for two and a half years.
AVC: Did you find out about the project through Ron Howard?
HW: No, I did not. I don’t usually talk to Ron Howard about business. He’s like my brother, and we just have a loving relationship. I just had a conversation with him because I came back from speaking for the Mental Health Association in Vero Beach, Florida. On the plane, I saw Frost/Nixon again. I called him up and said, “You know, Ron, I gotta tell you. It’s just a really fabulous movie.” And then we go on from there and talk about antimatter that he created in Angels And Demons.
Happy Days (1974-1984)—“Arthur ‘Fonzie’ Fonzarelli”
Out Of Practice (2005-2006)—“Dr. Stewart Barnes”
AVC: Let’s talk about your most memorable role: that time you played The Fonz in a Funny Or Die video to endorse Obama. [http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/cc65ed650d/ron-howards-call-to-action-from-ron-howard-and-henry-winkler]
HW: [Laughs.] Well that was Ron’s idea. He called me up, he said, “We gotta do something.” I said, “Ron, I’m in the canoe.” What was amazing was, we’re talking, we’re in the trailer, we’re getting dressed, getting into costume, we leave in costume, we’re chatting about our children and so on and so forth… and I leaned against a ’50s car, and I said, “Aaaayyyy, Cunningham, you do your homework?” I’m telling you, instantaneously, we were back, as if we had done the show on stage 19 yesterday.
AVC: You have no problem reprising the character?
HW: I don’t mind at all, because first of all, I’m very proud of that character. I’m very proud that no matter where I go in world, people come up to me and say “Thank you so much for making me laugh.” Today. In 2009. It went off the air in 1984.
AVC: Was it true that initially the character wasn’t going to have a leather jacket?
HW: That is true. He wore cloth. He wore a MacGregor golf jacket.
HW: There was a fear that I would be associated with crime. I would be not TV-acceptable.
AVC: How did you feel about the jacket?
HW: It was incredibly difficult, to be cool in tan. I just want to say that right off the bat. And then Garry [Marshall] made a deal with ABC that I would only wear leather if I was in a scene with the motorcycle. Then he told the writers never to write a scene without the motorcycle. And then eventually everyone was quiet, and then the jacket was in the Smithsonian.
AVC: How did you get the role?
HW: I was here in California for a month. I only had money for a month. And during that month, I went to Paramount and auditioned. And at the end of the month, they called me and they said “Would you like to play this character?” and I said “Look. Can I play the emotional side of this character too, where he takes off his jacket at home and he’s got nobody to be cool for?” And they said “Okay.”
AVC: You felt that was important to add to the character?
HW: I really did.
AVC: Happy Days went on for more than 250 episodes.
HW: Yes, 255.
AVC: That’s amazing that you have that figure off the top of your head.
HW: Well, remember, it’s a very important part of my life.
AVC: These days, it’s rare a show goes on that long.
HW: Well, it’s also economics. Because the irony is, or the shame of it is, you cannot create a show instantaneously. It needs to be massaged. You need to see who is relating to who. How is it working with the audience? You need to give it a chance for the audience to find it, because there are so many outlets. And the audience doesn’t know where to go. Now, if you don’t instantaneously bring an audience… Three episodes, you’re gone. I did a show that I loved called Out Of Practice, with Stockard Channing. Written by two of the funniest writers in television today. I mean, these guys were brilliant. And it was an older demographic. We were number 15 almost every week. Except our demographic was older, the network wanted a younger demographic, and so we were canceled. That is the way of the world.
Monty (1994)—“Monty Richardson”
HW: It was originally going to be shot for NBC. And they said yes, and then the next day, they said no. So they must’ve shown it to GE. Because at NBC, my daughter… I played Rush Limbaugh, with a gay daughter, which is, I guess, just desserts. The writer, Marc Lawrence, thought, “Wouldn’t that just be fitting, that that man had a gay daughter?” And we then re-sold it to Fox, and it then got completely watered down. It went from a gay daughter to an older son who was studying law and wanted to give it up to be a chef. And then of course the guts were taken out of it.
The Waterboy (1998)—“Coach Klein”
Little Nicky (2000)—“Himself”
Click (2006)—“Ted Newman”
HW: Adam is one of the three brilliant, brilliant people I’ve worked with. Garry Marshall, Adam Sandler, and Mitch Hurwitz. Adam is in charge of every movie that he makes. He is a wonder, because as goofy as he is on the screen, Adam is shy, thoughtful, energy like a caged lion. Hears every single line spoken by anybody on that set, and if it is not exactly the way he heard it, he will come in and talk about the humor. If you do something that’s funny that is not exactly the way it’s written and it strikes him, he is grateful. I truly love him.
AVC: Are there any specific memories that you have of being on his sets?
HW: My favorite story, which tells you everything you need to know about him, he needs to be busy all the time. If he’s not on the set, if it’s lunch, if they’re setting up a big lighting scene, he will play his instruments in his trailer. And anybody in the crew or cast who also plays an instrument can join and form a band. At the same time, he has these canvases, and little spray bottles, spray cans of color. And he puts them up in front of his trailer outside. Everybody gets a color, and you take turns making this painting. This little boy walks up. He is 11 years old. He’s never met Adam before, he’s a fan. And Adam completely embraces this kid, and brings him into the fold and gives him a color. So now the kid is part of the experience. And that’s Adam.
AVC: The public’s perception of Adam Sandler is very different.
HW: Because he is very shy. You hardly see him on talk shows. He knows that he has to promote his movies. The group of friends that he has around him, he met on the dorm floor at NYU. And they have the same guys that protect him, produce for him, assist for him, act for him. He is anything but a doofus. And his mother at this moment is creating a Seder dinner. She flew in for the holidays. I spoke to her last night.
Night Shift (1982)—“Chuck Lumley”
HW: Ron Howard’s first major studio movie. Ron Howard is worried because he is young and afraid that a seasoned crew and actors were not necessarily going to listen to him because of his age. What he forgot is that he puts off this energy, which is powerful. You would ask him a question and he would stop, think about what you said—he would run the movie in his head the way he saw it—to see if what you were asking him fit. The entire crew stopped still and waited for Ron to speak. Because everybody got that this kid was the deal, that he knew what he was talking about.
AVC: What was your role in the film?
HW: He asked me, he said, “Look, I’m gonna make this movie. Would you be in it? You can be in it. You can play either role.” And Bill Blazejowski was kind of like the Fonz, so I played Richie. I played Chuck. And we auditioned every actor together in Hollywood. Kurt Russell came in. Mickey Rourke came in with a transistor radio tied with twine around his neck and auditioned. And these men were unbelievably talented. And then Michael Keaton walked in and owned it.
AVC: Why did he have a transistor radio around his neck? Is that part of the film?
HW: No. It is not. I don’t know why Mickey Rourke did that. That was his vision of the character at the time.
Heroes (1977)—“Jack Dunne”
HW: This was my first film for Universal, for a big studio. I went to New York to help audition these people, and a young actress came in by the name of Meryl Streep. You knew you were in the presence of greatness. I’m telling you, you just knew it. And we were not able to cast her because she had not done anything yet. In a little while, she was going to come out in the Holocaust miniseries, but no one had seen her yet. And then Sally Field came in. Sally Field was the flying nun, and then she took time off, studied, and came out again, so it was like we had met her when she was just breaking out of her cocoon as the butterfly—and you know, she was powerful.
AVC: What was your character like?
HW: My character was a Vietnam vet who unfortunately, I guess, had post-war syndrome or shock syndrome, or whatever. It was a road movie. I was heading across the country to meet up with my good friend and platoon buddy Harrison Ford, who had just come back from making this movie in England in front of a green screen. It turned out to be Star Wars.
Scream (1996)—“Principal Arthur Himbry”
HW: I used to meet Wes Craven for sushi.
AVC: Always sushi?
HW: Always sushi. We would talk, he was like an English professor. An articulate, thoughtful, quiet English professor who happens to have an imagination that would send you screaming from the theater. He offered me the role of the principal, and we had a really good time. They did not allow me to put my name on the one-sheet, or in the credits, because they thought it would hurt the balance of the movie.
HW: They thought everyone would think it was The Fonz, and it would knock them out of the movie if they saw my name.
AVC: Because you were too big a star?
HW: No, because that’s what happens when you play a character that is such a big name. People only see The Fonz.