Principal Himbry. Coach Klein. Barry Zuckerkorn. Dr. Saperstein. Eddie R. Lawson. The Fonz.
These indelible characters from some of the best and endearing TV shows and cult classic movies are still just as entertaining to watch today.
But the man behind them feels humbled to just be able to play any role.
Henry Winkler, best known for playing Arthur Fonzarelli on Happy Days, will play yet another memorable role on Nov. 1, when he hosts the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Main Event at the Please Touch Museum.
Winkler said he’s happy to serve in the role for the Jewish Federation and the Jewish community.
Steven Rosenberg, chief marketing officer of Jewish Federation and coordinator of the Main Event, said this event is the organization’s largest of the year, with about 700 people expected to attend.
The event is geared to show people what the Jewish Federation is all about and why it’s important in the community. Aside from ticket costs, no minimum donation is required.
“We hope that we inspire those people to show them where our work goes and where our money gets spent and the work the Jewish Federation does,” he added. Jewish Federation is expected to raise a couple hundred thousand dollars, primarily through corporate sponsorships.
Rosenberg, who is also the publisher’s representative and the general manager of the Jewish Exponent, said the event is fun and light-hearted, and he’s very much looking forward to meeting Winkler, whom he grew up on while watching Happy Days and who stars in one of his top-five favorite movies, Night Shift.
“It’s different than anything else that we do over the course of the year,” he said. “I feel like we’re really lucky to have him.”
Winkler, whose parents fled Nazi Germany for New York in 1939, admires how the Jewish community takes care of its own, but also how it helps other Jewish communities across the world — even communities of Syrian refugees who are not necessarily Jewish, but have a great human need.
“I think that being Jewish equates with being empathetic,” he said. “The humanness of being Jewish makes me so proud.” “I would imagine that I’m the actor I am because of the life that I have lived, the childhood I had,” he added.
Winkler wanted to be an actor since he was 7 years old, yearning to tell stories and make people laugh.
“If people were born to try and do something, I was born to try and be an actor,” he said. “It was there, and the fire was lit when I was young, and it still burns.”
Yet of all the notable roles he’s played, he doesn’t have a favorite.
“I have a favorite job, which is aside from being a parent and a grandparent — it’s acting. So I am always grateful when I get to continually live my dream,” he said. “I love every minute of my professional career.”
There’s a whole generation that talks to Winkler and relates to him about Happy Days, he added, then another about Scream, The Waterboy and Night Shift, and still another devoted to his work in less mainstream shows like Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation and Royal Pains. Even the recent Matt Damon film, The Martian, paid homage to Fonzie — Winkler forgot he OK’d the use of his image for it until he saw the movie. Even after decades of being the subject of Fonz fandom, he said being in a Matt Damon film directed by Ridley Scott was a great compliment.
However, Winkler is known for much more than his acting career.
He is currently writing the 31st novel for his Hank Zipzer children’s book series, in which the main character mirrors Winkler’s own struggles with growing up dyslexic. His work to destigmatize the learning disability has won praise from all corners, including in England: In 2011, Queen Elizabeth II honored him for his work with children’s literacy.
“I never thought that I could ever write a book in the first place, let alone 31, because I’m dyslexic and I was told that I never would achieve,” he said. “The accomplishment and the fun of writing these novels and hearing the kids laugh when I read to them — it is just an honor.”
His dyslexia certainly challenged his childhood. He had to learn his bar mitzvah Torah portion phonetically. He wasn’t even able to read a full book in English until he was 31.
When he was about 10 or 11, he connected more to tunes than words and used to pretend that he was a cantor.
While growing up, he greatly admired the cantor of New York City’s Congregation Habonim — a place his family helped create and which has since relocated. He said the cantor’s voice was beautifully melodic.
“I didn’t understand what I was singing. I got close to a melody and made up gibberish Hebrew,” he said.
Winkler recently got the most out of being out of his element as the producer and one of the stars of a new NBC reality show, Better Late Than Never, also starring William Shatner, George Foreman and Terry Bradshaw. The four men were filmed traveling to six Asian cities over 35 days, learning about new cultures, themselves and each other. It will premiere sometime early next year.
He said it was something he’s never done before, and with no script and enough humidity to feel like they “were wearing plastic bags over our heads,” he was definitely kept on his toes.
“When we left, I was petrified. When we finished filming and I came back to New York City to shoot the last year of Royal Pains, I was electrified,” he exclaimed. “It was an event of a lifetime and hopefully we caught it on film.”
Winkler also spent some time with the writers of award-winning TV show Transparent, who are now working on the second season. The show, which stars Winkler’s friend and Arrested Development co-star Jeffrey Tambor, will include episodes involving families that immigrated from Germany and Poland. Jill Soloway, creator of Transparent, invited Winkler to the writers’ room to talk about his experiences on the matter and his childhood. In response, he brought them something that represented his childhood.
Growing up, Winkler knew a woman in the community who left Germany and came to America by hiding in a coffin. Stuffed at the end of the coffin in between her feet was a spider plant.
She gave Winkler’s family a cut of the plant, which easily regrows and rejuvenates. It continued to grow on his family’s windowsill in New York, and still continues to grow outside Winkler’s California home today.
In the same tradition, Winkler gave the writers a cut of that plant, representing the tenacity of life and continuing on. And Winkler continues to carry on with his own endeavors as well.
Just days before turning 70, he said he only hopes for “a continuation of the wonderful life I’m living right now.”
And for his acting career, he’s loved every moment and the moments to come.
“When you act or when you participate in a show, you have to be open completely all the time, so that you are listening, you’re absorbing, you’re taking in the tastes, the emotion of the moment,” he said. “You are completely aware all the time — and that is sensational.”