by Edwin L. Carpenter, Editor – The Dove Foundation
Henry Winkler is known to a generation of fans as ‘The Fonz’ from the classic TV series “Happy Days”. In his latest film he plays ‘Happy Herb’, a children’s TV host whose puppet-character ‘Froggy Doo’ is frog napped. Winkler does a terrific job in the role and he was happy to speak about it with us at The Dove Foundation in a recent phone interview.
“How did you get the role of ‘Happy Herb?’” we asked Mr. Winkler.
“They called me up!” he said buoyantly. “They said, ‘Will you do this?’ I spoke with Caroline (Zelder, the director). I auditioned a couple of voices for the frog over the phone for her, and eventually we settled on a sound. And then I went to Montana and had the greatest time. I got to fly fish for trout! It’s one of my favorite things to do.”
“Producer and writer Frank Antonelli told us you had a book signing while in Montana. Can you tell us about that?” we asked.
“It’s true!” he said. “It’s true. Everywhere I go I walk into the bookstore,” he said, “and I ask if they want me to sign the books that Lin Oliver and I write, ‘Hank Zipzer’. And they said sure and then they said, ‘Would you like to have a signing?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ I think that they ran out of books, and everybody ran to other bookstores to buy them and have them signed. I think I signed about a thousand books that day in this small town. What a wonderful thing because the kids start reading the book in line while waiting and by the time they get to me they tell me what they thought was funny in the first three or four chapters.”
“I heard you ended up in a wedding photo,” we replied.
“That was amazing,” he replied.
Henry was busy signing when he saw a limousine pull up and a newly married couple jumped out and asked if Henry would pose with them in a wedding picture! So he did. He is very amiable and it is perhaps best seen in his interaction with children. I witnessed it firsthand when Henry recently appeared at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids to speak about dealing with handicaps in education (Henry is dyslexic). He also had a scholarship named after him that day for future students attending the college.
“If I was not an actor I would have worked exclusively with kids,” he said. As Henry spoke to one young fan at Aquinas College, answering a question, he paused, looked at him, and said, “I like your face”. He left something positive with the child, whose mother turned to me and said, “That is exactly what he needed to hear!” This connection with kids is one reason Winkler enjoyed playing ‘Happy Herb’ so much, who is a positive role model in “A Plumm Summer”.
“Since your jacket (Fonzie’s jacket) is hanging in the Smithsonian Institute it sure worked out with the acting didn’t it?” we asked.
“It did” he said. “And now with ‘A Plumm Summer’ if you look at the scenes that I get to do they’re all so different. It makes me happy because I get to live my dream. I’m lying in bed when I’m seven years old. I have this incredible dream. And then I get to do all this wonderful stuff. In August there’s going to be a bronze statue of ‘The Fonz’ in Milwaukee.”
Henry spoke of fighting back against dyslexia as a child although he wasn’t aware of the handicap, but he was determined to overcome the odds. “I remember what it was like to work through my dyslexia,” he said. “I remember that in the inside I thought to myself, ‘You can’t be stupid, you have good thoughts and everything’, and on the outside thinking, ‘Oh, I’m never going to get this’; It puts you down, it can make you so sad. You have to find the strength to just get up, dust yourself off and go on. That’s what the director of ‘A Plumm Summer’ and the producer did. They had financing—they lost it,” he said. “They had financing and they lost it” he repeated. They had financing—it finally stuck!” he said. So obviously the third time was the charm.
“They made a beautiful movie, got great performances from these children. It’s a true story,” he said. “They had people who wanted to put it out (distribute) and they lost them. They had another person who wanted to make it a DVD and they lost it. Then they found somebody else and now it’s going to be in the theater (April 25), and they never gave up.”
Henry commented that what’s amazing is it will be “surrounded by these gigantic movies. You know, ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Speed Racer’. It’s like ‘The Little Engine that Could’.”
“After acting and directing and producing, and writing books, is there anything new you’re going to attempt?” we asked, half-jokingly.
“Well, you know what, everything I do is new because every project is like, ‘Oh my goodness, why did I say yes?’ because I don’t know how to act anymore, and then you have to fight through that insecurity and you figure out what you’re going to do so every job starts the blood going again. I just spoke to my partner, Lin Oliver, and on Thursday morning at 10 o’ clock I’m meeting her to beat out the story for the fifteenth (Hank Zipzer) novel. I think the new one (the 14th novel) comes out in late April/May,” said Winkler. He added that there may be as many as twenty novels and that possibly in the twentieth, Hank Zipzer will graduate to the sixth grade.
We asked Henry, “What are some of your favorite moments in the film?”
“I love the scenes with the young people,” he replied. “I also worked with a young actress by the name of Brenda Strong who played my wife. You never know what a relationship is going to be like with another actor. Sometimes it’s like you’re given a treasure. It was like I’ve known her all my life. We were a married couple on the screen and there was an instant rapport where we depended on each other, listened to each other, helped each other, watched each other. I thought that was fantastic.”
“It’s nice when you work with someone over a period of weeks to have a good relationship,” we said.
“It is,” he agreed. “And you have no idea if that’s going to happen.” Conversely he spoke about working relationships which sometimes aren’t good. “And then you really have to dig down deep,” he said, “and work harder than you’ve ever worked before. In order to make it work you have to act as if the other person is actually with you. You have to make it up in your mind.”
“How many weeks did it take to make ‘A Plumm Summer’ we asked Henry.
“I shot two stints of nine days,” he said. “They were there pretty much for two months,” he added. Winkler said he’s seen the finished product several times. “They kept on refining it and refining it,” he said. “The last time they took six minutes out and I think it really just rolls along.”
He spoke for a few moments about the real ‘Happy Herb’. “He was an amazing fellow,” he said. “He was the biggest television star in Montana for twenty two years. He developed this relationship as a lot of puppeteers do, with his puppet where he started to believe that the puppet was a real person. J. Edgar Hoover in real life did send the FBI (to find Froggy Doo)! That actually happened. I met the real ‘Happy Herb’. He was on the set several times. You understand why he just had this aura about him…just extending his spirit everywhere he walked. I believe he was a scientist first,” he said. “He kind of put together this rudimentary puppet that became ‘Froggy.’”
“Will there be special bonus features when the DVD is released?” we asked.
“I don’t know yet,” replied Winkler. “I’m not part of the producing team. I’m just the lowly actor!”
We laughed because we all know Henry Winkler is more than a lowly actor. In fact, his iconic “Happy Days” character ‘Fonzie’ is still fondly remembered today. We mentioned that Winkler brought emotion to ‘Fonzie’, making him more than just a hood, which is basically what the role was intended to be. He appreciated the compliment.
“Thanks, but that is also a very major part of ‘A Plumm Summer’. It is a very emotional story that happens to be this great caper-mystery that is carried on by young people. Those kids are great. On the set their family, their brothers, their siblings, and they were included in whatever was going on. It was just one big, pulsating family. It was great. My make-up woman was pregnant–about to pop, and we became a family!”
In closing we said, “You are a busy guy! You’re doing interviews, making movies, writing books.”
“I’m very grateful that I’m still busy. That makes me very happy.” The soft spoken actor left us with, “The best to you.” We wish him the best as well and we are pleased that he has made a movie which families can enjoy.
Read Dove’s Review of “A Plumm Summer“