Meeting Henry


I first met Henry Winkler the way most children of the seventies did – as Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzerelli on the situation comedy Happy Days. I thought he was very cool riding his motorcycle, wearing his leather jacket and white T-shirt, and wooing the ladies with his lovable tough guy attitude. It turns out, however, Winkler was not at all a tough guy himself and so imitated the one tough guy he felt he knew – Sylvester Stallone, whom he’d worked with on the film The Lords of Flatbush.

I did not learn that bit of trivia for many years, though I began to suspect that Winkler and The Fonz had very little in common as I watched him in film and TV appearances throughout the 80s and 90s. What I saw was a sweet, curious, gentle man, more at home in a comfy sweater and four-door sedan than a leather jacket and a motorcycle. In fact, the first time I saw him in an interview I almost didn’t recognize him, his demeanor was so radically different than what I’d grown up knowing. Oh, I thought to myself at that time, that’s who he is.

Then I had the opportunity to interview him in 2010 when he was promoting the latest in his YA Hank Zipster series. These were books about a highly creative teen with Dyslexia – a condition, it turns out, Winkler had suffered with all his life. When I first met him I was struck, as I always am when I meet a celebrity, how he looked exactly like Henry Winkler except not on television. But as we began our conversation, I was aware that there was something different still about the person I was meeting and the one I’d seen on television, a difference in many ways as great the difference between his character on Happy Days and himself.

I was reminded that I could learn more about someone in two minutes of conversation than from watching hours of interviews or reading hundreds of pages of the their memoir. There is simply no replacing the immediate intimacy that occurs when you share the same space with another person. It is how they react to me and I to them that fills in all that the page and screen cannot, a portrait complete in its humanity if lacking in historical details. In a strange way, when I meet someone, I always feel as if I know that other person the way I know myself.

Which is why if people ask me, “What’s Henry Winkler really like?” I know my answer will be inadequate. He might be sweet and funny and earnest and a little distracted, but he’s much more than that, just as I am much more than four adjectives. The best answer would be, “He’s just like you and me.” This would be a little disappointing, I’m sure, but what else could he be? It’s hard to believe that if you wanted to know what a celebrity’s like you could just look in the mirror – but you could, because there would be life staring right back at you.

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