When the Classic TV series Happy Days premiered 45 years ago, it was centered around Ron Howard‘s Richie Cunningham and his family and friends. Very much on the periphery of all of that was the “cool kid” in the neighborhood, Henry Winkler‘s Fonzie, who the other characters needed to approach cautiously. But then the audience fell in love with the Fonz, elevating Henry to superstar status and shifting things to the growing friendship between the two characters which, in many ways, reflected the one established between the actors that lasts to this day.
This is actually more unusual than you’d think. Oftentimes over the course of television history, the rise of a secondary character can cause tension with the leading actor and could very well tear their show apart. Nothing could be further from the truth when it came to Happy Days, which was being celebrated at the Garry Marshall Theatre Founder’s Gala honoring the cast.
In an exclusive interview with Closer Weekly, Henry addressed the subject of finding himself in the spotlight in the way that he suddenly did. “It’s unnatural,” he says. “The human condition does not prepare you for stardom. That’s just the way it is. So you have to hold on to yourself and then you’ve got friends like Ron who doesn’t take it at all seriously. I learned from him; he was my teacher. And [producer] Garry Marshall never took bad behavior from anybody. He was a father figure. He was very funny and very idiosyncratic, and then he was very strict.”
As the conversation switches to the connection between the characters and the actors themselves, both Henry and Ron are happy to reflect on it. “We were fast friends from the beginning,” says Ron — who is now a director and, before Happy Days, one of the stars of The Andy Griffith Show. “And it continues all these years later. It was exciting for me to work with Henry, because he was really a trained actor who attended Yale Drama School; just a trained New York actor. And I’d grown up sort of through the Hollywood television system, so for me to work with this guy who was so thoughtful, so creative and yet so hilarious, was really an opportunity for me to learn and grow and we just clicked, you know?”
For his part, Henry, a recent Emmy winner for his supporting role on HBO’s Barry, explains, “I think people gravitate to the Fonzie/Richie their relationship, because Ron and I are 10 years apart. He was 18 and I was 27. We had a connection that you cannot describe in real life. And it was similar off-camera. He gave me my first mitt; I’d never played baseball before. He’s my brother.”
Adds Ron, “I think the dynamic of the on-screen relationship was great, because I was sort of the every man, with my own set of virtues, but plenty of fears and anxiety, and being exposed to the Fonzie character was so liberating. Sort of a combination of what the two characters could give each other was pretty unique.”
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