In walked The Fonz, his hair gone white, his leather jacket traded for a checkered blazer, his audience the enthusiastic residents of a North Raleigh retirement center, all of whom remember watching “Happy Days” with the aid of rabbit ears.
Not the sort of venue you expect for an actor who, in the 1970s, defined cool.
But as Henry Winkler explained to 200 of his aging fans at The Cardinal at North Hills, coolness comes from deep inside, a place beyond motorcycles and Brylcreem.
“I never felt cool,” said Winkler, 71. “The press, the fans, none of that makes you as cool as the person you really are in life. I define cool by being authentic.”
In dozens of ways, Winkler has reinvented himself after his signature role as Arthur Fonzarelli, whose jacket hangs in the Smithsonian, whose bronze statue stands in Milwaukee.
He produced “MacGyver,” the ’80s action show with a mullet-sporting fix-it hero. He directed Burt Reynolds, who reportedly warned, “If you weren’t so short, I’d rip your head off your neck,” in the movie “Cop and a Half.” He played Dr. Saperstein on “Parks and Recreation,” father to the hilariously inept hipster Jean-Ralphio.
But my favorite diversion, a big hit in the Shaffer household, is his series of children’s books starring Hank Zipzer, the dyslexic but determined protagonist drawn from Winkler’s own youth.
“I was so learning-challenged they had to write my name on my tie,” said Winkler, whose own dyslexia went undiagnosed until adulthood. “I was so learning-challenged, when I looked down, I saw the name ‘Heavy.’ ”
He explained to the crowd at The Cardinal that he did not finish high school with his class in New York. He took geometry four times, twice in summer school, before passing with a D-.
“Since that day in 1963,” he said, “not one human being has said the word ‘hypotenuse’ to me. What the hell were they thinking? ... I cannot spell geometry.”
As a young actor, he fashioned The Fonz as a character who succeeded without trying, who attracted women effortlessly, who could start a jukebox with a fist bump or assemble an engine blindfolded. None of this came from experience. “I was acting out who I wanted to be,” he said. “Not who I was.”
Tuesday’s appearance at The Cardinal marked Winkler’s sixth retirement center appearance. After 40 years, he still gets stopped on the street. A week or two ago, a man selling bowls at a market in Morocco insisted on a picture. Soon, Winkler will travel to Italy in support of the final Hank Zipzer book, but he credits The Fonz for introducing him to the world.
“How great is it?” he asked. “You think you’re stupid. You’re told you’re stupid. You took geometry four times, and you have two items in the Smithsonian?”
Two? I asked.
A “Happy Days” lunchbox, he explained, in addition to the leather jacket.
I asked Winkler if he ever got to show up the people who doubted him, and he said he hadn’t.
His parents, who were not encouraging while he struggled as a child, celebrated his success once he found fame. But by then he didn’t care. He’d needed their support long before. As a father, I thought I might tear up when he urged parents to look at their children as they are – not as they want them to be.
“I am so sorry,” he said, “that kids don’t know that they are not defined by school. They are not defined by grades. They should be defined by how good a citizen they are on the Earth, and how imaginative they are.”