The actor behind classic characters such as the Fonz, Barry Zuckerkorn and Gene Cousineau will appear at Wizard World Comic Con Columbus this week
As of 2019, actor Henry Winkler can add another adjective to his introduction: He’s now the Emmy-winning Henry Winkler, having captured his first statuette for his portrayal of acting coach Gene Cousineau on the HBO series “Barry.”
It’s the latest evolution in a remarkable career that could have ended following Winkler’s breakout performance as Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli on the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days,” which led to the actor being typecast and turned down for roles. Winkler persevered, though, eventually carving out a decades-long career so richly varied that younger generations might know him better as daft family attorney Barry Zuckerkorn on the comedy series “Arrested Development” than the leather jacket-wearing Fonz. (Not to mention those significantly younger generations who know him best through the 30-odd children’s books he’s co-written with Lin Oliver.)
This weekend, Winkler will appear daily at Wizard World Comic Con Columbus, which runs Friday through Sunday, Oct. 18-20, in addition to participating in a public conversation at 2:30 p.m. Saturday billed as “Jumping the Shark.”
In advance of the convention, Alive spoke with the actor about the personality trait that has most-fueled his career, his award-winning turn as Cousineau and whether Zuckerkorn is better suited to his work as an attorney than presidential lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
What did winning your first Emmy mean to you after all of this time?
It was lovely and I was proud. But, to tell you the honest truth, no hyperbole, here’s my real Emmy: I am on the show (“Barry”). We’re starting a third season in March and I’m still on it. That is an Emmy.
It’s been an interesting evolution for the character. Gene is someone who could have just been comic relief, but there’s a real sadness and heart to him that you have developed. Did it take you some time to find that humanity in the character?
Do you know what? It takes time because it’s only revealed to you through every script, so you make decisions based on what [characters] say to you, how they treat you, what you say to other people, how you react to certain situations like death. And then, all of a sudden, the character starts to emerge. Your job as an actor is to really pay attention to what’s happening, to be in tune to what’s happening.
Are there things you can do now as an actor that maybe you weren’t capable of earlier in your career?
Without a doubt. I am a better actor now than when I was 27. There is a relaxation now. There are certain actors, like Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling, where there is very little space between their soul and the character they are playing, and it took me a very long time to even begin to think, “Ah, I’m on my way now.”
Can you recall that light-switch moment?
No. You know, I’ll tell you what, that’s not true. After I did the Fonz, it was difficult to get a job as an actor. People would say, “Oh, my god. He is so funny and good, and he’s a great fella, but he was the Fonz,” and so I was typecast. And when I got a TV movie, I think it was in 1990, and it was called “Absolute Strangers,” and I started doing that movie, my approach, my ability, seemed to have gestated in me and gotten bigger. I was more in charge of the job. That, I think, was the moment.
You’ve now reached a point in your career where different generations know you as different characters.
Oh, it’s amazing. … How lucky am I that I got to work with Garry Marshall (“Happy Days”), Mitch Hurwitz (“Arrested Development”), Adam Sandler, Ron Howard and now Bill Hader and Alex Berg (“Barry”) … and Michael Schur on “Parks and Recreation”! I mean, I worked with people who are at the top of their creative games.
You sound like you’re still in awe of it.
I am! I really am.
You’ve often talked about wanting to be an actor from childhood. Do you remember what sparked the interest for you?
I don’t. It was just there. I’m telling you, let’s say you watch “America’s Got Talent,” and you know instantaneously, even through the cool medium of television, somebody who has to do what they do, or someone who is just trying to do what they do. They open their mouth. They sing. They dance. They do magic. And somebody is either in charge of what they’re doing or they’re imitating what they’ve seen. And you can tell instantaneously.
You’ve also frequently spoken of your tenacity. Do you have a sense where the trait stems from?
Well, my parents escaped Nazi Germany and came over here and started a new life. … I don’t know if it’s in the DNA, if I was lucky to be born with it, but it was always there, and it’s something I believe is essential for success — and not success in the acting world, but success in living. Tenacity is the beginning and the end. If you just stick with it and you train yourself and you’re honest about your ability to do what you want, there’s no reason you cannot end up where I am, which is living my dream. It’s not something available to only a rarefied bunch of people.
I follow you on Twitter, too. You’re pretty politically engaged.
I don’t think of it as political. It’s more that I’m amazed that I was brought up in a country where certain things mattered, and it was drummed into me, and now everything that mattered has gone topsy-turvy, and not necessarily for any good reason. … It is a confluence of energy, of human beings that have an entirely different point of view from the one that was drummed into me as a young person growing up in this great country. So I comment about that.
I’m sure you’ve seen all the people comparing Rudy Giuliani with Barry Zuckerkorn.
Well, I think Barry is a better lawyer, and I think you’d have a better outcome with Barry as your attorney. Even though he wears chiffon underwear.