"I can't talk to you right now. I'm expecting a call from Los Angeles from Henry Winkler for a phone interview," I said.
"You mean 'the Fonz' from 'Happy Days'?'" effervesced my caller.
"No, that was yesterday (actually three decades ago) … I mean the Henry Winkler of today."
Five minutes later, I was casually conversing with the celebrated actor, director and producer who has found it almost impossible to shake off his most memorable character, Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, the ultra-cool greaser of "Happy Days," ABC's smash hit taking place in the 1950s. It enjoyed a successful run from 1978 to 1984 and is still in reruns six days a week on "Nick at Nite." Winkler, though, has been running in a different direction, and successfully so.
"I live very much in the present," he says. "I had a great time playing one of the leads (a nerdy, whiny, car-rental agent) in 'The Dinner Party' with John Ritter and Len Cariou." The Neil Simon play, which closed in June, was Winkler's first appearance on Broadway; he was still in a heady mood about it.
Winkler is the recipient of many honors, including two Golden Globe awards and an Emmy. His nominations came from his guest appearance in ABC's "The Practice"; his supporting role in the popular movie "The Waterboy"; and his acclaimed productions of "The Sure Thing" and "Young Sherlock Holmes."
Committed to quality children's programming, Winkler says he is most proud of the more than a dozen "After School Specials" on TV made by his two production companies.
Winkler could easily qualify for a "Mensch Award" as someone who cares about needy and educationally deprived children … and as a devoted family man to his wife, Stacey, and a hands-on father to their children: Jed Weitzman, 29, Stacey's son from a previous marriage; Zoe, 21, a college student; and Max, 17, a high-school student. Talking about his family is a "Happy Days" subject for Winkler, who said that his kids were all confirmed at temple; that Zoe was a counselor at a Jewish summer camp; and that most of the time he was the parent who went to PTA meetings.
He says he adores his wife, whom he describes as a strong-willed redhead and nice Jewish girl (Stacey Furstman) whom he met in a Los Angeles clothing store in 1976.
They were married two years later at Congregation Habonim, a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan that was founded by his parents, Harry and Ilse Winkler, and several other couples who fled Nazi Germany.
Congregation Habonim was also where Henry became a bar mitzvah in 1958. He recalled that he learned his parsha phonetically because he was dyslexic. He didn't find out about his condition until many years later when he and Stacey learned that their son Max was dyslexic. No wonder Henry was such a poor student, a situation about which his strict parents, who valued education, were very intolerant.
"I grew up with a very bad self-image," said Winkler. "But I always knew that I wanted to be an actor."
He fooled them all when he went off to Emerson college in Boston and went on to earn an MFA degree from Yale. Then he became famous as Fonzie here and all over the world. Which is when his mom and dad (both deceased now) started to think that he was O.K. and became his biggest fans, he says.
Winkler is very proud of the Children's Action Network, an organization that he and Stacey founded with five other couples, including Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw. The organization works on a national level, aiding 20,000 needy children annually.
The actor/producer's favorite pastime is fly fishing for trout in Montana, Idaho and Colorado.
He still has the familiar black leather jacket he wore as Fonzie. There were a number of them, he says, with one owned by the Smithsonian Institute.
Winkler greatly enjoys his speaking engagements all over the country on behalf of the Jewish Welfare Fund and for the Association of Careers and Education. He has been driven most of his life, he says, by the words printed on a picture of a bearded rabbi he received as a bar-mitzvah gift. He found out years later that it was a quote by Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Reciting the aphorism constantly in his speeches, it has become his mantra … "If you will it, it is no dream."
Winkler appeared in Cleveland in "An Evening with Henry Winkler" on Oct. 23 at Landerhaven for the Women's Division of the 2002 Jewish Welfare Fund Appeal.