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Actor Henry Winkler reflects on his career, from the Fonz to 'Barry'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Henry Winkler became famous 46 years ago for his role on the ABC sitcom "Happy Days" as Arthur Fonzarelli, aka the Fonz. Since then, he's been in movies and TV shows, including recurring roles in "Parks And Recreation" and "Arrested Development." He won an Emmy in 2018 and is nominated again this year for his supporting role in HBO's "Barry." In one of the most recent Season 3 episodes of "Barry," Henry Winkler is showcased as the acting teacher, recording a video ad for an online and in-theaters master class. And he's talking about masks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

HENRY WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Hello. I'm Gene Cousineau. And I'm a mask collector. Wait a minute. Isn't this supposed to be a masterclass in acting given by the great performer, Gene Cousineau? - you're saying to your laptop or mobile device. And, yes, it is. Don't fret it. And by the end of this class, hopefully, you're going to be a mask collector, too, God willing. Let me give you an example of my favorite masks. Hamlet - to be or not to be. Is that the question? Stanley Kowalski - Stella, get down here. Get down here. I want to eat. Or a cop in "Serpico" - hey, Serpie. Are you going against us? You see? These are not literal masks. They are roles that you're going to play in this class. And they are going to change your life.

BIANCULLI: When the HBO comedy series began, Barry, played by Bill Hader, had come to Gene's acting class to fulfill a hit man contract and kill one of the students. But Barry was so intrigued by the teacher and one of his classmates that he decided to stay and try to pursue acting and change his life. Terry Gross spoke with Henry Winkler in 2019. In this scene from the first season during an acting class exercise, Barry tells the story of the first time he shot and killed someone in Afghanistan. Gene is moved by Barry's story and tries to convince Barry to tell the Afghanistan story onstage. Here's Henry Winkler as Gene Cousineau and Bill Hader as Barry.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

BILL HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Mr. Cousineau, I don't really have to tell the story I told yesterday in front of an audience, do I?

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Of course not.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Oh, good. Thank you.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Yeah. No. That version is just the beginning. See; during rehearsal - and this is just my instinct - you're going to find more complicated, [expletive] up details. Those, we have to hear.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Right. But, you know, you said that this is a story that has to define us. And I just - I don't think that's the person that I am.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Barry, you're justifiably nervous.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) But I will not hear a word about switching it out one iota for something less compelling. You, sir, are doing Afghanistan.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) See; I wanted to do the story about meeting you.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Go on.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah. You know, being in this class, and seeing you teach and...

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) So you want to tell the story of meeting me?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) I'll allow it.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Good. That's great. That's great. I think it'll be way better than Afghanistan.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) I can be as involved as you need me to be in order to craft this piece, or I can stay on the sidelines. I totally understand. Either way is fine.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) OK. I don't think I need...

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) But who would know more about me than me?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) That's a good point, but I don't think you need to be involved at all, you know? I was there, so I remember.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) I've got scrapbooks.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Oh, cool.

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) If you need them. I've got diaries. I've got pictures. I've got tapes, Barry. I have got a lot of tapes.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I think I'm good, Mr. Cousineau. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Henry Winkler, welcome to FRESH AIR. You're terrific in this role. I'm so glad to have you on our show.

WINKLER: Thank you.

GROSS: So your character, Gene, is so intent on getting truthful performances from the students and have them dig deep into their souls. But he's also so narcissistic and wrapped up in the mystique he's tried to create around himself in this little class. This must have made you think a lot about some of the best and worst acting teachers you had now that you're playing an acting teacher. Have you kind of gone back to look at your past and your acting teachers?

WINKLER: I have. I've had about 14 teachers, from Emerson College to Yale Drama School, just in between those seven years. And what was amazing is that some of them were inspirational. Some of them were mean. Some of them lost their way. And some of them had nothing to say.

GROSS: What is one of the worst acting exercises you were obligated to do when you were a student?

WINKLER: I did an exercise with one of my favorite teachers. His name was Bobby Lewis. He was a member of the Group Theatre. Bobby Lewis had us pick a painting, pick a character in the painting, get some element of clothing that represented that character, take the pose, step out of the pose and create who you thought that person was.

I am so dyslexic. I got my piece of costume. I struck my pose. I stood there. And he said, is there any reason you are mirror opposite to what is in the painting? I said, no, I'm not. There's no reason at all. And I just turned around and immediately struck the pose in the other direction. And he started to cry. He said, you're making a mockery of my work. And I had no idea what he was talking about.

GROSS: Wow. That seems really harsh.

WINKLER: Except that he was the man - to be honest, most of what I know, most of what I use in my well of education comes from the great Bobby Lewis.

