LOS ANGELES – These are happy days for Henry Winkler.
The Yale Drama School graduate, who rocketed to fame in the ‘70s as sitcom biker Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, now – in his 70s – revels in his stature as an in-demand actor, whose portrayal of a narcissistic acting coach in HBO’s “Barry” earned him his first primetime Emmy.
“At 27, I got the Fonz. At 72, I got Gene Cousineau,” he says, relaxing in the living room of his well-appointed Brentwood home. “Pretty amazing!”
More than four decades after turning “Aaayyy!” into an analog-era viral meme, Winkler is enjoying a rich third act playing quirky, memorable characters on “Arrested Development,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Children’s Hospital,” “Royal Pains” and “Barry,” Bill Hader’s darkly comedic story of a hitman-turned-thespian that returns for Season 2 Sunday (10 EDT/PDT).
“I’m not good at playing just the straight leading guy. (My) characters all seem a little idiosyncratic,” he says, recalling a “Parks and Recreation” scene where his Dr. Saperstein mistakenly sees an extra baby when looking at Leslie Knope’s ultrasound. “Of course, it was (cream) cheese from my lunch.”
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Despite the credits and fame, Winkler says he had to audition for Gene, who becomes Barry’s mentor after the killer crashes his class on assignment and falls in love with acting.
“Saturday Night Live” alum Hader, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of Barry, loved Winkler’s interpretation.
“Initially, (Gene) was written as much more of an arch guy, a sketchy character. (But) in the back of my head, I always thought Henry might be a good choice,” says Hader, who also writes, directs and produces the series. “He was phenomenal.”
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Hader and co-creator Alec Berg saw Winkler as a Gene variation. “He’s such a nice, warm person that having him play such a narcissistic (jerk) is a funny idea.”
Winkler, 73, who also appears in director Wes Anderson’s next film, “The French Dispatch,” realizes his good fortune in a field where many older actors have gone from “waiting for the phone to ring (to putting) the phone in the closet.” But he understands the lack of job security in entertainment, finding himself typecast in the mid-1980s after an 11-season run as the beloved bad boy on ABC’s “Happy Days.”
“I literally could not get hired as an actor. People would say, ‘Oh, he is so talented – and funny! But he’s The Fonz,’” he says.
By then married and raising three young children (he and wife Stacey now have five grandchildren), Winkler couldn’t afford to wait, so he moved behind the camera for his second act, directing TV shows (“Dave’s World,” “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch”) and producing “The Sure Thing,” a 1985 John Cusack film; paranormal documentary series “Sightings”; and “MacGyver,” both the ‘80s original and the CBS reboot (“I was there yesterday, editing.”).
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The evaporation of acting roles didn’t crush Winkler, who had dreamed of acting since childhood despite the reservations of his parents, Jewish emigres from Nazi Germany who wanted him to run the family wood business.
“But the only wood I was interested in was Hollywood. Until I was a star, they were very upset,” Winkler says, recalling a fan letter that he recognized from his mother’s handwriting.
After “Happy Days,” he avoided the letdown that afflicts others, and credits an unlikely source, dyslexia, a learning disability he didn’t realize he had until his early 30s.
“There is an emotional component to being dyslexic where your self-image is damaged,” says Winkler, who’s co-written a book series about schoolboy Hank Zipzer, who has the condition. Despite all the “Happy Days”-era acclaim, he thought, “That couldn’t be me. And I think that helped me stay grounded.”
The pipeline opened up in the past decade, leading to Gene, a good teacher on the rare occasion when he can get over himself. Winkler embraces the character’s self-regard: “There is Stanislavski. There is The Actor’s Studio. There is Gene Cousineau.”
As “Barry” returns, Gene faces a flood of emotions, having lost his newfound love, Detective Janice Moss, who was killed by Barry when she figured out his real identity in Season 1’s shocking finale.
“He is thrown into a sadness outside of himself that he didn’t know existed,” Winkler says. “I think it’s one of the first times he had an emotion outside of looking in the mirror.”
That leads Gene to try to re-establish relationships with his family in a season that explores whether the show’s characters can change their natures.
Winkler is impressed with first-time director Hader – “It was as if he had been doing it all his life. We did not see hesitation or insecurity” – while Hader appreciates Winkler as a “spring of ideas.”
He’ll approach a scene in multiple ways, Hader says, and “usually in one of the later takes, he’ll incorporate what he’s trying to do and our notes, and it will click. ‘Oh, Henry’s done the math in his head.'”
Winkler has a “very small bucket list” – a return to Broadway, a Tony Award – and appreciates his first Emmy win after six nominations dating back to 1976.
But the Emmy takes a back seat to an even bigger honor, as Winkler shows off a photo of his 7-year-old grandson dressed as a leather-jacketed biker.
“It was all on his own. He went for Halloween as The Fonz, as Papa,” the boy’s name for him, Winkler says. “I couldn’t believe it. It was one of the greatest compliments of my life.”