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February 19, 2019

Henry Winkler Is at the Table

Henry Winkler appreciates every chip he's won in a long, satisfying career.

Sarah Hirsch
  • Henry Winkler as Gene Cousineau in HBO's Barry

    HBO
  • Bill Hader and Henry Winkler

    HBO
  • HBO

Henry Winkler was 27 years old when he got the role of The Fonz on Happy Days. He was 72 when he won his first Emmy award — for his supporting role as acting instructor Gene Cousineau on Barry. "I just flipped the year," he says.

The dark comedy about a hitman who pursues an acting career returns to HBO this spring for its sophomore season.

And on February 19, Winkler will be the focus of the Television Academy event "Staying at the Table: A Conversation with Henry Winkler," a title which draws its name from his 2018 Emmy acceptance speech. "If you stay at the table long enough, the chips come to you," the veteran performer said that evening. "And tonight, I got to clear the table."

Winkler sat down with emmy's Sarah Hirsch to discuss his friendship with Barry co-creators Bill Hader and Alec Berg, his love of television and the night he finally got the gold.

What was your initial reaction to the Barry pilot?

I read the script, and it was like finely woven cloth…like cashmere. You read so many scripts, and they're all in English, all of the words are there, and then you read this, and it just takes your breath away. And that is not hyperbole. For these two men [Hader and Berg], every word means something.

I read somewhere that on paper Gene was…

Mean.

Yes — more one-dimensional. And of course, you brought your warmth to the role.

They said that to me. They said, "Oh, we didn't realize he could be that too." What a great compliment!

What is the collaboration process like, when you have a suggestion for your character?

As a collaborator, Alec is a great listener, and he's not threatened. Just because he's accepted somebody's suggestion does not in any way undercut him as the boss. And Bill is the same way.

I wish I could say something that someone could read for the very first time about how these two men created a brilliance together. Everything is thought out, everything connects. They are very clear about what they want, and very open to allow you to sprinkle in your imagination on top of that.

What is Bill like as a scene partner?

Bill is adorable. He gets so involved that he mouths the words with you when you're in the scene with him. In the beginning I was like, wow, what is he doing? And then you're kind of like, oh, that's just Bill.

He is an oversized puppy, who hasn't completely grown into himself, who just bounds everywhere. He bounds with enthusiasm. One of the greatest compliments that I have gotten in my career is when I make him laugh. Bill Hader, who I watched on television all those years at 11:30 at night. I'm telling you, it's some kind of nirvana.

What's the tone of the set?

I think one of the producers, Amy Solomon, told me that their goal was to make sure that they cast people who were lovely human beings. Because Bill and Alec both move air very quietly — with different rhythms. Alec is very still, and Bill is a jumble of energy.

Together they hear everything, and nothing is a problem. Or if it is, we don't know. We never know that there is chaos, if there is chaos.

Tell me about the night of your Emmy win.

First of all, I have to tell you, my wife and I watch TV. I really like watching TV — I like to see everything at least once. And I like to see in person the people that I love watching on TV. I saw Jeff Daniels. I have seen him on Broadway; I have seen him in series. I emailed him for years now, after performances I really enjoyed. And there he was. I was so happy to see him.

What were you feeling before they called your name?

I was sitting across the aisle from Kenan Thompson. And we leaned over and squeezed hands. We're sitting there after having done all these interviews, and we're the first category. And what is amazing, is you think, I'm so happy to be nominated, I am so thrilled and complimented to be nominated with all of these incredible actors.

And as soon as your tush hits the chair, you only think, I'd like to win. I'd like to win, and I don't even remember who was in my category.

And how did you feel when you won?

They called my name and it was delightful. I kissed my wife. I kissed Bill and Alec, who gave me the gift of a lifetime. And then I walk up on stage, and there is Matt Smith and Claire Foy. And I started talking to them about the second season of The Crown — because it was so much more intense than the first season! I mean, you find out that Philip's family were Nazis!

And then I realized, I have to make a speech. So I turn around and I have 37 seconds. And I look out and there's Bill and Alec and Stacey. And it was just…magical.

It was a wonderful thing to witness. It was so clear the audience was rooting for you.

I felt the energy. Maybe being a man of age, I was much more relaxed, much more present.

Do you remember anything Bill and Alec said to you following your win?

No, just Alec's incredibly large, sincere smile. You know, in the audition, I made Bill laugh, but I made Alec smile. I have worked with some greats — Garry Marshall, Ron Howard, Adam Sandler, Mitch Hurwitz, Michael Schur and now, these guys. Holy moly!

Did you celebrate together on Emmy night?

No, my wife was there. We went to the Governors Ball, because you get your statue, then they put the band around it, and the man with white gloves does a lot of shining. Then we went to the HBO party.

Where do you keep your Emmy now?

It's on my dining room table. You walk in the front door, there's a hallway, and then there's the dining room, and there it is. I don't keep it in the bathroom. It is not a doorstop. It's not in the garage somewhere.

After all of the success of the first season, did you feel more pressure going into this season?

There was an article in the New York Times that said the show is so good, they should not do a second season. And I got really nervous, and I thought, oh my gosh, what happens if that's true? And then I stopped for a minute and I thought, who is running the show? Alec and Bill. And I never had that thought again.



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