The Exact Moment Henry Winkler Stopped Being the Fonz

When the world wouldn’t cast Winkler, Adam Sandler set him free
The Exact Moment Henry Winkler Stopped Being the Fonz

A breakout role like the Fonz is what every young comic actor aspires to. But once an actor becomes identified with an iconic TV character, it can be a prison that is nearly impossible to escape. "There were eight or nine years at a time when I couldn't get hired because I was The Fonz,” he told TODAY, “because I was typecast." 

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“I had psychic pain that was debilitating because I didn't know what to do,” Winkler says of an acting career tethered to Fonzie. “I didn't know where to find it, whatever it was, I didn't know what I was going to do. I had a family. I had a dog. I had a roof. Oh. My. God.”

His pal Ron Howard cast him as the lead in 1982’s Night Shift, a role that was a direct contrast to Fonzarelli. Chuck Lumley was timid whereas the Fonz was supremely confident. Lumley was a loser with women who probably couldn’t start a jukebox with a quarter. It’s easy to see why Winkler was eager to play the part, but the movie only did so-so at the box office — and everyone's attention was focused on Michael Keaton’s motormouthed Bill Blazejowski. Instead of reimagining Winkler as a comedic leading man, Night Shift rendered him invisible.

The next few years saw Winkler producing (his company was behind MacGyver), but his best roles were playing himself on The Larry Sanders Show and in M.C. Hammer videos. In 1998, he was cast in a thriller about an air traffic controller (much more exciting than actually piloting the plane) called Ground Control. In his new autobiography, Being Henry: The Fonz… and Beyond, Winkler calls it “the worst movie ever made by human beings.”

Yeesh. But at least one fortuitous event happened during the disastrous filming. “The best thing about Ground Control was that one day during the shoot, I went to the men’s room, and as I was washing my hands my agent called and said that Adam Sandler would like me to play the coach in The Waterboy.”

Winkler didn’t know Sandler all that well, calling him once to say thanks for including Arthur Fonzarelli in his “Chanukah Song.” That led to invites to Sandler’s pick-up basketball games (though Winkler mainly watched from the sidelines) and eventually, the fateful call.

The Waterboy was the best thing I did for a long time,” Winkler says in Being Henry. “By which I mean I completely enjoyed working in what turned out to be an excellent—and very successful—Adam Sandler movie, and what came next for me was … whatever I could get.” 

That’s right — Winkler still wasn’t in ultra-high demand. But The Waterboy reintroduced Winkler to the world as a comic character actor, a guy who could be someone, anyone else besides Arthur Fonzarelli. Coach Klein meant more parts for Winkler in Sandler (and Sandler-adjacent) movies: Little Nicky, Click, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, and Here Comes the Boom. Sitcom and animation guest spots abounded.

Coach Klein allowed producers to imagine a world where Barry Zuckercorn inhabits the Arrested Development universe. It allowed Bill Hader to envision a Barry in which Winkler wins Emmy Awards for playing Gene Cousineau. 

Finally, Winkler was free of the Fonz. Don’t believe it? Look up “Henry Winkler” on IMDb. His “Known For” doesn’t lead with Happy Days — it lists his primary credit as The Waterboy

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