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Could anyone wear his fame more comfortably than Henry Winkler?

Henry Winkler’s smile is the smile of an old friend seeing you for the first time in years, or a smile of sincere affection for an unexpected new friend, or a smile that nudges into a laugh. It’s a smile so warm and real that you hate yourself for wondering how any human can generate such feeling, a dozen times a day, for 50 years of public life.

And yet, there was that smile again, at 8 in the morning, in Rosemont.

You see it in a hotel Starbucks, where Winkler commands a small crowd despite the hour; they stare in awe of him, as if a 12-point buck just wandered in. You see it over breakfast in a hotel restaurant, which, for Winkler, means a sip of coffee, a taste of food, then a stranger approaching cautiously to ask for a picture, telling him he was their entire childhood, again and again. You see it waiting for a table at the hostess counter.

A long slender man in jogging clothes turned offhandedly and noticed Winkler and turned back in a double take and interrupted what Winkler was saying and exclaimed:

“Henry!”

“Oh! Kiefer! Hello!” Winkler replied to Kiefer Sutherland, who, like Winkler, was also in town for a few days, doing one of those fan convention autograph marathon gauntlets. They chatted a bit and Sutherland apologized for “Ground Control,” a 1998 film with Sutherland and Winkler in a small role — there’s a good reason you’ve never heard of it.

Winkler waved off the apology, and they agreed to plan to catch up soon. “‘Ground Control,’” Winkler said to me later, “worst movie made by a human being. But look at that — Kiefer Sutherland! A lovely actor. I am so excited by that!”

Winkler understands the effect he has on people, yet wholeheartedly reserves the right to gush over others, all the time. In his new memoir, “Being Henry: The Fonz… and Beyond,” he writes about meeting Joaquin Phoenix once at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Phoenix said, “I can’t believe I’m meeting you,” and Winkler replied, “You can’t believe you’re meeting me?” To the hostess, he said: “How are you? Lots of obstetricians in the hotel today.”

“Opticians,” she corrected. “But so nice to see you.”

“I’m Henry,” he said.

“Well, yes… I know,” she said. “Having a good time in Chicago?”

Unbelievable time,” he said, big smile.

At our table, the waiter asked if Winkler would like coffee. Winkler asked where the man is from. Bangladesh, the man said. “Nice!” Winkler said.

“Far away,” the man said.

“And the flooding,” Winkler added.

“Right now, yes.”

“Your family is fine?”

“My family is here!”

“Oh, well — good!”

On and on like that, all day long. Winkler’s voice carries a melodious New York City working-class lack of presumption and flows without many staccato thoughts or half-completed sentences, and almost never ends with a negative thought. Years ago, he told himself to never let a negative idea sit in his head. “Remove it any way you can,” he told me, “‘I don’t have time for you,’ ‘I don’t want you in my life,’ and that changes your whole countenance, then you get to be here, having breakfast, this morning, right now.”

In fact, though I would normally never write this about a famous person, should you see Winkler in public — and he will be in Chicago this week, for his book release and a sold-out appearance at the Chicago Humanities Festival — you should introduce yourself. He actually likes meeting new people. When we met for breakfast, he said he just ran into Christie Brinkley’s agent, “who was at William Morris when I started. I met a woman at the medical convention at the hotel. And a woman who started law school at 50. I met a doctor whose 9-year-old daughter is like me, dyslexic. That was just at Starbucks.”

A woman approached our table and said, smiling, “oh my god!

“I’m Henry,” he said.

“And I am shaking,” she said. “All these opticians … does Henry Winkler need glasses?”

“I do!”

“Nice to meet you! I’ll see what I can do!”

Henry Winkler poses for a photo with a few fans at Loews Chicago O'Hare Hotel on Aug. 13, 2023, in Rosemont.

Fame has not always been like this, but since the mid-1970s, it’s often been like this. In his memoir, he describes a publicity event in Dallas for “Happy Days,” the TV series that made him as culturally ubiquitous during the 1970s as disco and “Star Wars.” He was there with his co-stars, Ron Howard, Donny Most, Anson Williams, when a crowd of 20,000 blocked their limo. He had made a rule for himself to never summon the tough-guy cool of his character, Fonzie, but here, as Fonzie, he yelled: “You are going to part like the Red Sea!” Then, not unlike how Fonzie controlled electronics with the bump of a fist, the crowd parted — until one teen, watching Winkler closely, yelled, “He’s so short!”

