updated 05/07/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/07/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Mission accomplished at last. Since October Winkler, 55 has been starring in The Dinner Party, a new Neil Simon play about three divorced couples thrown together for an evening of barely civil socializing. Winkler plays Albert Donay, an irredeemably nerdy car-rental agent. "I am having more fun than a person can have," he says of the role. During the performance he wears an ill-fitting tux and speaks in an earnest whine. The play, which also features fellow '70s sitcom star John Ritter (Three's Company), has gotten mixed reviews, but The New York Times called Winkler's performance, which ends on June 3, "rather endearing."
Long before ever trotting the boards, Winkler had to do some serious tiptoeing around his very strict parents. After fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 and settling in New York City, Harry and Use Winkler imagined their son would earn a college degree and one day run the successful lumber import-export business Harry had created in America. Henry and his only other sibling, Bea, now 60 and a board member of the cancer-support organization Gilda's Club, were taught to value education above all. "They would not tolerate poor marks," says Winkler of his parents. But their son, who learned only in his 30s that he's dyslexic, struggled with his studies. "Being dyslexic was excruciating," recalls Winkler, whose parents both died in the '90s. "If I got a D, I went in my room and celebrated that I hadn't failed. My self-image was almost nonexistent."
From the time she met him, says Winkler's wife, Stacey, 52, "Henry spoke about how difficult his childhood was. His parents told him he was stupid and he didn't make the grade, so there was a lot of arguing." All that changed with Happy Days, Stacey adds. "They were signing autographs at airports."
To compensate for his academic shortcomings, Winkler became the class clown. "I also won the dance contests," he says. "That made me feel accomplished." So did acting, which he was introduced to in nursery school and later pursued at Boston's Emerson College. After graduating in 1967 he enrolled at the Yale School of Drama. In 1972 Winkler moved back to New York City, where he auditioned for Broadway shows with little success, save for the ill-fated 42 Seconds, "The self-doubt was the most difficult part of that time," says Winkler. But, he adds, "the rejection just fueled the will."
To support himself he made commercials. The following year Winkler won a starring role in The Lords of Flatbush, a movie about four '50s-era toughs, costarring a young actor named Sylvester Stallone. Soon afterward, before the film had opened in theaters, the 27-year-old Winkler found himself in L.A. auditioning for the part of a 19-year-old Milwaukee garage mechanic. "His brand of coolness wasn't about toughness," recalls Ron Howard of Winkler's first reading. "It was about being totally collected and on top of every situation. All the other actors were completely blown away."
So was Stacey Furstman that day in 1976 when the Fonz walked into the L.A. clothing store that was one of her public-relations firm's clients. He was looking for a sport coat and asked her for help. She obliged, and a week later, when he stopped by to pick up his coat, he asked her out. They dated for two years before marrying in 1978 in the Manhattan synagogue where Winkler was bar mitzvahed. By then Winkler was the country's hottest television star, gracing the covers of magazines, T-shirts and lunch boxes. "People would rush up to Henry and literally walk over my feet," says Stacey. "One time I said, 'You've just completely ruined my stockings.' And this woman said, 'But I love Fonzie!' "
Despite the distractions that came with international celebrity (Happy Days) has aired in 126 countries, and in the U.S. reruns air six days a week on the Odyssey cable channel), the Winklers provided a remarkably normal upbringing for their children—talent manager Jed Weitzman, 29, Stacey's son from a previous marriage; Zoe, 20, a college junior; and Max, 17, a high school junior. "We had dinner together every night," says Stacey, sitting in the family's 12-room house in Los Angeles, of the Happy Days era. "If there was a PTA meeting, Henry went." Says Zoe: "Dad took me to school every day of my life until I was 16 and got my license."
But Winkler also benefited from them. When Jed was having trouble in grade school, Winkler and Stacey took him to an educational therapist for help. Jed (who would graduate from Georgetown University) was found to be dyslexic, and it was then that Winkler realized he had the same problem. "Everything they said about Jed," recalls Winkler, "I thought, 'Oh my God, that's me.' It answered a lot of questions and allowed me to come to peace with the fact that I was not stupid."
Happy Days would earn Winkler two Golden Globe Awards and three Emmy nominations, but a few years into the show's run, the actor began accepting film roles to broaden his post-Fonz horizons. "At that point in Henry's life, it was very important that the work he did away from the show demonstrated his range," says Howard, who directed Winkler in a starring role as a timid morgue supervisor in 1982's Night Shift.
But when the series ended in 1984, Winkler decided to take a break from acting. "The fire had temporarily gone out," he says. "Being rudderless, not having a direction, was probably one of the most painful experiences of my life."
While still shooting Happy Days, Winkler had formed a production company whose first offering was the 1979 TV documentary Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? It told the story of a couple who adopted 13 physically and emotionally challenged kids and raised them along with their own.
The program, which Winkler hosted as well as produced, won an Emmy. A second production company he launched in 1983 specialized in children's programs. "He wanted to send positive messages to kids," says Stacey. "He wanted them to not go through the rotten difficulty he went through and to know they could succeed if they wanted to."
Winkler went on to produce several TV series, including MacGyver, which ran for seven years on ABC (1985-92), and direct two feature films: 1988's Memories of Me, starring Billy Crystal and Alan King, and 1993's Cop and a Half, with Burt Reynolds. He returned to acting in 1991, starring in the TV movie Absolute Strangers. Other TV movies followed, and in 1996 he was offered the part of an uptight high school principal in Scream. Offers rolled in after that. Most notably, Winkler appeared in the Adam Sandler comedy The Waterboy and the Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle Down to You. His turn last season on The Practice as a dentist accused of killing one of his patients earned Winkler an Emmy nomination. "He has to deal with the fact that some people will always see Henry as the Fonz," says Scream director Wes Craven. "But there's a great humanity about Henry that makes for a very good actor."
That humanity has long been in evidence. While Happy Days was at its zenith, costar Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham) accompanied Winkler to hospitals to visit sick children. According to Ross, he'd enter a room in full Fonzie mode, leather-jacketed and swaggering. "The children would be shaking they were so thrilled," she says. "I'd be crying in the hall, not able to do it, but he could. His essence is his sense of responsibility."
Which may explain why for 17 years Winkler served as cohost of the annual Cerebral Palsy Telethon and is a former national chairman of Toys for Tots. In 1990 he and Stacey were one of six couples, along with Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, who founded Children's Action Network, an organization that has helped provide free immunization for 175,000 children and is currently involved in a national adoption campaign. "I have a nice relationship with children," says Winkler. "If I wasn't an actor, I'd work with them."
For the moment, of course, Broadway is the apple of his eye, though he misses his family. "I would like to act in a series," says Winkler. "It's a wonderful way to earn a living and then go home. You can then go to a PTA meeting or the soccer potluck. You can't miss out on the soccer potluck because there are some incredible desserts. They really go all out on the brownies!" Fonzie would be appalled.
Eve Heyn in New York City and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles