`Don't call me Fonzie'

Happy Days are here again. So how come Henry Winkler's wearing tweed?
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Jo, the charming PR woman who has set up my interview with Henry Winkler - aka Arthur "the Fonz" Fonzarelli, coolest man on earth - has two black eyes. She not very coolly walked into a glass door. Winkler seems to have that effect on people. While we are talking in his hotel suite, a waiter arrives with mineral water and trips over the rug. A little later, in a nearby coffee shop, I dunk my tie in my cappuccino.

Winkler has come to Britain to promote Happy Days, the musical, to which he is attached as "artistic consultant". The show is a touring stage version of the television series that ran from 1974 to 1984. The curious thing about Happy Days is that it harked back to the Fifties, so we are getting a double shot of nostalgia.

Engagingly, he makes great play of the fact that he is nothing like his screen alter ego. "I'm Henry Winkler, born to German Jews in New York City. I'm dyslexic. I went to private school. If someone like the Fonz had come up to me and said: `Waddyoulookingat?' I'd have said: `Sir, actually, please enjoy this space, I'm leaving now, let me crawl away.'" I laugh on cue. Winkler paces round the room smoking a Cuban cigar almost as long as he is (he is 5ft 6in). He seems to be enjoying himself. It is impossible not to like him.

"My parents," he says, "were very strict, very overbearing. But as soon as I became famous they became the co-producers of Henry Winkler. I meet people all over the world who say: `Hey, I've got your mother's autograph.' On planes she walks up and down the aisle saying `So, you are in show business? Do you know ze Fonz?' Then she calls me and says `David Puttnam sends his best regards, he loves ze Fonz.' Or: `Shirley MacLaine sends her love. Ve vent backstage to meet her and said who ve vere... she vos very happy to meet us.'"

After graduating from the Yale School of Drama, Winkler's highest-profile role was in a commercial for American Airlines. In 1973, he decided to try his luck in Los Angeles, "but since I was not exactly the Adonis that inhabits California, I did not expect much success."

Then he heard that the veteran comedy writer Garry Marshall (who was born Marscharelli) had written a new show and was auditioning for a big- hearted, super-cool, semi-delinquent Italian-American.

"So I went to Paramount for the audition, and found lots of actors there, every one of them named Chad. There might have been one Troy. And me, a Henry." Impolitely, I then ruin the story by reminding him that Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees also auditioned to play the Fonz.

"Yes," he says, slightly crestfallen. "And a Mickey."

We know what happened next. Winkler was chosen to play the Fonz, and Happy Days, which first aired on ABC in January 1974, became a hit. But in April 1974 Winkler discovered that it was more than a hit. He was asked to go to Little Rock, Arkansas, to sign autographs at a shopping mall. And at 11.30pm, when his plane touched down, there were 3,000 people at the airport to greet him, all wearing Fifties clothes.

"The next day, 8,000 people showed up at the mall," he says. "That's when we started saying: `Something's happening here.'"

Happy Days was popular enough in Britain, but in America it was a phenomenon. Winkler, who until then had never had much success with women, suddenly found himself fighting them off. In fact, he tended not to fight them off.

"And, at first, I thought it was pretty delicious, but then I started to understand that it was empty and unsatisfying," he says.

Did it trouble him that he could not undo a bra strap as deftly as the Fonz might have done?

"It was for them to deal with the fact that I was Henry and not Fonzie," he says. "I didn't mind them knowing that I'd never ridden a motorbike in my life, other than for one scene in Happy Days when I nearly killed myself."

Meanwhile, Bette Davis invited Winkler over for dinner, Henry Fonda requested his autograph, Anthony Hopkins asked him to send his mother a signed photograph, and Orson Welles greeted him with the words: "We finally meet." But away from Happy Days he was always Henry, never the Fonz.

"Except," he says, "for three times. I went on Sesame Street as Fonz. And once I was promoting the show in Dallas with Ron [Richie], Anson [Potsie] and Donny [Ralph], and we couldn't get to the car because of the crowds. So I said in Fonz mode: `All right, listen up, there are lots of you but only four of us, so now you're going to part like the Red Sea.' Which they did, but then one guy said: `Hey, you're so short,' and I said: `Fuck you, I'm not short.' Then he said: `Hey, you're so cool!'"

The third time he assumed the personality of the Fonz occurred just a few weeks ago, when he was in Minnesota addressing a conference of teachers. One of the teachers brought along a 17-year-old autistic boy who could communicate with people only if he, and they, talked like the Fonz.

"I said: `Hey, I see that you are actually cooler than I am.' It was overwhelmingly touching," Winkler says.

On other occasions, children with spina bifida have contorted their bodies to give him Fonz's thumbs-up sign. He was once contacted on the set of Happy Days and asked by police in Indiana to talk down a teenager threatening to throw himself from a building. Pregnant women ask him to touch their bellies. It must be hard, given his Christ-like stature in some eyes, not to believe in his own publicity.

He insists that he never has, although he is surely guilty of hyperbole when he claims a 99 per cent recognisability rate in the 126 countries where Happy Days is still shown - up there with Coca-Cola and Mickey Mouse. Besides, is it not a little sad that, at 52, he is still trading on the glories of a leather-jacketed youth (the jacket, incidentally, is now one of the more popular exhibits at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington)?

I don't think it's sad at all. It would be a sight sadder if he played down the Fonz's impact on his life, like the actor Bernard Hill, who once came close to tearing me limb from limb for asking him about Yosser Hughes in Boys from the Blackstuff. If Happy Days were removed from Winkler's CV, he would have had a moderately successful career. But he would not be living with his wife and children in Cary Grant's old house just along from the Beverly Hills Hotel, and he is honest enough to acknowledge it.

The same is not true, of course, of his Happy Days co-star Ron Howard, who has directed a string of box-office hits, but Winkler does not seem envious, and indeed is godfather to several of Howard's children. Besides, he is touchingly proud of the Fonz.

"And since my self-image was always down by my ankles, he was the perfect character for me to play. Also, when I compare my life to what my parents had to go through, leaving everything and losing everyone, how can I fail to be proud of what I have accomplished?" How indeed?

For information on `Happy Days' performances, call 0171-836 2795