winkler becomes the fonz -- 11/17/23

Today's selection -- from Being Henry: The Fonz . . . and Beyond by Henry Winkler. The unknown and struggling actor Henry Winkler auditions for the life-changing part of the Fonz:

“It was the biggest audition of my life, and the sweat stains under my arms weren't just clearly visible, they were a cry for help. 

“I was in an office at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles. It was a sunny Tuesday morning in October 1973. About a dozen people were in the room, all of them seated except for me and one guy, the person I was supposed to read with. He, I would later learn, was a casting assistant named Pasquale. Seated on a couch were (I would later learn) the producers Garry Marshall, Tom Miller, and Ed Milkis, along with Garry's sister Ronny. Paramount's casting director Millie Gussie sat behind a large and impressive wooden desk. I believe several other important people were in the room, though I couldn't tell you for sure. 

“I was in an altered state. 

“I smiled. ‘Hi, how are you?’ I said. Blank looks from the people behind the table. 

“‘Okay, honesty is the best policy,’ I said. ‘So I'm just gonna tell you that the sweat under my arms is running like the Hudson River. These sweat stains under my arms are in direct correlation to the fear that is running through my body.’

“This drew faint smiles from the people who were there to assess me--but they had an expectant look about them. It was time for me to do what I was there to do. I had a couple of script pages in my hands (my palms were also good and sweaty): I had six lines to read. The show, titled Happy Days, was to revolve around a group of wholesome high school kids in 1950s Milwaukee. The character I was reading was the group's one renegade. His name was Arthur Fonzarelli, aka the Fonz. 

Happy Days theme song

“This Fonz was supposed to be a knockabout guy, a man of few words, rough around the edges. Confident. A guy who could make things happen with a snap of his fingers. Someone his fellow teenagers would listen to and obey unquestioningly. If this wasn't the diametric opposite of who I was in the fall of 1973, it was pretty close. I was twenty-seven years old, soon to turn twenty-eight, a short Jew from New York City with a unibrow and hair down to my shoulders, confident about next to nothing in my life. 

“The one exception was when I was acting. 

“When I was on a stage, playing someone else, I was transported to another world, one where pretending made you successful. What I was miserable at was being myself. 

“I thought I had a vague idea how to play this Fonzarelli. I rustled the papers and cleared my throat. And somehow, at that moment, terrified as I was, I was able to make a firm decision. I decided that I was going to make this guy who was standing up and reading with me--Pasquale, though I didn't know his name yet--sit down. The force of my character's personality would give him no choice. 

“How was I going to accomplish this? I had no clue. 

“He read his first line. Something about how he'd been talking to the girls, trying to persuade the girls to come to this make-out party. Then I opened my mouth, and something very odd happened. What came out was a voice that was not mine. One I'd never heard or used before, deeper and lower in my chest than my regular speaking voice. Assured. Authoritative. Rough around the edges. I pointed at Pasquale. ‘Ayyy,’ I said. 

“I had his full attention. 

"’Let me do it from now on,’ I ordered him, in that voice. ‘You don't talk to the girls. You have me talk to the girls.’

“He was backing up involuntarily.

"’Got it?’ I said. In that voice. 

“Now Pasquale was slowly lowering himself into a chair. I'm not sure he even realized he was. Now he was sitting down. Instead of reading his line, he just nodded. Silently. 

“Then I was done. That was it. I beamed at the people behind the table, tossed my script in the air, and sauntered out of the room, like the badass I was pretending to be."



Henry Winkler


Being Henry: The Fonz . . . and Beyond


Celadon Books


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