Winkler said he had wanted to be an actor from the time he was a young child. His first job on television was as an extra on a game show in New York. He received $10 for the role. After working in theater and getting fired from a play in Washington, Winkler returned to New York City and supported himself by appearing in television commercials, one year doing more than 30. He was able to support himself with the commercial work so he could do theater for free at Manhattan Theater Club. He also appeared in 1973 in season four of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the episode “The Dinner Party” as Rhoda’s date, Steve Waldman, and in episodes of The Bob Newhart Show and Rhoda.
1960s and 1970s
From 1968 to 1972, Winkler appeared in over a dozen Yale Repertory Theater productions, including Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (May 1968) and Macbeth (February 1971), Gogol’s The Government Inspector (February 1970), the world premiere of Gimpel the Fool (an Isaac Bashevis Singer adaptation, October 1970) and Two by Brecht and Weill: The Little Mahagonny and The Seven Sins (May–June 1971 and January 1972). During his decade on Happy Days, Winkler also starred in a number of movies, including The Lords of Flatbush (1974), playing a troubled Vietnam veteran in Heroes (1977), The One and Only (1978), and An American Christmas Carol (TV movie, 1979). Winkler was also the narrator and executive producer of Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?, a documentary film about Dorothy and Bob DeBolt, an American couple who adopted 14 children, some of whom are severely disabled war orphans (in addition to raising Dorothy’s five biological children and Bob’s biological daughter). The film won an Academy Award for Best Feature-length Documentary in 1978, as well as the Directors Guild of America Award and the Humanitas Award for producer and director John Korty in 1979. A 50-minute version of the film shown on ABC in December 1978, earned a 1979 Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement – Informational Program and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Informational Program for Winkler, Korty, and producers Warren Lockhart and Dan McCann. Winkler was also one of the hosts of the 1979 Music for UNICEF Concert.
Although Winkler had already shot the film The Lords of Flatbush, he was relatively unknown. In 1973, a year before that film was released, producer Tom Miller was instrumental in Winkler getting cast for the role of Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, nicknamed “The Fonz” or “Fonzie”, in Happy Days, which first aired in January 1974. For Happy Days, director/producer Garry Marshall originally had in mind a completely opposite physical presence. Marshall sought to cast a hunky, blond, Italian model-type male in the role of Fonzie, intended as a stupid foil to the real star, Ron Howard, and originally envisioned Micky Dolenz for the role. However, when Winkler interpreted the role in auditions, Marshall (realizing that the 5’6″ Winkler could more easily interact with the other characters at eye level than the 6’0″ Dolenz) immediately snapped him up. According to Winkler, “The Fonz was everybody I wasn’t. He was everybody I wanted to be.” Winkler’s character, though remaining very much a rough-hewn outsider, gradually became the focus of the show as time passed (in particular after the departure of Ron Howard). Initially, ABC executives did not want to see the Fonz wearing leather, thinking the character would appear to be a criminal. The first 13 episodes show Winkler wearing two different kinds of windbreaker jackets, one of which was green. As Winkler said in a TV Land interview: “It’s hard to look cool in a green windbreaker”. Marshall argued with the executives about the jacket. In the end, a compromise was made: Winkler could only wear the leather jacket in scenes with his motorcycle. And, from that point on, the Fonz was never without his motorcycle, until season 2. Happy Days ended its run in 1984.
After Happy Days ended, Winkler concentrated on producing and directing. Within months of the program’s cancellation, he and John Rich had collaborated to establish Winkler-Rich Productions; whenever Rich or Ann Daniels was uninvolved, his company was called Fair Dinkum Productions. He chose the name in a nod to Australia, where “fair dinkum” is a common Australian term suggesting a person or thing is “direct,” “honest,” “fair,” or “authentic”. He produced several television shows, including MacGyver, So Weird, and Mr. Sunshine, with Rich; Sightings, in which Daniels was involved; the 1985 made-for-television film Scandal Sheet, for which he was executive producer; and the game shows Wintuition and Hollywood Squares (the latter from 2002 to 2004, occasionally serving as a sub-announcer). Winkler appeared in Night Shift, a 1982 American comedy film directed by Ron Howard. He also directed several movies including the Billy Crystal movie Memories of Me (1988) and Cop and a Half (1993) with Burt Reynolds.
As the 1990s began, Winkler returned to acting. In 1991, he starred in the controversial made-for-television film Absolute Strangers, as a husband forced to make a decision regarding his comatose wife and his unborn baby. In 1994, he returned to TV with the short-lived comedy series Monty on Fox and co-starred with Katharine Hepburn in the holiday TV movie One Christmas. In 1996, his scene-stealing, uncredited role in Scream (as foul-mouthed high school principal Arthur Himbry) thrust his onscreen career back into the mainstream. Shortly afterwards, Adam Sandler asked Winkler to appear in The Waterboy (1998). In 1999, he became an executive producer for the Disney Channel original series So Weird. He would later make a special guest appearance in the second season’s Halloween episode titled “Boo”.