Winkler wheeled around: “(Expletive) you, I’m not short.”

Henry Winkler is nice but he is not made of wood. He told me, “I went with instinct. Ron and everyone were scared. It gets claustrophobic. But I’m dyslexic, I go with instinct.”

These days, when he’s recognized by anyone younger than Generation X, it’s for being in Adam Sandler flicks; for being murdered in the first “Scream” movie; for playing Dr. Lu Saperstein on “Parks and Recreation” (he delivered most of the cast’s fictional babies); for playing administrator Sy Mittleman on the cult comedy “Children’s Hospital”; for playing Barry Zuckerkorn, the worst lawyer alive on “Arrested Development.” And of course, for embodying a needy, has-been acting coach on HBO’s “Barry,” the role that finally, in 2018, after a few acting nominations across many years, landed him an Emmy.

Indeed, those are the poles of his creative life — “Happy Days” at one end, “Barry” at the other, separated by 45 years, many forgettable TV movies and the pang of typecasting. He began playing Fonzie in his mid-20s and left the role when he was in his mid-30s. He’s 77 now. He says that when “Happy Days” was canceled, he didn’t have a plan B.

For decades he feared he’d been typecast beyond employment. He became a curious kind of cultural royalty, indelible, endearing, but without a vast, austere body of work. That can be hard for an actor who made it the through Yale University’s School of Drama. Some actors recede into roles. It took Winkler a long time to acknowledge that whomever he plays, the Fonz lurks. He embodied the Fonz so completely that there’s a statue in downtown Milwaukee, the Bronze Fonz; it’s not a statue of Winkler, yet it is. There’s a lot that’s bad about that, but also, these days, a bunch that’s good. In the past decade, the Fonz became a layer to Winkler’s roles, there but no longer the only thing there. He notes a smidge of who he was — and the recognition that an audience knows.

“It took me until now to do the TV I’m doing,” he said. “I couldn’t have done something like ‘Barry’ back then. I was not authentic — to be perfectly honest. I knew who I thought I should be but I am only now comfortable with who I am. And it is so frustrating that it’s taken me 40 years. All the cliches: ‘I wish I knew then,’ ‘I wasted time.’ It was wonderful then, but I am so neurotic the best times were marred by the angst of who I wasn’t yet.”

At the peak of his fame in the late 1970s, he turned down the role of Danny Zuko in the film version of “Grease.” He didn’t want to be typecast as a greaser. Today, he said, “I would just see it as work and I would do it.” But it stings. He turned down the part and went home and had a ginger ale, he said. “John Travolta went home and bought a 747.”

The woman who asked about eyeglasses returned to our table. She had put down her coffee, forgot it, the cup got cold. “Well, now you don’t have to blow,” Winkler said.

“Haven’t heard that in a while,” the woman said with a wink.

Winkler slapped the table, laughed and turned to me: “Now did you think that would come out of that woman? Make people comfortable, you learn so much about them!”

He asks strangers where they are from, what they did before they do what they do now. He is friendly but speedy and grimly serious when asked about acting. Any fleeting hint of annoyance gets softened with verbal word balloons like “Yowie!” and “Holy moly!” And when strangers talk to him, their faces soften, they stare, because, though the word “iconic” gets abused, Winkler is so iconic, if you were a kid in the 1970s, he was not a man but a plastic doll, a T-shirt, a magazine cover, a board game and a lunch box.

The irony being, the man is more interesting, a paradox of resolve and timidity.

His parents were Jewish refugees of Nazi Germany, and as his book makes clear, tyrannical toward him, and he was not a fan of either of them. He has since co-authored, with Lin Oliver, more than three dozen children’s books, most with strong empowerment themes, including the popular Hank Zipzer stories about a dyslexic child. But for a long time — until recently — he saw himself as second-rate. As a young actor in Hollywood in 1973, he worked out of a friend’s office to use the phone and scrounge for acting jobs, sometimes pretending to be speaking to agents, so he didn’t look like a failure. Yet he was auditioning for Fonzie only a month after moving to Los Angeles.

