The Fonz was the personification of cool as played in the American sitcom “Happy Days” by veteran actor Henry Winkler, who couldn’t be more of a gentle, encouraging mensch some 48 years later.
Winkler, 76, the son of German Jewish immigrants, was in Israel for his very first time this week to film “Chanshi,” a comedy series for the Israeli network HOT starring Brooklyn-born Aleeza Chanowitz, and directed by Mickey Triest and Aaron Geva, all Sam Spiegel Film and Television School graduates.
The veteran actor spoke Wednesday evening to a packed auditorium of students at the Jerusalem film school.
“Chanshi,” said Winkler. “Did I have to learn that ‘ch.'”
In fact, he kept on saying “Chanshi,” during his presentation, earning laughs each and every time.
Then again, changing his voice or learning an accent is exactly what Winkler has been doing for the last 50 years.
In fact, the greaser accent that epitomized the Fonz was something Winkler added at the very last minute during his “Happy Days” audition, he said.
“Changing my voice as the Fonz unleashed me,” said Winkler.
(Winkler has said during other interviews that he channeled Sylvester Stallone, his co-star in 1974’s “The Lords of Flatbush,” as inspiration for his beloved sitcom character, a role he held through the show’s 10-year run.)
Winkler shared that he was “petrified” for this trip to Israel.
“I thought I would arrive and war would break out,” he said.
His attitude has changed, however.
“This is one delicious country,” said Winkler, who was traveling around with his wife of 44 years, Stacey Weitzman, as well as a Foreign Ministry representative.
During his 40-minute presentation at Sam Spiegel, Winkler offered some of his own personal history, a few inspirational tidbits, and graciously took questions from the room full of aspiring actors, screenwriters, and directors.
Mixing the motivational with memories, Winkler recalled his decade playing The Fonz, when he would receive 60,000 fan letters each week, gifts of gum wrapper balls, hearts, and crucifixes.
“I found out that Jewish girls do not send their jewelry in the mail,” he quipped.
He spoke about the need to follow through on a dream, without worrying about what agents or others say.
“Write it, produce it, sell it, don’t wait for an agent,” said Winkler, recalling that Theodor Herzl’s famous saying, “If you will it, it is no dream,” a popular slogan of the Zionist movement, hung on his wall, although he didn’t know at the time who had said it.
Winkler was funny and self-deprecating, whether commenting on the waist of his pants that felt like they were about to fall down, to his short stature, due to his “very, very short German parents.”
His immigrant parents, “who ran from the Nazis,” said Winkler, didn’t want him to be an actor, forbidding him to watch television, although he found ways around that.
Winkler persevered through school, eventually earning an MFA at Yale University despite his lifelong struggles with dyslexia, before moving to New York where he earned money acting in commercials.
He carried around his headshots in a brown paper bag, landing in Hollywood with $1,000, and was about to head back to New York when he auditioned for the “Happy Days” role.
The Fonz was initially envisioned as a tall, blonde guy, but Winkler”s “Ayyy” and cool vibe won over creator Garry Marshall.
“With the Fonz, they were looking for a tall Italian and they got a short Jew,” he said.
Winkler told anecdotes about Fonzie’s leather jacket — there was some disagreement as to whether he should wear leather because only criminals wore leather bomber jackets — and that Ron Howard, who played character Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days” before becoming a well-known film director, taught him how to pitch a baseball for the show, given that Winkler never was much of an athlete.
He spoke about other more recent acting experiences, including working with Adam Sandler — “he is a good Jew, he is brilliant, just dresses poorly” — acting for director Wes Anderson, and his latest appearances in “Barry,” a dark American comedy crime series about a hitman who joins an acting class taught by the character played by Henry Winkler.
“In ‘Barry,’ I started to become the actor I dreamed of being,” said Winkler.
In “Chanshi,” Winkler plays Tatty, the father of Chanshi, a young religious girl (Aleeza Chanowitz) from Brooklyn who decides to break off her engagement and immigrate to Israel. While Chanshi is off having adventures, her father demands that she return home and get married in order to save her family’s reputation.
Winkler, said director Aaron Geva, was at the very top of their list of Jewish actors who have never said anything negative about Israel.
“We never thought he’d say yes,” said Geva.
As for Winkler, he was convinced by Aaron’s eloquent string of emails.
“I love working with people at the beginning of their career,” he said.
And it was very clear that the “Chanshi” creators love Winkler.
After all, he is The Fonz.
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