“Never meet your heroes” is pretty sound advice. After all, it is not unlikely for people you don’t know and trust to disappoint you.
But I have always had fantastic luck. I’ve met Danny Avidan, Brian Wecht, Arin Hanson, and James Rolfe. But the hero of mine I’ve spent the longest time with was the beloved actor Henry Winkler.
If you look him up, you will never read or hear a negative word, and it makes sense. Not every celebrity would spend an hour talking to a random fangirl over Zoom for a college newspaper, but Winkler was kind enough to take the time.
My hands were vibrating. I kept looking at myself in the little box on my screen to make sure that my hair was in line. I critically analyzed every word that came out of my mouth. And yet it was, by far, the most comfortable interview I had ever done. Even my awkwardness could not surpass Winkler’s calming attitude.
Within about two minutes of the conversation, I got to meet his dog, Maisie, who adorably interrupted us a couple of times. Winkler talked to Maisie in the classic high-pitched voice, incomplete sentences, and just a little bit of nonsense that people typically use with dogs. It quickly made me realize what was really happening: he’s just another person. A happy person, with a couple of cute dogs, a cozy room, and a laptop. At that moment, I figured that maybe we weren’t worlds apart. It started to feel like I was talking to an old friend rather than the man I collected vintage posters of.
After he politely asked Maisie to give us some space, Winkler launched into some questions for me.
“So, how’s everything? What’s going on? You’re healthy? Your family’s healthy?” Winkler said.
Never had I seen such genuine care from a person who’d never spoken to me.
He asked what kind of interviews I usually conduct, so I told him that I often work with magicians. His eyes immediately widened.
“I love magic,” he said.
“I did a movie called ‘Click!’ with Adam Sandler,” Winkler said. “And it’s a really lovely movie. And I had to learn ‘the quarter trick,’ and I still carry it in my wallet and will do it at any moment for any child I come in contact with.”
I couldn’t keep from blurting out the question, “Do I count as a child?!” Thankfully, I did count and that he had a quarter ready. Reading about the trick is probably not as interesting as watching it. But he bit off a piece of the quarter and spit it back out onto the quarter, restoring it to its original roundness. His sleight-of-hand is amazing.
“I did it. We shared magic,” said Winkler. Which might be the most meaningful thing that could possibly happen to me.
We continued to talk more about his career. I told him I had Penn & Teller, “Three’s Company” and “Happy Days” collections the third, of course, related to him directly. I mentioned one of my favorite “Happy Days” items: a toy bass guitar that came out the year the show premiered. The picture on the toy features Richie, Potsie, and Fonzie. Since the product is oh-so vintage, Fonzie is wearing a blue-green windbreaker rather than his iconic brown leather jacket.
“They wouldn’t let me wear leather; they thought I would be associated with crime,” said Winkler. The ’70s must have been so cute.
He mentioned a few “Happy Days” items that he still had a bouncy ball, a jump rope, a playset of Fonzie’s garage, and he said that he would be speaking with someone soon to see if they could hold an auction for his memorabilia. I jokingly asked him to take it to Jersey, so let’s cross our fingers. (He’s a fan of the state, particularly because of Wegmans.)
We began to talk about photography, since we are both passionate about art. Winkler showed me a few pictures from his book about fly-fishing, “I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River,” his only non-children’s book, which features many photographs he has taken on his fishing adventures. Even if you’re not a reader, I recommend the book strictly for the stunning images.
One of Winkler’s latest projects, “Monsters at Work,” premiered on Disney+ the day before our interview. He asked me what I thought of the show since he had not seen any episodes put together; most of it was created during the COVID-19 pandemic, so he would read and record the lines for his character, Fritz, in isolation.
However, he felt comfortable once he started improvising some of Fritz’s lines as little songs.
“It made me feel so participatory…not just recording the voice,” Winkler said. So, essentially, he got to put a little bit of himself into Fritz, which makes the character that much more charismatic and lovable.
I told Henry that he was, essentially, a staple in my household. My family adores him and will watch anything that he’s in. When I said this to my grandparents, they recommended the recent reality series, “Better Late Than Never.” It featured William Shatner, Terry Bradshaw, George Foreman, Jeff Dye and, of course, Winkler, following their adventures to many foreign countries.
After I told him how hilarious they all were together, he said, “You know what was amazing, and I’m not kidding…that was a job. I got paid to travel with those guys and experience the world like that.”
I neglected to tell him that I sobbed uncontrollably while watching his emotional experience in Germany, but he shared with me that he cried when he got to meet an elephant, named Natalie, in Thailand.
“I felt this amazing empathy or emotion come off this elephant, and I just started to weep,” Winkler said. I teared up just watching it, because I could tell what he was feeling by the expression on his face. Also, Winkler befriending an elephant? It doesn’t get much cuter than that.
After about 26 minutes of chatting like old pals, he asked me if I had written down any questions for him. It had suddenly hit me that this was still an interview.
At one point, I actually surprised him by telling him that my dad and I had just watched “The Only Way Out,” a 1990s TV movie starring him and another favorite actor of mine – and Winkler’s very close friend – the late John Ritter. He looked absolutely shocked at the mention of it. He asked me if it still held up (which it undoubtedly did). This led us to talking about Ritter’s talent. I told Winkler how much I loved Ritter in the 1990 “It” TV movie, and for the first time in our conversation, I found out that we disagreed on something: he doesn’t like horror movies. He told me that he saw “Jaws” when it first came out, and he literally jumped out of his seat and into the row in front of him, “almost on somebody’s lap.”
As much as I enjoyed every moment we spent talking, I was especially moved by all the advice Winkler gave me. He told me the advice he gives to all students, from kindergarten to college: “Know what you want, and it can be yours.”
As we were hanging up, Winkler sent me virtual hugs and blew me a kiss. It was strange and beautiful to be looking into “Fonzie’s” eyes, knowing that he was talking to me. But Fonzie wasn’t talking to me; Winkler was, and that was much more meaningful.
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