“I was defined by working,” he told me. “I didn’t have enough self to wait and quell the anxiety. I was nobody, I was nothing, and I grew only half an inch with every new job.”

Henry Winkler at Loews Chicago O'Hare Hotel on Aug. 13, 2023, in Rosemont.

Still, despite being a young actor offered a big break, he had the self-worth to insist Fonzie show vulnerability, and even sadness, before accepting the role. In an early Christmas episode, Fonzie is caught in a lie by his surrogate family the Cunninghams: He insists he has family to spend the holiday with, then they find him home alone, cooking for one. But as the character became a monolith, ennui was quickly abandoned for a near-paranormal control of jukeboxes and, infamously, the ability to jump sharks. Even his catchphrase, “Ayyyyyy,” was less organic than a response to Jimmie Walker and “Good Times” turning “DY-NO-MITE” into stiff competition for “Happy Days.”

As his star rose, family cashed in with quickie paperbacks. Yale — initially snotty toward his sitcom work — asked for money. Most painfully, being Fonzie meant becoming an albatross to coworkers who lived in the shadow of his wingspan. Read any “Happy Days”-related memoir and they all say the same: They loved Henry but they hated the focus on Fonzie. ABC wanted to rename the show “Fonzie’s Happy Days” and when Christmas came, the network gave the entire cast wallets — except Winkler, who got the latest home tech, a VCR. “I found out from Ron how he felt,” Winkler said. “I remember thinking how stupid I was. How insensitive! It was ultimately great for him because that treatment became the impetus to become a director. And to change the name! People would be hurt. An acting ensemble like that depends on keeping cohesion at all costs.”

Decades later, Winkler is so attuned to the shifting fortunes of fame and acting that, as he writes in his book, he has a small speech ready to capitalize on his name, should he lose everything: “I could roll up to somebody’s house and say, ‘Hi, it’s Henry Winkler, I know this is crazy, but do you have leftovers?’ … I have literally plotted out that scenario.”

When our breakfast ended, we stood and Christopher Lloyd approached Winker and hugged him. Then the great character actor Danny Trejo approached. Random as this sounds, it’s not when you’re Henry Winkler. Everyone took pictures with him. Next, a mother and son. Then a stranger walked by and said: “I love your outfit!” Winkler, wearing lime green pants and a bright plaid sports jacket, replied: “I love color!”

Henry Winkler with Christopher Lloyd at the Loews Chicago O'Hare Hotel, Aug. 13, 2023, in Rosemont. The actors were in town for Fan Expo Chicago.

The more he did this, greeting friends and strangers — a kind of receiving line that never ends — the more I assumed he was schooled in improv. He dabbled. But what Second City does, he told me, no way. He once got on stage at an improv night with “Parks and Recreation” co-star Ben Schwartz and “I was so far over my head. We were on different continents. He’s brilliant, and I wanted to know how to melt into the wall.”

There, another paradox: Two of his best moments as an actor were improvised. In his first “Arrested Development” episode, he surreptitiously nudges pastries into his briefcase. In his best movie, “Night Shift,” in 1982, directed by Ron Howard, co-starring Michael Keaton, Winkler runs out of cash and change for an insistent subway saxophone player and begins writing checks. Both of those bits were unscripted.

Winkler works best in the moment.

The next morning, at the autograph convention, I found him in front of his table at least 40 minutes before he was scheduled. Every other famous name — Susan Sarandon across from him, Peter “RoboCop” Weller beside him — sat behind their tables, receiving fans during set hours. Winkler stood and approached each fan in turn. His line was never the longest, but it was the steadiest, and his smile was definitely the biggest.

“Being Henry Winkler” is 8 p.m. Nov. 4 at Francis W. Parker School, 330 W. Webster Ave. as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, with Winkler talking with D’Arcy Carden about his life, career and new memoir “Being Henry: The Fonz … and Beyond”; more information at www.chicagohumanities.org

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com


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