From Fonzie to Cousineau, Henry Winkler shares his 50-year acting secret: “Cool is authenticity”

Aimlessly speaking your mind and living your truth can be liberating, but how does it make other people feel? Sometimes, our very source of liberation can cause someone pain, and we would never know unless we asked. Actor Henry Winkler explained the power of being self-aware, especially in personal relationships, while talking to me on “Salon Talks” about the fourth and final season of HBO’s “Barry.”

With a 50-year career in acting, Winkler, a Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Emmy Award winner, still can’t believe he’s here, working. “Am I that old? Where is my walker? It’s just an amazement to me. That’s the way I see my career at this moment,” Winkler said. Known for playing the iconic character The Fonz on the ’70s hit “Happy Days,” Winkler also starred in “Arrested Development” and classic Adam Sandler comedies, like “The Water Boy” and “Click.”

His latest role as Gene Cousineau in “Barry” is extra special. “Gene Cousineau is a gift in my life,” Winkler said. “I got the Fonz when I was 27, and I got Gene when I was 72. Just flip the numbers.”

“Barry,” co-created by and starring Bill Hader, centers on Barry Berkman, a U.S. Marine and Afghanistan veteran who is manipulated into becoming a hitman after he returns from war. Later, he stumbles into Cousineau’s acting class where he learns a new skill set, and more importantly, the ability to dream beyond his own imagination. Over the last three seasons, Cousineau delivers a master class in self-auditing as viewers watch him transform from a self-absorbed, washed-up actor with an inflated ego to someone who realizes that he hurt his family and friends and is willing to do the work to make things right. Will Cousineau accomplish this in the fourth and final season? 

Watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Henry Winkler here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more about Winkler’s take on acting after playing Cousineau and his kids book series (he’s written 38 of them) for kids who identify as different.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You have played so many legendary roles. Where does “Barry” rank for you?

You know what? I don’t have that in my life because I am so grateful that I had a dream and I’m living it, and that I’m still living it. I have to say, I think “Barry,” that Gene Cousineau is a gift in my life. I got the Fonz when I was 27, and I got Gene when I was 72. Just flip the numbers.

“Barry” is the perfect mix of comedy, drama, and then nightmares. The show gets dark really quickly.

Really quickly.

In the fourth and final season, what have you been most proud of over the journey?

First of all, that I’m alive. I ask Bill [Hader] every year, I say, “OK, I only have one question. Am I dead? Did you kill me?” So I’m proud about that. But so far in the scenes that you’ve seen, the one man show is pretty great.

I feel like it would be impossible to kill Gene because Gene is a guiding light. Gene is the person who gave Barry an opportunity to dream. So I would’ve been bugged out if it was like Season 2 and we see Gene get his head knocked off, because Barry was kind of content, in a way, with his old job, and good at it.

“Everybody works on fear. You as the artist have got to beat that fear into submission.”

But here’s the thing, you never know. So many people have died on “Barry” that you never know who’s expendable, and so I just ask every year to make sure that it wasn’t me.

For those who are just getting caught up, Barry is a veteran who came home from the war and was manipulated into becoming a hitman. He stumbles across the great Gene Cousineau, who teaches him to dream. Are those dreams, that skill set, that love of acting that Gene has helped Barry with throughout the years, do you think it’s enough to cure Barry’s trauma?

No, I don’t. I think that Barry tries. I think everybody in the whole piece tries to redeem themselves, and some of us get there and some of us don’t. Gene tries with all his might and just can’t help himself to fall right back into Gene.

How does an acting veteran like yourself decide what roles are worth it and what are not? 

Every decision I make, I think, is made by my emotional stomach. I feel it. I say, “Yeah, I know what I’m doing.” I say, “I’m scared. I don’t know how to act anymore, but I’m going to try this.” I think that fear is very common among actors, that you get a job, you worked like dickens to get a job, and you go in and you audition, then you get it, then you’re elated for about 10 minutes, and then you go, “Why did I say yes? I don’t know how to do this anymore. I don’t know how to do this job anymore.” And then slowly but surely, you climb the mountain.

I had lunch with an actor a couple of weeks ago, and he was telling me that he feels like every job is going to be the last.

Without a doubt. I think it’s built in. I don’t know. But the work, the industry is so tenuous. Executives have the same life expectancy of rock stars, either 18 months or 19 months. Everybody works on fear. You as the artist have got to beat that fear into submission.

It comes with doing that research and giving that love and that energy to every role. And if you do that in an honest and ethical way, it seems like it works out a lot.

