‘Happy Days’: Why Henry Winkler Turned Down ‘Grease’

Henry Winkler played Fonzie, the most famous greaser on television and he almost played Danny Zuko, the most famous greaser in the history of movies. However, Winkler turned down the lead role in Grease for a very specific reason. In addition, he’s opened up about his feelings toward Grease’s lead actor, John Travolta.

Harry Winkler of Happy Days in a leather jacket in a promo image. He turned down Grease.
Henry Winkler | Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Henry Winkler reveals how turning down ‘Grease’ affected his career

Firstly, some background. Happy Days had been on television for a few seasons by the time Grease made it to theaters. In that time, Winkler made a name for himself playing a cartoonish greaser. It would have made sense for Winkler to star in Grease, a movie with a setting and style of humor similar to that of Happy Days. However, Winkler didn’t want the role.

“I turned down the lead role in Grease,” He told AARP Magazine. “Didn’t want to be typecast. But you’re typecast anyway. And it’s not now that I’m, like, ‘Oh, I should’ve done the role.’ It’s that I turned it down intellectually instead of instinctually. Listen to your gut — it knows everything. Your head knows only some things. So I went home and had an orange juice. Travolta went home and bought a plane.”

Henry Winkler on The Rachel Ray Show

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In a separate interview on The Rachel Ray Show, Winkler gave more insight into why he turned down the role of Danny. He said he was able to dance well but he couldn’t sing. In addition, he felt Travolta deserved to be in Grease.

How ‘Grease’ changed for John Travolta’s sake

According to the book Grease Is the Word: Exploring a Cultural Phenomenon, Travolta wanted the role of Danny for some time. He actually played Doddy, a small role, in the stage version of Grease. At the time, he was too young to pull off the role of Danny. Travolta initially wanted the film adaptation of Grease to retain the edginess of the stage show, however, he ultimately decided the film would perform better at the box office if it wasn’t controversial. Given the 1970s produced controversial box office hits like The Exorcist, Deep Throat, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it’s not clear Travolta’s reasoning was correct.

“You’re the One That I Want” from Grease

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Travolta’s casting in the film led the film’s creator to alter it to fit him. Rather than the movie being an ensemble piece like the stage musical, it was re-written to focus more on a central love story between Danny and Sandy. The changes worked commercially, with Box Office Mojo reporting Grease earned $159 million against a budget of $6 million.

What Henry Winkler said about John Travolta

So does Winkler have any ill-will towards Travolta after the success of Grease? On The Rachel Ray Show, Winkler said they’ve known each other since Winkler began acting on television and get along well. He said the press tried to make it seem like they had issues with each other but they did not. In addition, Winkler called Travolta a “lovely, lovely, man.”