Henry Winkler, the Fonz
As a kid I was told I would never achieve anything, that I was a dumb dog. But I moved to LA in 1973 and two weeks later went to Paramount Studios for an audition – with hair down to my shoulders and a gigantic sweat patch because I was petrified. I walked in and said six lines. I guess I did them pretty well because I got the part of Arthur Fonzarelli.
Richie, Joanie, Potsy and Mrs Cunningham had been cast already, back in 1971, because Happy Days was a fleshed-out version of a vignette from another show, called Love, American Style. The network, ABC, thought I’d be associated with crime if I wore a leather jacket. At first, they had me put on a flimsy-collared golf jacket. It was unbelievably hard to be cool in puce. Garry Marshall, the show’s creator, struck a deal with ABC letting me wear leather. The first one I had got stolen from the costume department, so they made me five more and kept them in a vault.
Everyone who’s ever played a Fonz-like cool character has always done the same things: combed their hair, stuck cigarette packets up the sleeve of their T-shirt. I swore I wouldn’t do any of that. Then, in the pilot, I had to look in a mirror. I told the director: “I can’t comb my hair, I made a deal with myself.” He replied: “It’s written. You have to.” So I walked up, held up my comb, then went: “Heeeey … that’s perfect, I don’t need to comb.” That moment defined the Fonz. I got the “Heeeey” and the “Whoaaa” from my favourite sport at the time: horse-riding.
The family Garry created made 255 episodes. We even had our own baseball team: we’d play against other shows, other networks. But the most important thing, besides lunch, was making a funny show from beginning to end. At first, we shot it like a movie, with one camera at a studio – Arnold’s diner was on the back lot. One day, Ron Howard and I saw Robert De Niro and Francis Ford Coppola filming – it turned out The Godfather Part II was being shot in our studio, too. As young actors, our mouths dropped open.
Then, in 1975, we started filming before a live audience. On Monday morning, we’d do a read of the new script. Being dyslexic, I would stumble and screw up everyone’s comic timing. It was humiliating. The next day, we could arrive to find the script had been entirely rewritten. At 4pm on Friday, they brought in an audience of 300 and we did the episode, foibles and all. The writers then feverishly rewrote the things that didn’t work, giving us notes over dinner, which we’d memorise while getting into costume and makeup. Then at 7pm, we filmed before a new audience, barrelling through until about 1am, by which time the crowd were falling asleep.
One Monday, there was a new character suggested by Garry’s seven-year-old son. He said the Fonz should meet an alien, so Garry wrote it. But they couldn’t cast him. It was two days before filming and the script supervisor was still reading Mork from Ork’s lines. Then in comes this young actor who hadn’t done a lot of TV, mostly standup, very shy. His name was Robin Williams. He picked up a script and I realised two things: I’m in the presence of greatness and my job here is to get out of his way.
All over the world, people still click their fingers at me like I did to women in the show. The advice I’ve always given about the Fonz’s sexism is this: “Never snap your fingers at a girl. They will break them off your hand.” And I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but if you hit a jukebox at the same time as a man named Fred plugs it in, you too can start a song playing. You too can make magic.
Garry Marshall, creator
In 1971, I was asked to make a show about flappers in the 1920s and 30s. I said I know nothing about that era, but I’ll do it if it’s set in the 50s. Back then, it would have been hard to do an honest depiction of teenagers without showing drugs and booze – and we didn’t want to do that. By making it nostalgic, we avoided all that.
When I did the original pilot, no one would buy it. The networks said who cares about the 50s? Luckily, along came a wonderful film called American Graffiti and ABC said: “We can have some of that.” Fonzie wasn’t in the original, but I soon realised I wanted a character from the other side of the tracks. I grew up in the Bronx and patented him off a guy in my neighbourhood called Anthony who could tie a rope to an ice truck and pull it along with his teeth. I always thought that was magical.
The furthest we took his “magic” was when the gang went camping in the woods. All the crickets and owls were making loads of noise and he says: “Cool it!” And they stop instantly. Mork was the craziest plot, though. My son was into Star Wars and moaned there wasn’t enough space in Happy Days. Robin Williams had only played one part before, a farmer, so it was me who gave him his big break.
One of our most popular episodes was when Fonzie pretended he had somewhere to spend Christmas, when really he was home alone. So Richie went round to take him for Christmas at the Cunninghams. For a lot of people, the Cunninghams were the ideal family. They always ate dinner together and would hug all the time. A lot of people who were abused growing up used to write to me and say they would watch Happy Days and think: “Maybe there’s a better family out there somewhere.”
I wanted the show to be called COOL, but test audiences thought it a brand of cigarette, so my producer said: “How about Happy Days? That’s what we’re going to show.”