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Henry Winkler's memoir explores stardom, therapy and self discovery

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

If you were born after, say, 1990, when you think of the actor Henry Winkler, you probably first think of Barry Zuckerkorn, the incompetent lawyer on "Arrested Development."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT")

HENRY WINKLER: (As Barry Zuckerkorn) What are we doing here? What's the plan?

JESSICA WALTER: (As Lucille Bluth) The plan? You're our lawyer.

WINKLER: (As Barry Zuckerkorn) It's a figure of speech.

DETROW: Or maybe the acting teacher Gene Cousineau, on the HBO dark comedy "Barry."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

WINKLER: (As Gene Cousineau) Now, look. You're in a shell. You need to break out, and I've got the perfect antidote for you. You're going to play Blake in "Glengarry Glen Ross," the movie. Here's my only direction. Let the cat out.

DETROW: But for those of us born before 1990, he will always be Arthur Fonzarelli, aka the Fonz, on "Happy Days."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HAPPY DAYS")

WINKLER: (As Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli) 'Cause I'm the Fonz. Ay. (ph).

Ay.

Ay.

Ay.

MARION ROSS: (As Marion Cunningham) What does that mean?

DETROW: The incredible story of how Winkler got that role is just one part of his new memoir, "Being Henry." And before we started talking about his life and his career, I asked him to read from his book about the moment Winkler became the Fonz.

WINKLER: (Reading) I'm in Hollywood for one week, and I audition for a new series. So how was I going to accomplish this? I had no clue. Then I opened my mouth and something very odd happened. What came out was a voice that was not mine, one I actually never heard before from me - deeper, lower in my chest than any other regular speaking voice, assured, authoritative, rough around the edges. So I pointed to Pasqual (ph) - ay, I said.

DETROW: That scene - first of all, it's just amazing to get a sense of - kind of be present at the creation for such a big pop culture moment. But it gets to so many themes of the book. You were so comfortable and self-assured in character, particularly this character. Why do you think that was so hard, as you think back on it, with all of that work that you've done? Because objectively, you were cool. You were the Fonz.

WINKLER: But that was acting. I was just being who I wanted to be, not who I ever thought I was.

DETROW: Yeah. You know, people sometimes say there's no such thing as an overnight sensation, but you truly were. You went from couchsurfing and awkwardly staying too long with friends in LA as you scrambled for auditions to suddenly being the center of a cultural phenomenon. That must have been so startling.

WINKLER: I have to say, it was startling. It was fun. And I made an appearance in Little Rock, Ark. After we filmed on Friday night, I flew there so I could sign autographs at the mall. And we landed, like, at 11:30 at night. And when I got off the plane, I walked back on the plane because there was a big party going on. And I said to the flight attendant - I said, excuse me, but there are lots of people, and I don't want to, like, disturb their party. Is there a way to walk around it? And she said that party is for you. There were 3,000 people in '50s clothing waiting for me to get off that plane.

DETROW: Wow. You do "Happy Days." It's a huge success. But then the second half of the '80s and basically all the '90s you're doing producing work. You're doing some directing work. But you were in a real funk as an actor because people didn't want to put the Fonz in their movie, in their show. That must have been hard.

WINKLER: Absolutely. When I did "Scream," they said, you know, all right, the director asked you to be in it, but we're not putting your name on the movie or on the poster. It was really bad. That's why I became a producer and tried directing. I wasn't getting work as an actor, which was the dream I've had since I was 7. And it was devastating.

DETROW: Self-consciousness and self-doubt were such a persistent problem for you. When did you realize that you needed to be a little more serious about your mental health, you needed to figure out why you had this self-doubt, you needed to talk to a therapist?

WINKLER: About nine, 10 years ago. I was still functioning as an actor, but my life was not fun. I could only relate to my puppies, my children. Stacey felt left out - my wife. And I found this incredible therapist. And I have to say - I say it in the book - if I were to give this doctor, this woman, a gift, it would have to be the size of a skyscraper. Because only by asking questions or saying - never answering the question, just saying, so what do you think? What do you feel? What's the answer? Pushing me. Pushing, prodding me.

DETROW: Yeah.

WINKLER: That is the umbrella of the book. Starting - being who I thought I should be and not wavering from that very tight structure because of fear that - what happens if I change a little bit? What happens - oh, my God - if this part of me comes out? To being a more authentic human being on the earth.

DETROW: I mean, I have to assume, no question, this helped you so much with your personal relationships and with your family, but how did it help you with your acting?

WINKLER: Oh, my God. Listen. To know yourself is to know the universe.

DETROW: I love that. It had to help on screen too though, right?

WINKLER: I want to be the most talented actor. I want to be Anthony Hopkins. But I could never have played Gene Cousineau without this latter part of my life journey. And that's not even hyperbole. I want to say, definitively, that is true.

DETROW: The last question I have for you is you have done a lot of self-reflection in the last decade or so, but now you've put it to paper. You've written this memoir. Is there anything you realized about yourself writing this book that hadn't fully clicked before?

WINKLER: That is a good question because the thought I had was - my youngest son, Max, was the one who pushed me for years and said, you should write your stories. You got a lot of stories. You should tell these stories. And I said, I can't do it. It seems daunting to me. I go back to it, and it reaffirms an old thought that I've learned so far in my life, and that is, you don't know what you can accomplish until you just try. I've tried to talk my way out of so many adventures that I would have given up if I didn't eventually say, Henry, shut up and just try.

DETROW: That was Henry Winkler. His new memoir is "Being Henry: The Fonz...And Beyond."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY DAYS")

PRATT AND MCCLAIN: (Singing) Ready to race to you. These days are ours, happy and free, those happy days. These days are ours, share them with me. Goodbye grey sky, hello blue. 'Cause nothing can hold me when I hold you. Feels so right. It can't be wrong.

DETROW: And before we let him go, we couldn't resist asking if the Fonz could take us out of the segment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY DAYS")

PRATT AND MCCLAIN: (Singing) Happy and free, those happy days. These days are ours, share them with me...

WINKLER: (As Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli) All right, let me tell you something. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, NPR News. How lucky are your ears? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.