When comedy classic Happy Days started out in 1974, its then-minor character of Fonzie could very well be classified as a common 1950s neighborhood tough guy.
By the show’s third season, Fonzie was practically a cultural icon, which was great news for actor Henry Winkler.
Unfortunately the character of Fonzie himself retained less and less of the edge that fans originally loved about him, as Winkler himself said.
Fonzie blossomed into an enormous character
Nothing could have prepared the Happy Days cast for the success the show would enjoy. Or for the way the character of Fonzie would capture viewers’ imaginations.
Actor Marion Ross who portrayed Marion Cunningham on the series wrote in her memoir My Days: Happy and Otherwise, “[The fans] would line up for hours before being escorted into Stage Nineteen and would just go crazy when, before we began taping, [executive producer Garry Marshall] would welcome them and introduce the cast members.
“We were all received with love and warmth, but it was a completely different thing when it came to Henry. It was like Beatlemania, with all these young girls screaming and going wild.”
The Fonz was supposed to be a tough guy
Winkler told the Archive of American Television that Fonzie was described to him originally as a “tough guy,” and so he played him that way.
“He was tough, you know a tough guy,” he said. “He was someone that Garry Marshall grew up with in the Bronx.”
The actor found out he had been picked for the role on, of all days, his birthday. [Producer] Tom Miller called and said ‘Would you like to play the character?’ and I said, ‘If you let me show his emotional side, it would be my pleasure.'”
Fonzie, Winkler revealed, was his “alter-ego. He was everybody I wasn’t. I was a bowl of jelly in my life, not very confident. He was in charge, he was confident. He was everybody that I ever wanted to have some part of in my body. I made him loyal to his friends. I think there was also a tremendous underlying anger.”
Winkler said ultimately Fonzie grew less and less tough
Considering that the show ran 11 seasons, it’s expected that each character would develop and change throughout the course of the series. Richie Cunningham left home, Joanie grew up and fell in love with Chachi, and as for the Fonz, Winkler said he also did some growing up.
“I think he straightened out too much in the end,” Winkler said. “He became a teacher, settled down. I changed my T-shirt from white to black, back again. But I think, basically, he stayed the same.”
Asked where Fonzie would be today, the actor born on Manhattan’s West Side in 1945 simply said “He would be Mr. Goodwrench. He would own a chain.”