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TELEVISION : A Little to the Right This Time : Henry Winkler has longtime credentials as a Hollywood liberal, but in his new series, "Monty," he plays a Limbaugh-like talk-show pundit. Will conservative views get a fair shake, or is Monty TV's next liberal goat?

January 09, 1994|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer.

Looking relieved to be playing his own age, someone he does not have to hold his stomach muscles tight for, Henry Winkler, 48, stands in a cold, cavernous, nearly empty sound stage in Hollywood at lunch break, doing a promotional interview for Fox Television's "Monty." That's the former Fonz's new comedy series, in which he plays a brash right-wing talk-show host who sees himself as "the conscience of America" and whose credo--"I'm right. I'm right. I'm right. Shut up! " -- he'll turn into a book. Sort of a Rush-Limbaugh-in-waiting.

But Monty Richardson, whose platform is a small cable station on New York's Long Island in the middle of media nowhere, has no army of boosting "dittoheads." Instead, this "Archie Bunker of the '90s," as Winkler sees him, becomes a lightning rod for his equally outspoken family, whose views on hot-button political and social issues tend to be (gasp!) liberal. He gets as good as he gives. Even the set of his program, "Rightspeak," isn't exactly a safe house. Sure there's Clifford, the resident sycophant (Tom McGowan), who is a dead ringer for the real Limbaugh, but Monty's foil is Rita Simon (Joyce Guy), whom he exaggeratedly introduces as "my African American producer" when the color of her skin is quite obvious. She, in turn, easily retorts, "Thank you, 'white boy,' " drawing little quotes with her fingers.

The soft-spoken Winkler explains that Monty went to the station when his public-relations job in a defense plant was eliminated. "They gave him a talk show," says Winkler, executive producer of the series along with creator Marc Lawrence (screenwriter and co-producer of "Life With Mikey" and a writer of "Family Ties"). Suddenly, Winkler, a longstanding liberal Democrat who campaigned for President Clinton, is Monty. "Now there is no stopping him," he proclaims in the promo for the series, which debuts Tuesday at 8 p.m. "Donahue, watch out. Oprah is on her last legs. Monty is coming!"

There is a perverse, against-the-grain pattern to the roles Winkler has undertaken on series television. For 10 seasons--1974-84--he was the Fonz, creating a character who became an American pop cultural icon and making himself a fortune. So identified was he as Arthur (Fonzie) Fonzarelli on ABC-TV's "Happy Days" that you didn't realize how different Winkler was: Son of wealthy German Jewish refugee parents who thought he would make a fine diplomat, he was educated at private schools in Manhattan and Switzerland, then later graduated from Emerson College in Boston and got a master's degree from the Yale School of Drama.

The role may have submerged him to such a degree that he now says that for years he thought of himself as "younger brother," even with TV and movie executives his age. "I had to rip that little boy away and replace him," Winkler confides, grabbing a private moment in the makeup room, surrounded by mirrors. "I mean I was a dad now. I was a mature human being. I had to start thinking-- no, I had to start feeling --in those terms."

So the actor, who had done the movies "Heroes" and "Night Shift," became an executive, co-producing "MacGyver," directing movies like "Cop and a Half" and starring in TV movies.

Winkler insists he has no regrets. The leather jacket wound up in the Smithsonian while the Fonz, he says, "changed my life."

"It was a steppingstone, a foundation; I traveled everywhere because of him. He gave me tremendous pleasure. There are no downsides, no downsides."

In 1978, Winkler took on instant fatherhood with his marriage to Stacey Weitzman (who had a son, Jed, now a "Saturday Night Live" production assistant, from her first marriage, to criminal attorney Howard L. Weitzman). The Winklers--she is a commissioner with the Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services--have since had two children of their own, Zoe, 13, and Max, 10.

At President Clinton's inauguration, Winkler learned just how potent Fonzie, still seen on Nickelodeon and in 126 countries, is. As the actor related recently on "The Tonight Show," someone tapped him on the shoulder, asking for his autograph. "I said, 'Well, sir, I don't usually do that.' And I turned around and I said, 'But for you it would be an honor.' " It was former hostage Terry Anderson, who told him: "You and your show kept us going."

So why would Winkler choose "Monty" as his series comeback? In his production office on the Warner Bros. Hollywood lot, gazing at a framed photo of himself and Hillary Rodham Clinton, he answers matter-of-factly: "I need to play a larger-than-life character. The Fonz is a large character, but that's who I am. I can't just play the dad."

The character--perhaps even Winkler himself--is a nice intersect with Limbaugh, whose combination of self-confidence and talent created his own larger-than-life talk-show persona. Limbaugh, however, is saying little about "Monty."

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