The Fonz was known for his leather jacket, but these days Henry Winkler dons a different kind of costume, in a different kind of comedy.
There's nothing cool about the tacky white suit he wears as Chuck Wood, a past-his-prime porn star trying to seduce a wholesome teacher (Alicia Silverstone) and pitted against the uber-fit "Mandrew" (played by the abs-tastic Cheyenne Jackson) at a porn industry awards ceremony, in "The Performers," a new, outrageously lewd comedy at the Longacre Theatre, which opens Nov. 14.
Winkler, whose 40-year career spans film (most recently "Here Comes the Boom") and TV ("Royal Pains"), is best known as beloved greaser Arthur Fonzarelli, who doled out advice and punch lines to Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) on the '70s sitcom "Happy Days." Unless you're a teen or college type, and know him from the Emmy-winning short-format series "Children's Hospital" on the Adult Swim network. Or between the age of 7 and 12, in which case you know him as the author of 23 children's novels (with collaborator Lin Oliver), including the "Hank Zipzer" and "Ghost Buddy" series, which deal with dyslexia and bullying (issues Winkler knows about from experience).
A recipient of an Order of the British Empire (OBE), he lives with his wife and two dogs in Los Angeles, and recently spoke with Newsday.
So . . . should I be calling you SIR Henry?
Well, you don't have to call me "Sir," but you cannot look me in the eye.
Got it. The language in "The Performers" is pretty, um . . . colorful. Are you worried what your fans might think?
That's a good question. My wife asked me that. But I've never made a choice based on my fans. If I do that, I'll cut my imagination in half. Being as dyslexic as I am, I'm completely visceral and instinctual, and every decision I've made has always been based on my stomach. It's worked out pretty well so far.
What have you learned about the porn industry?
There's so much out there about porn, and people bring that with them into the theater. What's interesting is that we're all the same. It doesn't matter if you're an investment banker, a registered nurse . . . or a porn star. The language may be less colorful, but the emotion is the same.
The bodies are a little different, too.
There are easily 15 to 17 human beings lying in a corner somewhere because they never got a body -- Cheyenne got it all. [He laughs.] And inside that body is a thoughtful . . . emotional . . . talented man. You know . . . I . . . I have the same body -- I really do. You just need an X-ray to find it.
So, how did you get this citation from the queen?
For five years I've toured schools in the U.K., telling children, "Yes, I'm an actor, a husband, a father. I'm a director, a producer and have written these books . . . yet I'm in the bottom 3 percent academically in America." That perks them up.
How does your dyslexia manifest itself?
Reading cold is very difficult for me. Spelling is out of the question. When I'd buy a piece of pizza and paid, I had no idea how much change to get. I had to just . . . pray everybody was honest. When I was growing up, people didn't know about . . . children who learned differently. When my stepson was in third grade, we had him tested, and everything they said about him was true about me. And so I was 31 when I found out that I . . . was not stupid.
How do you write with dyslexia?
I walk around Lin's office talking . . . Lin does the typing. Then, Lin has an idea, types, reads it back, and we argue over every word. In "Ghost Buddy," the ghost came out as Fonzie, and the boy, Billy Broccoli, came out as Richie. So it's this relationship between two unlikely people who would never be friends, yet who find they can literally help each other.
Ahhh. "Happy Days." Do you recall your audition?
I'd just arrived in California -- I only had enough money for a month. I auditioned at Paramount Studios, and every actor in the room was somebody I'd seen on TV. And me! I had six lines. I don't know where I got the nerve, but I threw the script in the air when I was done and sauntered out as the character . . . [Paramount] called a week and a half later and offered me the part.
Yes. Jones Beach, Oyster Bay, Lloyd Harbor. Those towns have great Main Streets. But my very first job was doing summer theater at the John Drew Theater in East Hampton. All the actors lived together in a house on Montauk Highway.
Good gig -- beach by day, acting by night.
I can't . . . even . . . tell you. Going to the beach by day . . . my social life was . . . a 10.