I’m 30 seconds into a strict, five-minute interview with Henry Winkler—the Fonz!—when I realize the recording app on my phone isn’t working. It’s glitching. Every time I press the little red dot it records obediently for a tantalizing two seconds before pausing again, of its own ghostly accord. Not wanting to squander my time with a bona fide Hollywood legend by fiddling with my phone, like the millennial stereotype that I am, I opt to proceed using the ever-reliable “pen-and-paper” method of transcription. Thankfully, I’d brought both—mostly, just for show—but at least now I could pretend like I was taking notes. I could act like I was a real journalist. How appropriate!
Winkler, of course, has by now intuited my struggle, and mercifully offers to catch me up on what we’ve already discussed: 1) He wanted to work on Barry because of co-creators Bill Hader and Alec Berg, both of whom he admired; 2) The script was a “cashmere blend” whereas most he reads are “cotton”; and 3) Yes, the tan jacket he was wearing is reminiscent of the one his character, acting teacher Gene Cousineau, wears on the show. He’d figured he was doing all this press for the character, so why not dress like him?
On Barry, which premiered recently on HBO, Winkler plays a more nuanced version of the clueless, gentle, kind and somewhat neutered men in power he’s perfected in such roles as the lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development, the bumbling Sy Mittleman on Children’s Hospital and the weak-willed football savant in The Waterboy. The half-hour series stars Hader as the eponymous ex-marine-cum-hitman, who stumbles into an L.A. acting class, while also becoming embroiled in a Chechen-Bolivian gang war. There are scenes of unvarnished violence juxtaposed with moments of true hilarity—torturous tooth-shavings preceding excruciatingly amateur-ish acting monologues—and yet the show manages to hang together, as Barry struggles to extricate himself from his past misdeeds and start afresh.
Despite the customary delusions of grandeur, his acting teacher, Gene Cousineau, is more perceptive than viewers might initially give him credit for. In Winkler’s hands, he also has a slight edge, deploying a persistent charm to win the (strangely sadomasochistic) affections of the hardened detective investigating the murder of one of the students in his class. And while he has the very un-Winkler-like capacity to ruthlessly criticize his students—not to mention, overcharge them for class—he does genuinely care about their success and well-being.
When I ask him if he was channeling anyone in his portrayal of Cousineau, Winkler suggests he was an amalgamation of the many acting teachers he had as both an undergraduate at Emerson and a masters student in the Yale School of Drama. (Some of them were “mean,” he tells me, emphasizing the word with great vulnerability, as if the resultant wounds were still fresh.)
I ask him, too, on a personal level, if, after 40-plus years of acting on TV, from Happy Days to recurring, scene-stealing spots on everything from Out of Practice to Parks and Recreation, anything still has the capacity to surprise him on set.
“I don’t need to be surprised, anymore,” he demurs. “I just have to love what I’m doing.”
Judging by his passion for Barry, it’s clear that Winkler loves what he’s doing. To give just one example: part of the way through the script for the final episode of the first season, Winkler expressed to me the real fear he felt that he might be written off (without giving too much away, he wasn't; Hader, Berg and co. are currently in the process of writing the second season).
Scrambling to take all of this down in my shitty shorthand, and wondering if he realizes I’ve pretty much been writing stuff down at random intervals, I ply him for an acting tip: What’s the best one he’s ever received?
Listen, he says, and learn from what the other characters say about your character in the script. But also, in the immortal words of the great Gene Cousineau: pay for class on time, and anyone can be a thespian.