The Waterboy sparked a fast friendship, and ongoing professional relationship, between Sandler and Winkler. Winkler would go on to appear in at least three other Sandler films: Little Nicky (2000, where he plays himself, covered in bees), Click (2006, as the protagonist’s father), and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008, again playing himself). He also had small roles in movies such as Down to You (2000), Holes (2003), and I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007). Winkler had a recurring role as incompetent lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn in the Fox Television comedy Arrested Development. In one episode, his character hopped over a dead shark lying on a pier, a reference to his role in the origin of the phrase, from a two-part episode of Happy Days, “jumping the shark”. After that episode, Winkler, in interviews, stated that he was the only person to have “jumped the shark” twice. When Winkler moved to CBS for one season to star in 2005–06’s Out of Practice, his role as the Bluth family lawyer on Arrested Development was taken over by Happy Days co-star Scott Baio in the fall of 2005, shortly before the acclaimed but Nielsen-challenged show ceased production. Winkler has guest-starred on television series such as Numb3rs, The Bob Newhart Show (as Miles Lascoe, a parolee just out of jail—he was in jail for armed robbery, twice), South Park, The Practice, The Drew Carey Show, The Simpsons (playing a member of a biker gang—in one scene, he calls Marge “Mrs. S”, a reference to Fonzie calling Happy Days matriarch Marion Cunningham “Mrs. C”), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Third Watch, Arrested Development, Crossing Jordan, Family Guy, King of the Hill, Blue’s Clues, and Kick Buttowski: Suburban Daredevil. The Weezer video for 1994’s “Buddy Holly” edited period footage of Henry Winkler as the Fonz, as well as a double shot from behind to create the illusion that Fonzie and other characters were watching Weezer as they performed in Arnold’s restaurant. He appeared on KTTV’s Good Day L.A. and in one appearance, while substituting for Steve Edwards, Winkler reunited with fellow Happy Days cast member Marion Ross. Winkler made a cameo appearance in the band Say Anything’s video for “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too”. A close friend of actor John Ritter, the two led a Broadway ensemble cast in Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party in 2000. Winkler was reunited as a guest star on Ritter’s sitcom 8 Simple Rules (for Dating my Teenage Daughter) in 2003 by Ritter’s request. On September 11, Ritter became ill during filming, and unexpectedly died. A stunned, grief-stricken Winkler was interviewed by Mary Hart of Entertainment Tonight and various other entertainment news sources. In 2008, he appeared in two Christmas movies, in the Hallmark Channel movie The Most Wonderful Time of the Year as a retired cop who plays matchmaker between his niece and a drifter he befriends, and in Merry Christmas, Drake & Josh as the judge who orders Drake and Josh to give a young girl “the best Christmas ever” or be sent to jail. In 2009, Winkler provided the voice of Willard Deutschebog, a suicidal German teacher, in the Fox comedy series, Sit Down, Shut Up.
In March 2010, Winkler was cast in a recurring role on USA Network’s Royal Pains, as Hank and Evan’s ne’er-do-well father Eddy. Winkler joined the cast of Adult Swim’s television adaptation of Rob Corddry’s web series Childrens Hospital, playing a stereotypically feckless hospital administrator. In late September 2010, Winkler provided the voice of Professor Nathaniel Zib in the Lego Hero Factory mini-series, Rise of the Rookies. In 2011, Winkler guest starred as Ambush Bug in the series finale of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. In August 2012, Winkler announced on Twitter that he would be returning to the fourth season of Arrested Development. Winkler appeared in the film Here Comes the Boom, released October 12, 2012, as the music teacher at Wilkinson High School. Between 2013 and 2015, Winkler appeared in 9 episodes of Parks and Recreation as Dr. Saperstein, father of Jean-Ralphio and Mona-Lisa. He starred in the British television adaption of his Hank Zipzer book series as the teacher Mr. Rock. Mr. Rock was based on a music teacher Winkler once had in high school at McBurney. Winkler said that the real Mr. Rock believed in him and was the only teacher there who he felt did. The show aired from 2014 through 2016 on the CBBC Channel in the United Kingdom. Winkler is a spokesman for reverse mortgages through Quicken Loans. Since 2018, Winkler has appeared in the role of acting coach Gene Cousineau in the Bill Hader-helmed HBO comedy Barry, for which he received the 2018 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. Winkler was executive producer of the NBC series Better Late Than Never, which aired from 2016 to 2018. The travel-reality show starred, in the opening’s words, “four living legends: TV Superstar Henry Winkler, Cultural Icon William Shatner, NFL Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, Former Heavyweight Champion George Foreman— and Jeff Dye as the sidekick.” In 2016, they traveled to Asia; in 2017, they visited Europe. The fourth episode of the second season, “Berlin: How do you say Roots in German?” focused on Winkler’s exploration of the city from which his parents escaped in 1939. The search culminated at the site of a brass memorial plaque, known as a stolperstein, embedded in the pavement in front of the workplace and home of Helmut Winkler, his uncle, who died in Auschwitz. Winkler’s father also worked in the building and lived next door.”So, the story was that my father was able to get a six-week work visa to come to New York City, but Uncle Helmut was having a white dinner jacket made and it was going to be ready the next day. So, instead of going with my dad and my mom and leaving Berlin, he stayed an extra day, and that night was taken by the Nazis.”
— Henry Winkler, Better Late Than Never season 2, episode 4
The stolperstein states that Helmut Winkler fled to Holland in 1940 but was interned at Westerbork and deported from there to Auschwitz in 1942. He died there December 31, 1942.
The discovery was a complete surprise to Winkler. Jeff Dye had enlisted Winkler’s three children in a loving conspiracy, and they knew every step in his journey around Berlin. A letter from them was waiting for him, tucked into the building’s number plate. In the deeply moving letter, they drew together the threads of all the experiences created for the episode. “Even though the Winkler history in Berlin is heartbreaking, we thought it was important for you to connect with the past through this hopefully fun adventure, and connect you did….”
In 2020, Winkler voiced the role of Keith in Scoob!, a film adaptation of the Scooby-Doo cartoons.