What Henry Winkler Wishes He Knew in His 40s
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What Henry Winkler Wishes He Knew in His 40s

A conversation with the Fonz about how to keep going when it seems like the end

Illustration of Henry Winkler
German Gonzalez

You couldn’t grow up in the ’70s and ’80s without being influenced by the Fonz, our favorite character from Happy Days. He wasn’t just cool, he was the patron saint of cool, a man who embodied everything we longed to become as adults: confident, masculine without being a jerk, a guy who could get what he wanted with the snap of a finger.

Henry Winkler, the man who created him, is now 77 and continues to be a role model for Gen Xers, a guy who shows us how to grow old with grace, class and, yes, seemingly infinite coolness.

With the fourth (and likely final) season of HBO’s Barry on the horizon, I sat down with Winkler to talk about life, self-confidence, football heroes and fishing.

The Arrow: You were about to hit 40 just as Happy Days was coming to an end. If you could go back, what advice would you give the 40-year-old you?

Henry Winkler: Listening will change your life. Giving is the most powerful aphrodisiac in the universe. But the most important thing to work on is your self-image. You are fine. You are good. You are strong. 

At that time, you were probably hearing over and over that you would never get cast again. Everybody only sees you as the Fonz.

HW: I thought my life was over. You have to think of yourself as mercury, and you are on one side of this seemingly seamless wall. And your job is to find the tiniest hole to seep through to get to the other side. It takes a tremendous amount of belief and tenacity and that feeling of I will not be defeated. It’s like a video game. You’ve gone down and there’s a big blockage, and you gotta backtrack and jump over the flower, or whatever it is.

Look at you, dropping video game references.

HW: And I don’t really play! I have played the same video game, called Zuma, for 40 years. Same game, all 12 levels. I end it, I start it again. I am never bored.

In a 1994 interview, you claimed that for most of your career, you were “intimidated by everybody.” Is that true?

HW: Absolutely. It’s about knowing that you know stuff, and yet denying that you’re capable, denying that you’re an equal, always thinking somebody knows more than you or is better at this than you. And there’s no truth to that. You are really a good energy on the earth.

Overcoming that kind of self-doubt is huge.

HW: Because it’s destructive, it’s crippling. This is not about becoming an egotist or self-centered. Your sense of self is the center of your life. And if that is damaged, even though it seems like everything is going well, it’s being held up by cotton. Imagine your life as a building, one or two of the cornerstones are cotton. And when it rains, the puffball becomes squished. It cannot hold up. It’s the corner of your building. [Laughs.] Man, I am so poetic. It’s just killing me. 

Can we talk about when you met your idol, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes?

HW: That was one of the great sports moments of my life. When I hugged him and touched his arm, there’s no body fat. It’s just rock. Like rock. He’s got a game to play, and here he is chatting with me. He turned to run back to the field, but then he came back and said, “You know, I’m gonna keep you to that dinner,” because I promised him a chicken dinner. I thought that was the way to entice him to my house. A chicken stuffed with spinach and ricotta.

You also seem to get great joy out of fishing. I love the photos you post on social media, standing in a river holding up a freshly caught trout. When did you first start fly fishing?

HW: My first trip was back in 1985. My wonderful lawyer took [my wife] Stacey and I on a trip. I didn’t catch a thing but, no pun intended, I was hooked. 

That's the beauty of fishing. It’s just as much about the process.

HW: I’m more aggressive than that actually, inside. I’d rather not just have my line out. I’d actually like to catch the fish.

I should have known that from all your posts, that you always have something in your hand. It's never about just the beautiful sunset.

HW: Everybody’s got a sunset, but not everybody’s got a beautiful brown.

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