The Truth About Fonzie By Peggy Herz

Whatever, Henry certainly looks happy.

I’m a sucker for these cheapo paperback celebrity “biographies”, regarding them as VALUABLE CULTURAL ARTIFACTS of the zeitgeist of 1970-something, forever preserving the moment when whoever was the biggest star in the teenage galaxy. This one, on Henry Winkler, is pitched to younger readers than the volumes on John Travolta and Cher that we reviewed here a few years back.

The internet turned up little on author Peggy Herz (she churned out a number of these, including  All About M*A*S*H, All About Rhoda, and The Mork and Mindy Story); noting the Scholastic logo, I had a brainstorm and dug into my collection of Dynamite magazines, the extremely wholesome pre-teen fan mag and dentist office staple. Sure enough, she’s on the masthead of a number of issues.

Some Highlights:

No lurid stories of near-abortions or ponderous explanations of how Scientology can help YOU, here. Herz’s treatment of her subject is so superficial, it’s actually surprising when something that doesn’t sound like a publicity release escapes onto the page.

First of all, the book was published in 1976, after Happy Days had completed its first two seasons, which focused mainly on Ron Howard’s Ritchie, and shot on film in a single-camera format and was an (occasional, mildly) satirical look at teenage life in the 1950s. For the third season, the show was overhauled, putting Winkler’s Fonzie front and center, and used a three-camera  setup in front of a live studio audience.

I’m saying the show was at the point where Fonzie had already jumped over trash cans on his motorcycle, but still 2 seasons away from him jumping over a shark on water skis.

Like the John Travolta book, Herz struggles to fill the 107 pages, even including 14 pages of “Fonzie’s Happy Days Album”, so there are also chapters devoted to Ron Howard, Anson Williams, and Donny Most.

Winkler and Howard come off the best, as down to earth personalities who work hard at their craft; Williams kind of seems like a dick, but I kind of feel bad for judging someone solely on things he said to a Dynamite reporter 4+ decades ago. Most gets the shortest interview, seemingly entirely  given from a phone booth in  the Cedar Rapids airport, on his way to a Muscular Dystrophy telethon.

Probably the most interesting part of the book is hints on how Ron Howard pulled together a stock company of actors that has lasted through five decades, supporting his transition from a child star to Hollywood bigwig: Winkler notes that upon arriving in Hollywood, the star he was most excited to meet was… Jessica Walter. Winkler, of course, would gain his greatest latter-day fame playing Walter’s family lawyer on the Howard-produced-and-narrated cult sitcom Arrested Development some 40 years later.

In fact, I kind of regret that this book isn’t all about Ron Howard, since he was at a really interesting point in his career, noting in his interview that he just finished starring in Eat My Dust! for producer Roger Corman, which would lead to a deal for him to direct his first feature film, Grand Theft Auto, (co-starring his Happy Days mom, Marion Ross) launching a new phase of his career.

There is a chapter on the creation of the concept of the series, thought up by producer Thomas Miller and Michael Eisner (yes, THAT Michael Eisner), and director Garry Marshall, clarifying that they shot the pilot BEFORE George Lucas hired Howard for American Graffiti. I guess how interesting this is to the reader depends on how interested they are in the specifics of network TV politics in the 1970s. Although I laughed out loud at Marshall explaining the craven-but-lucrative philosophy behind the character of Fonzie: “He only does things that are cool.”

If you are interested in 1970’s TV minutiae, the other thing that is interesting is the cast’s reaction to the change in format of the show beginning in the third season, which some hardcore fans bemoan as the beginning of the end. All are excited about the move to a live audience (Winkler has an extensive theatrical background and a master’s degree in drama from Yale); Howard welcomes more screentime for Fonzie, which will give him the opportunity to pursue other opportunities. I mean I guess they’re not going to be like “the show sucks now,” but there does seem to be genuine enthusiasm on the part of the cast members.

Winkler notes that he can’t picture himself playing Fonzie forever, and expects the character will run its course by the end of five seasons or so (the show would end up running 11, and Winkler would appear every single episode); he sums up his approach to the role:

“At the very base of it all,” Henry noted, “I’m an actor. I’m paid to do a job and I will do the best job I possibly can. That’s why I went to school for nine years.”

So, really, there are way worse people for children to be getting lessons in work ethic from than Henry Winkler.

Odds and Ends:
Winkler shows off the beanbag chair that Ron Howard gave him for his birthday, which is pretty freaking adorable.

Henry Winkler does not approve of the shoddily-made merchandise being sold with The Fonz’s face on it, so he’s designed his own:

He disappeared for a moment and came back carrying a T-shirt. Fonzie’s picture was on the front and back.  Lettering on the back said The Fonz. It was much nicer than anything I’d seen in stores.

“The color of the lettering will change every 1.200 shirts,” Henry said. “That way only a limited number of people will have the same color.”

He showed up to audition for the role carrying a man-purse:

“In walked Henry Winkler. He was not tall or large. He needed a shave. He was carrying a kind of green tote bag.”

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4 Responses to The Truth About Fonzie By Peggy Herz

    • mondomolly says:

      Cute interview, thanks for sharing! Every time I I read something about him, he sounds like a genuinely nice person with a good sense of humor about his place in pop culture history! 😀

  1. Sheesh says:

    I have The Official Fonzie Scrapbook! (Same concept, different book club)

    IMO part of the reason Fonzie was able to make such an impression was because Anson Williams just didn’t have the needed acting chops. I remember reading his screen test was “somewhat rigged [by Garry Marshall] to stave off network doubts about Williams” which sounds to me like it was more about his looks than his talent. If he had made more of an impression as a costar Winkler might not have gotten the foothold he did.

    • mondomolly says:

      Hahah, I actually saw a copy of The Official Fonzie Scrapbook at vintage shop this weekend and almost bought it!

      Williams does go on for a bit bragging about he never had an acting lesson in his life in this one, which is certainly a contrast with how seriously Howard and Winker take their jobs…

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