“It is almost impossible to grasp that, me, not somebody else, me, I did this for 50 years.”

Well you said something very interesting. You said “honest.” You have to be honest about whether or not you’ve got the ability, and not just keep beating your head against the wall. You have to train your ability so that it lasts.

We watch Gene Cousineau undergo some pretty huge transformations over the four seasons. He started out as kind of an a**hole, and then really got the opportunity to self-audit, to see himself and make some attempts to be a better person. Can you talk about his growth?

I think everybody on the show wants to grow, wants to redeem. And poor Gene. It’s like you’re trying to climb up the slide in the playground, and all of a sudden you just slip down. You don’t quite make it to the top. I’m a slipper.

There’s some scenes sprinkled throughout where Cousineau is being confronted by people who he has hurt when he really wasn’t aware. When we have these big personalities and we’re out in society, and we’re moving around and we’re balancing multiple relationships, sometimes we might not know how we make other people feel. It was really great to see that.

That’s life, and that is the way that Bill and Alec [Berg] have constructed our show. They are filled with foibles.

The show has an underlying meta conversation about acting. Has it made you reflect on your career, on your own process?

I’ll tell you, the thought I’ve had about my career is that people keep reminding me that pretty soon it’s going to be 50 years since I started in 1973. It is almost impossible to grasp that, me, not somebody else, me, I did this for 50 years. Where has 50 years gone? How fast life is. Am I that old? Where is my walker? It’s just an amazement to me. That’s the way I see my career at this moment.

I’m from Baltimore, Maryland, and Baltimore has a history of being an extremely segregated city. We didn’t have white kids in my neighborhood, but I remember my first leather jacket when I was like nine years old and my older brother and his homeboy, they’re like, “Nah, f**k that. Flip your collar like the Fonz.”

Oh, that’s right.

I’m like the Fonz from “Happy Days” because the Fonz just waves his finger and he gets a date. I didn’t get a date by waving my finger, but I did flip my collar up.

Yeah, no. That’s a warning that I usually give. Do not snap your fingers in real life. Women will break them off. Yeah, you can’t just snap. But isn’t it incredible how the Fonz just crossed all sociological lines?


“That’s a warning that I usually give. Do not snap your fingers in real life. Women will break them off.”

I haven’t thought about that. That is something I am very proud of.

The power of cool. You master cool.

And cool is authenticity. Just being authentic.

I like that. I like the jacket you have on now.

Thank you.

This is like the 2023 Fonz.

Well I love color. I love color, and so here it is.

One more thing about the show that I think is extremely important is the conversation around properly supporting our veterans. I think this show could enhance the conversation around that.

Well I think if it wasn’t ending, it probably could do that very well. But I am shocked by the skewed priorities of the supposedly greatest country in the world. That we have gone completely to the wrong “P.” That population has lost its way to profit. I don’t mean that in any great statement. I just mean that money is so important. Human beings have just drifted into dust. People can’t buy anything anymore, they can’t live, they can’t support, but everybody wants them to do longer, better, stronger work.

The greed is picking us apart.

It’s picking us apart, and we’re going to pay for it. I don’t even think it’s highfalutin anymore. It’s the truth, and we’re going to pay for it. No pun intended.

Thank you for being brave enough to have those conversations.

Right now it’s the conversation of the way we are living.

You referenced the Fonz, and I’ve heard you talk before about the fame that came with your role in “Happy Days,” and how people were actually treating you like the Fonz. But now the Fonz is writing children’s books. Are you enjoying that quieter lifestyle?

You know what, I never thought I could do it. I never thought that I would be part of a writing team with my name on a book. And on Oct. 17, our 38th children’s novel is going to come out. It’s unbelievable.

What are some of the messages of the books?

You know what they are? I’ll tell you exactly. I just realized it, that the umbrella of all are children who think they are different, who want so badly to be just over there. “I’d like to be part of that over there.” Who you are is just great enough. The way you are has nothing to do with how brilliant you are. If you learn differently, so what? No one is ever going to ask you about a hypotenuse when you get out of school.

Absolutely not. So could you talk about the hypotenuse of a triangle?

I have never, ever brought it up, thought about it, needed it. Don’t care. But I flunked it for four years in a row.

What’s next for you acting-wise?

I don’t know. I was hoping you would have that answer. I don’t know. I just would like to keep doing this until I can’t anymore. I’ll tell you what, if I can keep doing it, my dream, I would like to be back on Broadway. I’ve done three Broadway plays. Two have closed within seven nights. One ran for nine months. I’d like to do it again, and I’d better hurry up.

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