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Henry Winkler is leaving The Fonz far behind

Rick Bentley
Tribune News Service
Henry Winkler stars as acting teacher Gene Cousineau in HBO’s “Barry.”

Few actors can say they have had the kind of success Henry Winkler has had in television. Any argument would end with the mention of The Fonz on “Happy Days,” one of the most iconic characters to ever appear on the small screen.

Along with that role, Winkler has most recently added standout performances in “Arrested Development” and his current series, HBO’s “Barry.” His role of Gene Cousineau in “Barry” earned him his first Primetime Emmy Award after six nominations (including three for his work on “Happy Days”).

“They were both a gift,” Winkler says of his recent comedy jobs. “They asked me to be on ‘Arrested Development’ and I was only supposed to be on it for one or two episodes and I stayed for five years.”

Fonzie from "Happy Days" played by Henry Wrinkler .

Winkler has been with “Barry” from the start playing a pompous yet endearing acting teacher to a contract killer (Bill Hader) who is trying to quit to start a new career as an actor. But making a change doesn’t come easy.

Winkler has been working on TV and film for a half-century, but he was just as nervous when he auditioned for the HBO series as he was in the first part of his career.

“No matter how long you have been doing it, it is hard because you go in and hope you are giving them something in the realm of what they want,” Winkler says. “Then I got the job and here I am just this side of heaven. I get to work with these incredible people. I get to do incredible material. And so many people watch “Barry’ now that we have been picked up for the third year. I love playing this incredible character.”

Had “Barry” creators Hader and Alex Berg stayed with their original plans for Cousineau, Winkler might have missed his chance to play the role. Originally, the acting teacher was a meaner, darker character, but once the producers saw how Winkler was playing the role, they made the role warmer while maintaining some of the original edge. Cousineau tries to be a good acting teacher as long as the students can pay for the classes in cash.

Winkler’s familiar with acting teachers, having had 14 instructors over the years. He’s never had a teacher like Cousineau but has heard horror stories. The one his character is based on was also a painter and would require his students to buy his art. But Winkler credits his teachers with helping him be able to handle roles ranging from being as family-funny as “Happy Days” to as deeply dark as “Barry.”

Henry Winkler

The gratitude Winkler shows isn’t just part of being one of the nicest people in Hollywood. It comes from a reality that even when an actor has found the kind of stardom that comes from playing a role like The Fonz, Hollywood is a fickle place. There was a stretch in the ‘80s when Winkler struggled to find acting jobs because he was typecast by his “Happy Days” work.

Winkler was able to keep busy by concentrating more on being a producer on multiple shows, including the original “MacGyver.” In 2003, Winkler teamed with Lin Oliver to write the children’s book “Hank Zipzer, the World’s Great Underachiever,” the story of a young boy who has dyslexia. The character is based on Winkler’s own childhood experiences. To date, Winkler and Oliver have written 35 books, with the next offering out Oct. 1.

Winning a Primetime Emmy was a major accomplishment for Winkler, but he gets more pleasure and satisfaction out of writing the books for children than winning awards.

“I never thought I could write one book and here we are writing our 35th book,” Winkler says. “I write everyday with Lin and we have just a wonderful time.”

“Barry” can be seen on HBO, HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and other streaming platforms.