How to be as cool as The Fonz? ‘Be your authentic self’

Henry Winkler spoke at Dalkey Book Festival about Happy Days and love of Irish soda bread

Henry Winkler aka the Fonz with Garda Marion Power. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“I bought this sweater just for tonight,” Henry Winkler (78) – famous for his role as The Fonz in US sitcom Happy Days – tells an audience at Dalkey Book Festival on Friday evening, pointing at his new green garment. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve also eaten my weight in soda bread.” The crowd warmed to his candour and the informality he brought to the Dalkey Book Festival. If there’s anything he’s good at, it’s being cool.

“People say to me all the time, ‘How can I be cool?’ And I finally learned: you being your authentic self is cool and magnetic. You being the truest you – honest to God – you are going to be like a power you can’t even believe.” Winkler’s talk is saturated with little nuggets of life advice, one could almost walk away with a calendar-full of snippets. “He should be a life coach,” one women is later heard saying.

Despite this, he’s candid about the fears underneath his confident shell: “I’m still nervous before [auditions],” he says. “I was nervous before I came on stage [tonight].”

His appearance at the festival comes fresh off the release of his memoir, Being Henry, which tells of the ups and downs of stardom, his struggles with dyslexia, and, of course, The Fonz. Last October the book released to critical acclaim and became a New York Times bestseller. In it, he recounts his time on US sitcom Happy Days, where he achieved star status playing Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, better known as “The Fonz”. During the 1970s and 1980s, Fonzie was a leading sex symbol in the US and for many represented the epitome of coolness.


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Since those halcyon days, however, Winkler emerged from an era that saw him typecast in his biggest role, and won the hearts of new generations on shows such as Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation and Barry.

Looking around Dalkey’s Cuala GAA club though, you wouldn’t put it past some of the attendees to whip out their old Fonz bedroom poster for an autograph. The GAA club isn’t a million miles away from the more elegant Dalkey Church either, which tends to host many of the biggest speakers at the festival. But there’s one thing the church doesn’t have: a bar. No better venue from the “cool guy of Hollywood”.

Winkler’s interviewer, editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, began by congratulating him on his appointment as the new chief fire officer in Dublin, in reference to Winkler’s viral moment earlier this week when he snapped a photograph with members of the Dublin Fire Brigade after they evacuated the Shelbourne Hotel where he was staying. Winkler encouraged an applause for a member of Tara Street fire brigade in the audience who attended the event.

Henry Winkler as Fonzie in Happy Days

Back in 1973 when Winkler was offered the role on Happy Days, he had his hesitations. He would only accept the part on the condition that he could play the character “emotional” behind closed doors, where he didn’t need to play the cool guy. His character was so popular, the head of ABC toyed around with renaming it Fonzie’s Happy Days. Winkler protested, saying it would be an insult to the rest of the cast. And so the name would remain, and Winkler retained his status as one of the industry’s nice guys.

After the show wrapped up in 1984, however, jobs stopped coming his way due to a seemingly unshakeable association with Winkler and The Fonz. “I was the bowl of Jell-O before you put it in the refrigerator,” he says. “Outside I looked great, but inside I shook.”

Soon after things started looking up, after he started a production company which landed a hit with its first show, MacGyver. His next acting hit would be Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy in 1998.

When did he know he had talent? “I really knew it about 10 years ago,” he says. He had a teacher who said he was “stupid”. And he believed it. In recent years he started to attend therapy and began to peel away the layers and understand himself more.

Before the event wraps up, he expresses an enthusiasm to meet Bono, a frequenter of Dalkey, and joked with the audience: “When you see him on the street, just tell him I send a hug.”

Conor Capplis

Conor Capplis

Conor Capplis is a journalist with the Irish Times Group