GROSS: So do you attribute this, like, mirror reverse thing that you were doing to the dyslexia?

WINKLER: I do. I had no idea. And I, of course, had no sense of self at that time. I was an unrefrigerated bowl of Jell-O just before it congeals. I just thought, well, that's it. My career is over. My - they're going to kick me out of school.

GROSS: So is that an example of bad teaching, when you kind of ruin somebody's - when you lower somebody's self-esteem even lower than it already was? Is that - (laughter) - is that helpful?

WINKLER: You know what? I think a lot of acting teachers, they talk about breaking bad habits. They talk about breaking you down. And I totally get that. But I have also - I've taught four classes in my life. And I think you can get an actor to move off their position or her position without making them feel like poop from a whale at the bottom of the ocean.

GROSS: And by the way, you didn't know you had dyslexia at the time.

WINKLER: I did not until I was 31.

GROSS: And you found out at the age of 31 because...

WINKLER: Yes, after my stepson was tested because he was so verbal and he is so smart, but he couldn't do reports. He couldn't write. He couldn't organize his thoughts. And when we had him tested, everything that they said about Jed was true about me. And I realized, oh, I'm not a stupid dog. I actually have something with a name.

GROSS: How is that helpful, to have a diagnosis?

WINKLER: The first thing? I got very angry because all of that - all of the arguments in my house with the short Germans who were my parents were for naught. All of the grounding was for naught. Then I...

GROSS: You mean punishment grounded - like, you're grounded.

WINKLER: Yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

WINKLER: Yes. Like, I couldn't go to the dance on Friday night.

GROSS: Because your grades weren't good.

WINKLER: I couldn't watch - my grades were horrible. I am in the bottom 3%, academically, in America. That is calculated. And then I went from all of that anger to - I now understand, possibly, if I didn't fight through my dyslexia, I would not be sitting at this microphone chatting with you.

GROSS: Right. So you really had to work hard to work through the dyslexia so you could learn your parts. I mean, if reading is hard, how are you going to memorize a part?

WINKLER: Well, memorizing is different from the reading. The reading was - is still difficult for me. I - when we did "Happy Days," I embarrassed myself for 10 years reading around that table with the producers, the other actors, the director, the - all of the department heads. On Monday morning, we read the scripts. I stumbled over every word. I was completely embarrassed. Memorizing, if it's written well, my brain is then able to suck it up like a vacuum cleaner.

GROSS: I want to talk a little bit about "Happy Days." How would you describe the series and your character to people too young to have seen it?

WINKLER: It was a story about a family, about the trials and tribulations of living together. It was set in the '50s, where the music was great. And my character was a tough guy who rode a motorcycle, wore a leather jacket and had a very soft heart.

GROSS: Your character exuded confidence...

WINKLER: How did I do?

GROSS: Good. Good.

WINKLER: Thank you.

GROSS: I don't think you got to the more goofy parts of the character (laughter).

WINKLER: What would that be, in your mind?

GROSS: OK. That he thought he was, like, it, you know, that he was just, like, the greatest, most handsome, most...

WINKLER: Oh, people treated him like that.

GROSS: Right.

WINKLER: I don't know that he thought he was 'cause when he - you know, the first thing I said to the producers when they called me on my birthday in 1973 and said, would you like to play this part, I said, hey. When he takes the leather jacket off, when he takes his jacket off, who does he have to be cool for in his apartment? If you let me show the other side, it would be my pleasure to play this character.

GROSS: Wow. Did you really, like, tell them who the character needed to be before you accepted the part?

WINKLER: No.

GROSS: OK (laughter).

WINKLER: Not - you - I would not tell Garry Marshall, rest his soul, who I thought he had to be. But I put the character on, and then they let me sew it onto my being.

BIANCULLI: Henry Winkler speaking to Terry Gross in 2019 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOSPHORESCENT'S "BLACK WAVES/SILVER MOON")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2019 interview with Henry Winkler, a supporting actor Emmy winner for his role as acting teacher Gene Cousineau on the HBO comedy series "Barry." He's been nominated again this year.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about your parents. I don't know if they're still alive or not, so...

WINKLER: They are not.

GROSS: They're not. OK. So your...

WINKLER: No.

GROSS: Your parents were German immigrants. They came...

WINKLER: They were.

GROSS: ...Here in 1939.

WINKLER: Yes, they did.

GROSS: So - and you're Jewish. So...

WINKLER: Through Ellis Island. I am.

GROSS: ...It's good they came when they did. I think...

WINKLER: That's true, or we would not be sitting here.

GROSS: ...The door closed right behind them. Yeah. So what - how did they know to leave?

WINKLER: My father knew.

