How ‘Barry’ gave Henry Winkler another signature role decades after playing Fonzie

Henry Winkler plays a self-styled master acting teacher in HBO’s “Barry.” (HBO)
Henry Winkler plays a self-styled master acting teacher in HBO’s “Barry.” (HBO)

You know him as the Fonz. And probably Barry Zuckerkorn, the Bluth family’s inept attorney on “Arrested Development.”

But you don’t know the depth of Henry Winkler’s talents unless you’ve seen him play Gene Cousineau, the self-styled master acting teacher on HBO’s first-year comedy, “Barry.”

Winkler stopped by The Los Angeles Times recently for a video interview to talk about finding yet another role of a lifetime. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

Q: Did you know there were so many actors wanting to play Gene?

A: I did not know that. I auditioned for it. And when I first got the call, I said, “OK, just tell me this. They say I’m on a short list. OK. Is Dustin Hoffman on that list? Because if he is, I’m not going in.”

Q: You’re not going to waste your time.

A: No, I don’t have a chance. So I go in, and I audition for (series co-creator and star) Bill Hader, and I get it. OK, whew! And then it is the Super Bowl in February, and I went to a friend’s house, and there were agents there and they said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well, we just shot the pilot of ‘Barry.’” And they went, “You got that?”

Then we went to see a good acquaintance of ours, John Lithgow, on Broadway, and he said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m doing ‘Barry.’” And he went, “I wanted that!” And I went, “Oh my God, this is amazing.”

Q: When you were coming up, did you have an acting teacher like Gene?

A: Everybody has had someone like Gene. The whole premise of the series (is) people who are torn apart. (Gene) goes out on auditions. He’s a regular working actor. And you know, you lose a commercial to a gecko, you teach. And so, then in the classroom, he’s treated like an emperor. That is his arena because outside of those four walls, he doesn’t seem to be able to practice what he preaches.

Q: We see Gene go out for an audition and he’s going for the role of Man in the Back of the Line. It’s humbling.

A: It is humbling. It is humbling in real life, let alone on the screen. But I knew that I had done that (audition) scene correctly, because I did it and then I turned away, knowing that (Gene’s) never going to get this, and all I heard from video village, where the producers and the writers sit, was, “Oh.” And that pathetic, “Oh,” I figured I got it right.

Q: There’s a great dinner scene where Gene ambushes Det. Moss. She thinks she’s there for information, but in his mind, it’s a date. And he really sells it.

A: You know what? As an actor, when you do a scene like that, you do a scene with the love of your life. I think underneath all of his baloney, he truly cares. He is smitten by this woman.

Q: I love the line: “All I want is someone to spoil.” It does look like Gene makes a great omelet.

A: He really does. Now, his favorite, of course, is eggs Benedict. And his sauce, if it’s eaten at the moment, is unbelievable.

Q: What advice do you have when it comes to acting?

A: When I was 27, I got the Fonz. And because I changed my voice, I changed my body, it was like a key that unlocked my imagination. And at that moment, after all of my training, I realized that I really am just a character actor. I am not a leading man. But I knew, without the change of voice, without the detail of the Fonz, I wasn’t the actor I wanted to be in my mind or in my imagination.

So that was 27. And now I’m 72, so I’ve flipped the numbers, and I am closer to the actor that I thought about being when I was 27. Some people can do it right away, there is no difference between the character and their soul. There’s no space. I dreamed of that, but I couldn’t accomplish that. And maybe I’m just getting there now.

 

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