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Henry Winkler Explains the Origins of the Fonz’s Famous Catchphrases

Ryan McLachlan
Photo Credit: Paramount Television / MoviePics1001 / MovieStills DB
Photo Credit: Paramount Television / MoviePics1001 / MovieStills DB

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.

‘Hey, whoa’

Henry Winkler as the Fonz giving his famous thumbs up.
Promo still of Henry Winkler as the Fonz. (Photo Credit: Paramount Television / semyers / MovieStills DB)

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

Winkler and Ron Howard face to face in a Happy Days scene
Winkler and Ron Howard face to face in a Happy Days (Photo Credit: Paramount Television / MoviePics1001 / MovieStills DB)

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.  

Happy Days

Henry Winkler, Ron Howard, Marion Ross, Tom Bosley, and Erin Moran in a publicity still from Happy Days.
Happy Days publicity still. (Photo Credit: Paramount Television / KallieP / MovieStills DB)

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

Henry Winkler attends the Hollywood premiere of the HBO original series Barry on April 16, 2023.
Henry Winkler at the premiere of the HBO series Barry on April 16, 2023. (Photo Credit: Rodin Eckenroth / Getty Images)

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.”

Other roles

Behind the scenes shot of Winkler with Adam Scott and Billy Eichner
On the set of Parks and Recreation (Photo Credit: NBC / patricklucas / MovieStillsDB)

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

Henry Winkler visits Sirius XM Studios on May 2, 2023 in New York City.
He is never short of a smile. (Photo Credit: Santiago Felipe / Getty Images)

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.”

More from us: Robin Williams Had Serious Beef With Disney After ‘Aladdin’

This brought tears to Clarkson and everyone watching.

Ryan McLachlan

Ryan McLachlan is a historian and content writer for Hive Media. He received his Bachelor of Arts in History and Classical Studies and his Master of Arts in History from the University of Western Ontario. Ryan’s research focused on military history, and he is particularly interested in the conflicts fought by the United Kingdom from the Napoleonic Wars to the Falklands War.

Ryan’s other historical interests include naval and maritime history, the history of aviation, the British Empire, and the British Monarchy. He is also interested in the lives of Sir Winston Churchill and Admiral Lord Nelson. Ryan enjoys teaching, reading, writing, and sharing history with anyone who will listen.

In his spare time, he enjoys watching period dramas such as Murdoch Mysteries and Ripper Street and also enjoys reading classical literature and Shakespeare. He also plays football and is an afternoon tea connoisseur.