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He's Got a Soft Spot in His Heart for the Fonz

November 06, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Adam Sandler's new comedy, "The Waterboy," which opens today, Henry Winkler stars as a timid coach of an inept college football team who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But his luck changes when he discovers that the team's sweet, naive water boy, Bobby Boucher (Sandler), is an incredible tackler. In turn, Bobby helps the coach believe in himself and his abilities as a coach.

Winkler has two of the film's biggest laughs. In a flashback to the 1970s, he is seen wearing an Afro and high heels. In another scene, he drops his trousers to reveal a tattoo of Roy Orbison on his backside.

Winkler, 53, became an overnight sensation as the ultra-cool, leather-jacketed Fonzie on the 1974-83 ABC comedy series "Happy Days." The Fonz was more than a popular character though; he became an icon. In 1980, he presented the Fonz's leather jacket to the Smithsonian Institution to be placed in an exhibit of other treasures of American pop culture.

The Fonz is a hero as well to a new generation of viewers. The series has continued to thrive in syndication and also as a part of cable's Nick at Nite lineup.

Winkler is also an award-winning producer who received a 1979 Humanitas Prize for producing the Oscar-winning documentary "Who Are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get 19 Kids?"

He also produced the long-running ABC series "MacGyver" and the syndicated series "Sightings." He's currently the producer of the Showtime anthology series "Dead Man's Gun." His latest production, the series "So Weird," debuts in December on the Disney Channel.

The ever-enthusiastic Winkler recently chatted about "Waterboy" and Fonzie's everlasting appeal in his office at MGM.

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Question: Is this the first time you've ever worn an Afro and high heels?

Answer: Oh, absolutely. And they both were difficult in their way. Wearing high heels--my hat is off to the women of the world. I can only imagine what it must be like in stilettos. The Afro itches.

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Q: So was that really you doing the half-monty scene?

A: Ah, well. Let me ask you a question: If you think that was truly a wonderful set of buns, they were mine. Now, it could have been that there was a contest and a young member of the electrical crew won [the chance to do the scene]. That could also be true. It could have been a stunt butt, but it all really truly depends on what you thought.

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Q: Well, you would think that someone who played the Fonz would have Roy Orbison tattooed on his backside.

A: Without a doubt! I used to write incredibly bad poetry to Roy Orbison when I was in high school and junior high. So now I have him there forever!

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Q: Why do I get the feeling that Adam Sandler is a big fan of yours?

A: Yes. As a matter of fact, there is Fonzie memorabilia in the cabinets at Adam's house--eight-track cassettes and other assorted things. I was told he wanted me to come and do this thing and I said fine. My children were ecstatic.

The thing is, to know him [Sandler] is to love him. He's in charge of every element of the movies he makes, of the tours he takes, of the albums he puts out, down to the cutting of commercials.

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Q: You seemed to get a kick out of playing Coach Klein.

A: He is a very dysfunctional guy. But he sees that Bobby Boucher can be great and Bobby Boucher sees in him [greatness] which is a wonderful metaphor for the way we should live our lives.

We did a special on MTV where the whole premise was that the videos they showed were done by people they made fun of [in school], who were not believed in when they were younger and now are massive stars. At the end, [Adam and I] both said, "Don't judge so damn much." It's just that you don't know who you are sitting next to and just because they don't look like you--scratch the surface. Maybe we are at a point now at the end of the 20th century where we can start scratching each other's surface.

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Q: Did you have problems in school?

A: I was completely chasing an image when I was growing up. I was in the bottom 3% of the class academically. It was an all boy's prep school. My American history teacher said: "Winkler, if you ever do get out of here you are going to be great." I was dyslexic. It was a drag and no one knew what it was [then].

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Q: Like the Energizer Bunny, Fonzie's appeal just keeps going and going and going. Nick at Nite airs "Happy Days" and the show is also in syndication. I have a copy of Nick at Nite's "Fonzie Make Out Party" CD. . . .

A: It's a good one.

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Q: I know. And just recently Phoebe's doctor on "Friends" was obsessed with the Fonz. Are you amazed that 15 years after the series went off the air, he's still so big?

A: Is it amazing to me? It's flattering. It's a wonderful thing, I must say.

The children of the children who used to watch are writing me in exactly the same way or stopping me on the street or stopping in an airport with that same "I can't believe you are here" expression.

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