GROSS: I always wonder how people know the time is right and they'd better get out.

WINKLER: My father knew that it was time. He got a six-week visa from Germany to come and do work in New York but was expected to come right back. I have told this story - that he took his mother's jewelry, bought a box of chocolate, melted the chocolate down, put the pieces of jewelry in the chocolate box, melted the - poured the chocolate over the jewelry, put the box under his arm, so when he was stopped by the Nazis and they said, are you taking anything of value out of Germany, he said, no, you can open every bag. We've got nothing.

And the jewelry that he encased in chocolate, he sold when he came out of Ellis Island into New York and was able to start a new a new life here, slowly but surely. I have the actual letters from the government each time my father requested to stay a little longer, and they would say yes. And I was born, and thank God, 'cause I love our country.

GROSS: This was the U.S. government giving him permission to stay.

WINKLER: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: And you had an uncle who stayed behind a little longer and couldn't get out, right?

WINKLER: I did - Uncle Helmut. And he was supposed to escape with a submarine that was supposed - you know, they had a meeting place. And they - a lot of friends were going to get on this submarine and get out. And he said, no, no, no, I'm just going to stay one more day. It'll be fine. I'm having a white dinner jacket made at the tailor, and I think I can wait one more day, and I'll be OK. And he was taken to Auschwitz. And I just did a show called "Better Late Than Never," where I traveled around the world, and I saw the plaque in the street that commemorated my uncle and every other Jew that was taken from Berlin. And it said his - Helmut Winkler, his date of birth, when he lived in the building, the plaque was in front of, and what year he was taken to Auschwitz.

GROSS: So was it - was your family religious? Were you raised...

WINKLER: My family was religious. They are certainly more religious than I am. I am proud of my religion. My children were all bat and bar mitzvahed. But I'm not as traditional or keeping the tradition as my parents were. We said the prayer over the bread and the wine and the candles on Friday night. We had Shabbat dinner. My parents went to temple every week. They - my father was president of the temple.

GROSS: Do you think that the Holocaust made your parents feel more strongly about being observant?

WINKLER: I don't have an answer to that question.

GROSS: OK.

WINKLER: I didn't like them so much I didn't pay attention a lot. I didn't...

GROSS: You didn't like your parents. Is that what you're saying?

WINKLER: That's - yeah, I didn't.

GROSS: Yeah.

WINKLER: Now, certainly now, I've mellowed, but a lot of my life was fueled by the fury of these two people who were so nonpresent on who I was on the Earth.

GROSS: Do you think that your parents, having gotten out just in time, your uncle having died in Auschwitz...

WINKLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You know, the knowledge of what happened to everybody who - all the Jews who stayed behind in Germany...

WINKLER: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Do you think that that made your father more disappointed in you and in your difficulties reading and everything? Because it's like, what do you have to complain about? Why can't you be better? Look what happened in Germany. Like...

WINKLER: You know what? I don't know if that is true. Listen. I figure the trauma of leaving your country, losing your family, the Holocaust of - what was happening in the world at that moment certainly affected the way they were. But on the education part, the being lazy, the not living up to my potential, being a shtum hunt, which is dumb dog, I think that was in his DNA. I think that they brought that with them with or without a war.

GROSS: So in addition to your acting, you also have co-authored a series of novels about...

WINKLER: Yes.

GROSS: ...A boy named Hank who has...

WINKLER: Yes.

GROSS: ...Dyslexia, as do you.

WINKLER: Yes.

GROSS: And it's in a special typeface, which I thought was really interesting.

WINKLER: Well, the younger...

GROSS: I didn't know there was a typeface for dyslexic people.

WINKLER: You know what? There wasn't.

GROSS: Oh.

WINKLER: And a dad in Holland came up with it, and the publisher, Penguin Putnam, chose the typeface. It was the first time it was ever used in America. And I have to say, I am so proud because I could have used it. It just makes the eye track so much more easily across the page for the...

GROSS: Yeah? What makes it different?

WINKLER: The ascending line of the T, the descending line of the G. The C is - there's a different distance in the opening of the C. They are more weighted at the bottom of the letter, so they sit more comfortably on the line so that they don't float. There are so many things. He was a - he is a graphic designer, and he's dyslexic. His children are dyslexic. And when you look at the novel itself, when you look at the page, you go, I get it. It's just so much more friendly.

GROSS: Henry Winkler, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

WINKLER: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Henry Winkler of HBO's "Barry" speaking to Terry Gross in 2019. Like the show's star and co-creator Bill Hader, Henry Winkler has won an Emmy for his role and is nominated again this year. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Nope," the new movie written and directed by Jordan Peele. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES' "JOY RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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