Henry Winkler Is Just Looking for a Good TV Show to Watch (Exclusive)

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Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

If Henry Winkler had only ever played Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, he would still be a small screen legend. But in his more than half a century working in Hollywood, Winkler worked on some of the most seminal series in television history: Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy and even a few programs without an ampersand in the title -- all in addition to his decade spent on Happy Days.

But he's a legend who would much rather talk about the shows he's watching these days and the actors he is writing fan letters to. Sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel room, Winkler nibbled on almond cake as he chatted with ET about reboots, remakes and his new role on HBO's Barry. Having made network comedies his bread and butter, at 72, Winkler is doing essentially the opposite of that: a pitch-black comedy about a depressed hitman (Bill Hader) who discovers his calling is to be an actor. Winkler provides plenty of screwball laughs as acting teacher and author of "Hit Your Mark and Say Your Lines," Gene Cousineau, though, an eccentric mentor to the students who both lifts up and frequently tears down in riotously brilliant monologues.

"Thank you, but I want to say--" Winkler begins, pausing to dab away some crumbs with a napkin. "I am the recipient of Bill Hader's brilliance...Holy mackerel!" Hader not only stars, but created, produced and directed the series. "All at the same time! Eight episodes? This show means a lot to you, and smooth as a lake at 5:00 in the afternoon, where you water ski [and there's] not a ripple on the water. I'm there all the time, all these months, just, like, zen."

ET: Seeing this was Bill's directorial debut, I'm sure having someone like you there -- who knows your way around, who he knew would deliver -- was very reassuring. That's one less thing for him to worry about.

Henry Winkler: He chose actors [like] Stephen Root, Glenn Fleshler. My class! Every one of them is a home run hitter, across the board...

What was the first pitch you got from Bill for Barry and for this character?

I auditioned. I read the script. I knew, I'm reading something wonderful here. I've read a lot of scripts over the years for pilots. For men my age, it's usually, "Oh, hold on a minute." [He mimes covering the receiver of a phone.] "Turn in your badge. Take a few days off." And look what I got to do.

That was a great line reading. I know it was cold.

Thank you! You mean, you would hire me?

Yeah, sure! I have to assume you're in demand, though. What makes you say yes to something?

My tummy. I function on my instinct more than I do on any other part of me. I read it and I know. Or, I read it and it scares me to death, and then I know-- I have to do it.

Are you looking at roles in terms of whether it can show a new side of you? Or in terms of range?

No. I have never thought of that. Actually, I should think of that. I never thought of that, and here's the great thing. [On] March 16, my son, Max, has a new movie coming out called Flower.

Yeah, with Zoey Deutch.

Zoey Deutch, and Kathryn Hahn. March 25, Barry comes on. What a month for the Winkler family! But Max was over, I got it, he read the sides and he directed me in my house for the audition. So, then you wait. Then you wait. Now you're not hearing. Now you're hoping. Now you're thinking, There's a lot of distance between when I heard and when I read for Bill and not hearing. I'm thinking I'm sliding off the map. Then I get a call from Bill. [In a higher pitched Hader impression.] "Hey, I just wrote two new scenes." You did? You just wrote 'em, huh? "Yeah, I just wrote them." He sent them over, said, "Want to play? Come on in." Now, in my mind, I'm thinking I'm not going to go. I can't go. What happens if I f**k up? I mean, I did pretty well, now he's sending me this. Oh my god, what happens if I'm not as good as the first time? I call, "Bill! I'll be right there tomorrow. What time?" And I emailed the sides to Max and he directed me over the phone for the second round.

What kind of direction is he giving you? What does that conversation sound like?

"Dad, there's an exclamation point. Dad, you know what? I think you could speed up, I really do. Dad, respect the writer. Say what he wrote!" "Max, I adlibbed something!" "No, dad. Respect the writer." "OK!" I'm not kidding. "All right dad, let's do it again." "No, Max, I think I got it." "Dad, let's do it again." "OK. All right. Let's do it again. Max! I think I got it!" "We're going to do it again, dad." That was what it was like.

You studied drama in school--

Yes.

Did you take any acting classes like the ones in the show when you were a young actor?

Yes! Now, remember, I was in a drama class for four years of college at Emerson. I was in a drama class for three years at Yale, to get my masters. I had, I don't know -- maybe 20 teachers? Different teachers, you know, and a conglomeration of all those people is Gene.

So you did take bits from real teachers and piece them together to create him?

And then what I want him to know. I have given master classes back at Emerson, at Northwestern. I've actually worked with kids in musical theater [and] regular acting for movies and stuff, and I really liked it. So, then I took that experience, that I'd already had in my body.

