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April 30, 2018

Henry Winkler’s Tummy

In a career that spans generations, Henry Winkler relies on his instincts.

Melissa Byers
  • Henry Winkler as Gene Cousineau on HBO's Barry.

    HBO
  • HBO
  • Cousineau with his class.

    HBO
  • Winkler with series co-creator and star, Bill Hader

    HBO
  • HBO

Henry Winkler believes in his own instincts.

In a career spanning 40+ years, he has had one guide in choosing roles: "My tummy. My tummy is the decider. My instinct knows more than my head. That's also something that I say to every child I meet. They have greatness inside them, and how we learn has nothing to do with their greatness."

Winkler has a great interest in future generations and how they will live in the world, "I've met almost every one of them through my travels, and they watch different segments of the work I do, and they are just wonderful children, wonderful human beings."

Good thing, too, since he is currently playing a teacher in the HBO series Barry.

He plays acting teacher Gene Cousineau, who finds himself with trying-to-reform hit man Barry Berkman, played by series co-creator Bill Hader, in his class. Cousineau is one of those teachers who simultaneously berates and inspires his students with tough love. Winkler says the character is an amalgam of many people, "It's a combination of teachers I've had, teachers I've heard about, teachers I've researched, and you put them all together and out comes Gene Cousineau."

But Cousineau is not one of those who can't do. He also goes out on auditions himself, putting himself out there just as his young actors do. "He is a working actor. He is. That is of course when he gets a job," Winkler says. "He is in the outside world just like his class, and on the inside world, he's emperor."

While Cousineau may be an emperor, Winkler is very much a part of the team, a part of the ensemble, and he loves his current teammates.

"I actually don't even have the words anymore to describe how incredible it is to be part of this ensemble. The writing is great. The producing is great. They [Hader and co-creator Alec Berg] co-direct. As a matter of fact, Hiro [Murai], who is going to direct two upcoming episodes, was in my son, Max's, class at USC. I was there for his student films, and here he is directing me on Barry."

Being a part of the whole has always been important to Winkler. He says, "Acting is the one thing, it's the one art form you can't do by yourself or for yourself. It is a completely team oriented art form. You can paint in your studio. You can write at your computer. You can compose in your study. But you cannot act without an audience or a partner, without the rest of the ensemble: the writers, the directors, the producers.

"And what is amazing is that there are some actors, I should say some, who don't understand that it is a team effort. And not only that, but the community is fun. The community, when you're all standing around craft service.

"Now, I've stood around craft service when they were two cans of Pringles. And I've stood around craft service when it was a pasta bar. And when you're all standing around craft service, no matter what's on the table, if it's a raisin or wood oven baked pizza, the community around that table, it is delightful."

He also appreciates the continuity of the process. "It's all the same. It doesn't matter where you do it. It is all the same. It is the same process. People ask me all the time, 'Is television changing? How do you find the change in television?' The technology might be different. The process, the storytelling, the commitment is the same as it was when Thespis was doing it."

While Winkler hasn't been acting quite that long, he has had a varied and interesting career, and has welcomed every bit of it. He says, "Do you know what? I have to say, honest to God, I've said this a million times, but I have dreamt, I have willed my career. I wanted, I needed to be an actor. There was no plan B. So, I would have to say 99% of my career, I love them all. I am grateful for everything that I've done. And they are so different.

"You know, I went in for, I think, one episode of Arrested Development, and we just did the fifth year. Happy Days, the Fonz, introduced me to the universe. You know, Night Shift, Ron Howard's first movie, I think still is so funny and holds up."

But, as much as he appreciates his past work, he is absolutely thrilled with where he is now.

"I've done a lot of things in my life. I swear to God. And they're all different. The response that I am getting from people I haven't heard from in 20 years, people I've never met in my life, friends, children, my kids, it's unlike anything. And it all starts with the human beings at the top, there's no doubt about that. No matter where you are, and no matter whether you're in that corporate office of some company, or you're on a set, it all starts with the people at the top."

Winkler has nothing but praise for the people at the top of Barry, Bill Hader and Alec Berg. He says, "They're individually funny, smart, thoughtful, good writers, good directors, good producers. And then if you put that together, you've got, I don't know, like an explosion off the sun or something. I have to say, I say all of this with such ease, because it's not hyperbole. All you have to do is look. The proof is there on the screen."

Winkler's other passion is writing. "You know I write books. I've written 34 novels with my partner, Lin Oliver. And Hank Zipzer is a television series. We couldn't sell it here in America, but we sold it to the BBC. And the television movie that we just made won the International Television Emmy. And there are 12 first, second, third grade novels, and 17 third, fourth, fifth grade novels. And then there are four other series and stuff.

"And Hank Zipzer, of course, is my life as a dyslexic. I was told that I would never achieve. That's what I also tell every child who will ... well, whether they listen or not, is it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. If you have a dream, and you live your dream without ambivalence, you can wind up pretty much where you wanted to be."



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