Henry Winkler is best known for his portrayal of the cool Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli on the hit TV show Happy Days. The Fonz has left an indelible mark on popular culture. With his signature leather jacket and the ability to turn a jukebox on just by hitting it, he was the epitome of cool.
Some of the most memorable aspects of the character were his famous catchphrases, “ayyyy” and “whoa.” But where did these phrases come from? Here, we’ll look into the origins of these famous words and the career of Henry Winkler.
In a 2006 discussion as part of The Television Academy Foundation’s series, “The Interviews: An Oral History of Television,” Winkler talked about his career, especially playing the Fonz. He said that a big part of the character was the sounds he made, such as “ayyyy” or “whoa.”
Winkler said, “I understood… he spoke too much sometimes… They would write paragraphs for me, and I’d reduce language to sound. Like ‘ayyyy’ or ‘whoa.’” The latter phrase, ‘woah,’ came from his “favorite sport at the time, horseback riding.”
In the interview, Winkler provided an example of when he was supposed to pray, thanking God for the food that he and the Cunninghams were about to eat. He recalled saying, “I promise I can do this with one sound.” Looking upward, Winkler said in the Fonz’s characteristic voice, “Hey God, whoa.” While he had to argue with the producer to keep it in, it showed the importance of the simple sound when used by Winkler.
Undiagnosed learning disorder
These famous catchphrases also have a darker side, which saw Winkler struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia trying to read and learn his lines. He revealed that “learning the lines was so hard I reduced an entire paragraph to a sound.” He soon found that this worked in his favor, “I could make [ayyyy] mean all sorts of things from ‘Don’t mess with me,’ to ‘I am hungry.'”
Winkler did not find out he was dyslexic until he was 31 years old when his stepson Jed was diagnosed. He initially felt angry, thinking, “Oh my God, all that feeling bad was for nothing. If only I had known.” This diagnosis, instead of discouraging him, led Winkler to spread awareness of dyslexia through his books about Hank Zipzer, a boy with dyslexia whose experiences are based on Winkler’s own childhood.
The American sitcom aired between 1974 and 1984. Set in the 1950s, the show followed the lives of the Cunningham family and their friends in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Despite being a supporting character in the early seasons, the Fonz quickly became the breakout star of the show, and his popularity led to him becoming a central character and the face of the program. The Fonz was portrayed as a lovable tough guy with a heart of gold, often protecting or giving advice to the younger characters on the show.
Winkler’s portrayal of the Fonz earned him the status of a pop culture icon. The character’s impact can still be felt today, with references to the Fonz, his actions, and catchphrases appearing in various forms of media.
Winkler’s career after the Fonz
The Fonz would continue to play an important role for Winkler, as he played the character in various Happy Days spin-offs such as Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, and Joanie Loves Chachi. However, Winkler’s career stretches far beyond the character, both in front of and behind the camera.
Winkler’s career was not always happy after the end of the beloved sitcom. He said, “There were eight or nine years at a time when I couldn’t get hired because I was ‘The Fonz,’ because I was typecast.” He continued, “I had psychic pain that was debilitating because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to find it, whatever it was, I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Later, however, Winkler returned to the screen, both on and behind it. Looking back, despite the struggles, Winkler says that he would do it all over again, and he wouldn’t change a single thing. “I loved doing it. I loved playing ‘The Fonz.’ I loved those people. I loved learning how to play softball. I loved traveling all over the world together with the cast. I would not have traded it… Not only that but also, I don’t know that I would’ve gotten here if I hadn’t gone through the struggle.”
Winkler went on to portray a variety of characters on various shows, from South Park and The Simpsons to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Parks and Recreation. He also made appearances in films such as The Waterboy, Click, and most recently, Black Adam.
Behind the camera, Winkler has directed both films and television shows, such as Cop and a Half (1993) and two episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch between 2000 and 2002. As a producer, Winkler is responsible for several shows, including both the original MacGyver (1985-1992) and its reboot (2016-2021).
How you learn has nothing to do with how brilliant you are
In an interview on The Kelly Clarkson Show, Clarkson and Winkler talked about dyslexia, as Clarkson’s daughter River struggles with the disorder and bullying at school. Winkler, looking into the camera, said, “River, how you learn has nothing to do with how brilliant you are.”
This brought tears to Clarkson and everyone watching.