What was the best piece of advice you got in an acting class? And inversely, what was the worst?

I don't know about the worst. If you write this and other actors are reading this, other new actors, think of yourself as a sponge, and everything that your acting teacher, your movement teacher, your speech teacher, everything that they say to you is the water. You will absorb all the water and then you're going to wring yourself out, and the moisture that is left is meant for you. That's the way I see the big picture. One of the greatest things I ever [learned] -- it took me five years from drama school to actually working on a project where the penny dropped: Acting is listening. Acting is reacting. That was one of the first things I ever wrote down in my actor's notebook. And the other thing is, the theater that you're in is your temple and it is up to me to keep it clean.

Barry Premiere, Bill Hader, Henry Winkler
Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

When you watch the young actors in the show doing these scene readings...Like, in the first episode, when the actor who plays Ryan (Tyler Jacob Moore) is wearing a dreadlock wig and doing the Drexl Spivey scene from True Romance--

Wasn't he amazing? And then he was killed! Everyone in that class could hold a scene on their own. They're all really great actors. One of them is in Three Billboards. One of them was in The Menendez Brothers. Sarah [Goldberg] does theater all over the world. Kirby [Howell-Baptiste], the Anglo-African girl-- Oh my god! Her improvisations! Andy [Carey], the very kind of straight looking guy, he can make Shakespeare up! He can rap Shakespeare. Rightor [Doyle], who plays Puck, eventually, just wrote and directed a web series over the summer. I mean, I'm telling you--

And D'Arcy [Carden] is on The Good Place.

D'Arcy! D'Arcy! She steals The Good Place, doesn't she? Janet is the best.

The best!

She's my assistant in the show. Now, whether it gets on camera or not, we will instantaneously make up business [in our scenes] and there's no distance between the thought, the doing, the respect-- [Sighs.] D'Arcy.

I love hearing this. I mean, these are actors who I bet look up to you, but you just rattled off everyone in that scene with you and what all of their other projects. Being in that space, do you flash back to any of your own acting classes?

Always.

Do any of your own scene readings stand out? Tell me one.

Absolutely. All right, there's a scene, and I don't know whether you saw it, where I told a story about being in Stella Adler's class at Yale my freshman year. "You're going to create a garden. I want you to get up and tell everyone and show them your garden. Winkler." I get up, I open the picket fence, I walk through and I say, "And here—" "Sit down. You see nothing." There are blue forget-me-nots right over here! [Laughs.] I didn't even get to show you my tulips! I told that story, and there is a scene when we're walking in the supermarket together and I'm asking [Bill] to tell me what's on the shelf, what does he see. He says, "Gum." I said, "No, it's not. There's no gum here. The gum is at the counter. What do you see on the shelf?" "Soup." "What kind of soup?" That was taken directly from this story that I told.

We know that ABC is bringing back Roseanne and reboots were recently ordered for Cagney & Lacey and Magnum P.I.

Magnum P.I. is created again, the new one, by Peter Lenkov, who created the reboot of MacGyver that I work on, because I created the first one. So, it's the same guy! Peter Lenkov. He's just Mount Vesuvius.

Do you just assume that the day will eventually come when ABC calls you up and says, "We're doing Happy Days next. It's coming back"?

I never think about it.

No?

No. I never, ever think about it. You know, that's up to them. And then I would gladly work with them. But when you think about it, who can play Mrs. C? Now, I have been part of the musical, when Garry [Marshall] -- rest his soul -- was doing it in the beginning. I went in and I would work with the actors. I went to England twice for two different versions of the musical. The flavor of what it is to create that family and the, "Who is connected to who? How are they friends? What do they need from each other?" I would ask the casts.

What would it take for you to sign on to play The Fonz in a reboot?

Well, I would want to play the Fonz again. I like him. I love him. He gave me the world. He introduced me to the world. I am 72. Unless, I play the Fonz as the grandfather, who has opened Mr. Goodwrenches all over the country.

We're deep into this era of reboots and remakes. As someone who has such iconic properties to your name, do you get excited when you hear one of those shows is coming back?

A good show is a good show is a good show. I love television. I love making it, and I love watching it. And I watch shows all over the place! Godless, which Max convinced me after the first episode to continue. I thought, "This is so dusty, I need to wear a bandana to my house." And it turned out to be unbelievable! Then The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Goliath, Good Behavior with Michelle Dockery. [Gasps.] Is she great in that or what? I wrote her a fan letter.

Did you get a response?

Yes, I did. A year later! But I wrote Jeff Daniels a fan letter. John Lithgow when I saw him do The Crown. How great is The Crown? Because you know what? I know what it takes and when someone is so superb at what they do -- what we do -- I think you have to let them know. I think you do.

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