Henry Winkler on Helping Stroke Victims, Lost and Jumping the Shark

Henry Winkler is probably better known to you as Arthur Fonzarelli, the Happy Days character that shot the Shakespearean-trained actor to fame in the 1970s. But Winkler hasn't been The Fonz for a while. In 1996 he had a comeback with a cameo role as the high school principal in the horror film Scream, and later appeared in a number of Adam Sandler movies.

More recently, he starred on the much-beloved show Arrested Development as a bumbling lawyer, he's been on South Park, The Simpsons and Family Guy, and now he's in New York filming recurring roles for the new USA series Royal Pains, about a young doctor-for-hire. And, he's also the author of a series of children's books.

Tomorrow, Winkler -- who does heavy charity work with the Special Olympics, Toys for Tots and the Epilepsy Foundation among others -- will speak at the Houston Abilities Expo as part of a workshop on treatments for Upper Limb Spasticity, a little-known condition his mother developed after she had a stroke.

We talked to him yesterday about his time serving as his mother's caretaker, his multi-generational fanbase, the nature of television and his iconic pop culture status.

Art Attack: I know you've been to Texas. Have you been to Houston before?

Henry Winkler: The last time I was in Houston I was there to speak to 600 teachers about Hank Zipzer, the World's Greatest Underachiever.

AA: This is your children's series, right?

HW: Yeah, that I wrote with my partner Lynn. We were there and I think we signed like 1,200 books. That was through Scholastic Visiting Authors. We met teachers and they were fantastic.

AA: Tell us about the conference that you're coming to speak at in Houston.

HW: I get to talk to the medical staff, the caregivers, the actual clients and stroke victims about my story, which is watching my mother not having the access to therapeutic use of Botox for stroke victims. I saw with my own eyes, it's overwhelmingly amazing.

I met a man who had a stroke for 50 years, he had it when he was a little boy, and for the first time in his life, his palm is open. It's not a cure, but what it does is releases the muscles. As the stroke victim starts to recover, starts to do therapy, the muscles seize up and they freeze.

One woman I met, her daughters who took care of her, who literally gave up their social life and pretty much their world to take care of Mom, they called it her "chicken wing" because it was stuck out to the side and you can not release it. And through the therapeutic use of the Botox, she said for the first time, she was able to hug at least her daughters.

AA: Your mother had a stroke and you ended up taking care of her.

HW: I took care of her, and my sister, who lived here, took care of her. My sister and I helped my Mom, and what happens is, you watch when people who are so energetic and doers and all of a sudden they're overtaken by a sense of doom.

It's almost as if this new use of Botox is like a shot of hope. Literally. I don't even mean to be funny or cosmic. It's just true. Upper Limb Spasticity -- I didn't even know there was a term. I only saw that my mother didn't have use of her arm or leg, and it would have been so wonderful if (the Botox) was available to her.

AA: We'd like to talk to you a little about your popularity. We're curious about whether or not you have younger fans.

HW: There are younger fans who know me from Holes, who know me from The Waterboy, or Click. Some children only know me as an author. They have read all 17 novels.

The next generation knows me from Scream, the next generation knows me from Arrested Development. Somebody somewhere all over the world brings me the DVDs to sign of the Arrested Development series.

And now, Royal Pains is one of the most successful shows on USA. I think they have over 7 million viewers. When it premiered it premiered as the highest-viewed premier in the history of cable. So people talk to me about that.

And then the next generation goes back and talks to me about Happy Days. And they show their kids Happy Days on YouTube.

AA: You seem to have this knack for projects that are iconic pop-culturally. Who's helping you land these projects?

HW: I'll tell you the truth. My instinct is smarter than my head. So if you listen to your tummy it will always put you in the right place. Sometimes I just feel it, I just smell that something is where I should be. And then it turns out that I was smart enough to say yes.

And now, Children's Hospital on the Cartoon Network is literally the craziest comedy I have ever been associated with in my life. Rob Corddry, who created it with his band of merry players, they are over the moon in terms of imagination. That stars Megan Mullaly who is the head of the hospital.

AA: Can we talk about nostalgia? When you were doing Happy Days it was right after the Vietnam War and the show was wildly popular because it hearkened back to this innocent time.

HW: I'll tell you what happened. Not only is the music great, not only were the styles fun, but Garry Marshall, Tom Miller and Eddie Milkis were the three executive producers, and they chose the '50s on purpose. Because, if you put it in another time and you tell funny, moral stories, the audience does not feel like they have been hit on the head by a moral, because it looks like you're looking at another time. And that is one of the reason I believe that Happy Days is still ageless, all these 33 years later.

The viewing audience is not all that interested in "cutting edge". They are beat up during the day. It is so hard out there living in America at this moment, when they come home and they turn on their television, they want to be entertained. They want to feel emotion, and they want to be taken away. That's my impression.

When people invite you into their homes as a television actor, they spend time with you, they feel close to you and they figure if they ever met you, you would be a lovely person to them. I think it's that intimate.

AA: We were reading about the "Jumping the Shark" episode and how that became a big thing. Television Without Pity, the website, they really turned "jumping the shark" into this phrase for the internet.

HW: Here's the thing, we were No. 1 for four or five years after jumping the shark. It never affected us. It never affected the audience. It's really the American Way, isn't it? A guy came up with a phrase, he made a board game, he got a book, he made some money.

AA: And you still take it in stride. Didn't you do a shark-jumping on Arrested Development?

HW: I did! I'll have you know I am the only actor in the world who has jumped the shark twice. And I'm still here to talk about it.

The conversation then turned to Winkler fans Weezer, and their new album named after Lost character Hurley.

HW: What ever happened with that? Did you watch Lost?

AA: We watched the DVDs of the first season, and never did watch any more after that.

HW: I never did either, but I want to know what people thought, what was it? What was going on?

AA: It was two realities, we think. Like, the real reality, and the life that people had wanted to live. Like the alternate reality? We dunno.

HW: They did a recap, and they even had subtitles of what.. well, this happened there and this guy actually came out of that hole and...

AA: Well that goes back to what you were saying about people just wanting a release. Maybe it's a little too confusing if you have to recap the episodes.

HW: Well let me just say, I didn't know what the hell they were talking about and they were subtitling it for me and I didn't get it.

AA: We think we have to agree with you on the escapism aspect.

HW: It's true!

Winkler will speak at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Houston Abilities Expo as part of his "Open Arms: Raising Awareness of Upper Limb Spasticity" educational campaign.

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