Henry Winkler: The Fonz and Beyond – Review – Grand Opera House, York

Henry Winkler The Fonz and Beyond Review Grand Opera House, York (2)

By Roger Crow, June 2024

A few months ago I reviewed Henry Winkler’s audiobook, The Fonz and Beyond. It was like having the Happy Days star in my ears for a few hours in which he recalled his early days in showbusiness, landing the part of the most iconic biker on TV, and, as the title suggested, what happened next.

When the man himself takes to the stage at the Grand Opera House, York, it’s almost like that whole book had been compressed into an hour or so and someone performed a magic spell for the artist himself to appear, live a few feet in front of me. I’m in the stalls, three rows from the front in the centre, and that 78-year-old star is pacing the stage, whipping through the edited highlights of that book. It’s beautifully delivered, bursting with energy and obviously not as in-depth as the book, but that delivery to the audience is everything. Henry Winkler has arrived on stage in a chunky cardigan, which he bought for the tour and admits was a mistake on one of the hottest evenings of the year.

Anyway, we get memories of his early days. Born of German-Jewish stock, Henry’s dad was smart enough to get his family out of harm’s way before the Nazis killed them. They settled in America, where young Henry was constantly berated for being unable to read. What they didn’t realise was he was dyslexic; it was a time when such a word meant nothing, and countless other students were deemed troublemakers or ‘dumb dogs’ because of their inability to read.

That’s compressed into a couple of minutes.

Fast forward to him getting the acting bug; the move to LA; calling up a friend, sleeping on their floor. Before we know it, there’s that inevitable casting call to play Arthur Fonzarelli, the greaser bit part character in sitcom Happy Days.

He doesn’t mention the actual title. He doesn’t have to. The story about a scene where he has to comb his hair, and decides he doesn’t need to doesn’t agree with showrunner Garry Marshall, but we all love a rebel, especially an actor who goes off script. There’s a lot of that with Winkler. Because of his dyslexia, and having obvious trouble reading his scripts, he would improvise some of the dialogue, and when questioned why, he would say he was capturing the ‘essence’.

Henry Winkler The Fonz and Beyond Review Grand Opera House, York (1)“A brilliant soul who made good”

His frustration with one script led to him cruelly hitting it. Co-star Ron Howard took him for a walk one day and told him not to as the writers were doing their best with a tricky job. It gave Winkler a newfound respect for the writer’s craft. Again, what is longer in the book is over in seconds on stage.

What we don’t get in the live show is mention of the fact the big cheeses wanted to change the title to ‘Fonzie’s Happy Days’. Winkler begged them not to as it would diminish the contribution of the rest of the cast. He got his wish.

There is a mention of how that notorious scene which became synonymous with a show outstaying its welcome. Winkler had mentioned to the producers that he was a pretty good water skier, and before long the Fonz was in California on water skis in a leather jacket, naturally, jumping over a shark.

There’s no mention of Winkler crashing at the house of friend Charles Haid from Hill Street Blues, or his work as director on Turner and Hooch when he got fired. No mention of his clash as director with Burt Reynolds on a movie.

He does mention working with Wes Craven on the original Scream, and being excluded from the movie poster, but being asked to do Press because there’s so much love for him from fans.

Eventually he decides to dictate a story about a kid called Hank Zipzer, whose dyslexia makes him a pretty unique character in a world of kids’ literature. The books become hugely popular, but no US network wants to make a series about a dyslexic kid, so the show is made in Blighty by CBBC. Naturally Henry makes an appearance, while fan Adam Sandler hires him for assorted films.

Again, snappy anecdotes; more punchlines than in-depth assessments of his life, but no less fascinating. If you’ve not read his book, or listened to it, but did see the show, then you’ve basically experienced a glorified trailer for the autobiography. And what a way to experience it with the man himself on stage.

It’s compelling stuff for anyone who has that novel in them desperate to get out into the world, and his power of positive thinking is an inspiration to all of us. I’m glad there was enough of a gap between the book and the live gig for it to feel as fresh as it did, and the Q and A in the second half gives the show a new dynamic. Some of the questions are bizarre, touching, inevitably just thanks for being such an inspiration, and a springboard for Winkler to launch into memories of working with the likes of Robin Williams on Happy Days. He’s a great showman who could have just turned up and read a script from his iconic show and many would have been happy. But Winkler’s story is a classic case of a brilliant soul who made good in Hollywood, and clearly still has more energy than half the England squad put together.

What a pleasure to see the man himself in the flesh, and though I may have heard his story before in greater detail, it doesn’t detract from every minute he’s on stage.

A happy day indeed, and as with the audiobook, ‘Ayyyyyy’ for effort.


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