‘Fonzie’ attends Iola Car Show
By Greg Seubert
Henry Winkler has no idea how many trout he’s caught over the years.
“That’s a big question,” he said. “I catch 50 fish a day.”
What he does know is how many he released back into the wild.
“Never once,” he said when asked if he’s kept any. “I won’t even eat a trout in a restaurant.”
Winkler, who rose to fame playing Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli on TV’s “Happy Days” from 1974-84, attended this year’s Iola Car Show in Iola with Stacey, his wife of 40 years.
Although his defining role ended 34 years ago, Winkler remains as busy as ever. He is the executive producer of “Better Late Than Never,” a reality travel show that premiered on NBC in 2016 in which he, boxing legend George Foreman, actor William Shatner, NFL quarterback Terry Bradshaw and comedian Jeff Dye travel the world in search of intimate, life-changing experiences. NBC has yet to decide whether the show will return for a third season.
Winkler also appears as acting coach Gene Cousineau in the HBO comedy “Barry” and has appeared in several films, including “The Lords of Flatbush” (1974), “Heroes” (1977), “The One and Only” (1978), “An American Christmas Carol” (1979), “Absolute Strangers” (1991) and four Adam Sandler movies: “The Waterboy” (1998), “Little Nicky (2000), “Click” (2006) and “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (2008).
He has also co-written a series of children’s books about a dyslexic fourth-grader, Hank Zipzer. Winkler also has the learning disability, but it wasn’t diagnosed until age 31.
A passion for fly-fishing inspired another book, 2011’s “I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River (Reflections on Family, Photography and Fly-Fishing).”
“In the 1980s, my entertainment lawyer took us on a trip down the Smith River in Montana,” said Winkler, who will turn 73 Oct. 30. “We would fish all day and it was really an amazing trip. I don’t think I caught a fish. While I was there, my wife and I enjoyed the surroundings: the sound of the water, the nature, the tranquility. We were – no pun intended – hooked.
“We went to a place called the Firehole Ranch in Montana and then three or four years ago, we started going to The Lodge at Palisades Creek in Idaho,” he said. “There’s a similarity in the land, it’s all beautiful. The river is beautiful. The difference is the fishery. The fishing on the Madison River in Montana became a little difficult over the years. Fishing is never easy. Otherwise, it would be called catching.”
Besides releasing each fish he catches, Winkler also records information in a journal.
“I have written down in a book every fish that I’ve caught: the size of it, where it is, whether the sun was out,” he said. “In the beginning, it was wonderful to remember where I was, what was happening at the moment, when I fell in the river. I take a little notebook with me and a pen and have it in the breast pocket of my fishing shirt. I do it right after I catch the fish because if I waited until the end of the day, I would not remember some of the fish that I caught.”
Besides getting hooked on fly-fishing, Winkler also found another hobby: photography.
“The book started off as a book of my photography,” he said. “Point and shoot, that’s all I’m able to do. I took a wonderful picture of pelicans sitting on a log in a row, just kind of hanging out. That’s another thing I thought I couldn’t do until I just tried it. Those are big lessons in my life. You don’t know what you can accomplish until you try.”
Winkler and his wife headed to Iola after their annual family fishing trip to Idaho.
“I’m usually packed two weeks before we go,” he said. “Trout fishing is my passion outside of my family and my work I have fished in Argentina and all over the United States. I don’t like deep-sea fishing because you have to go out 5 miles. That takes an awfully long time and I usually vomit on the way. It’s uninteresting to me.”
Winkler at first thought his dyslexia would keep him from mastering how to cast a fly rod, but that turned out to not be the case.
“I always thought that I could never get the mechanics down,” he said. “It always seemed complicated to me until we went with my lawyer and I realized your style doesn’t have to be beautiful as long as it’s efficient. A lot of people use too much force. The rods today are made to do almost all the work.”
The fishing trip gives Winkler and his family an opportunity to relax away from the distractions of New York or Los Angeles.
“It’s like a washing machine for your brain,” he said. “You can’t worry about anything else except being in tune with the trout. It’s not like you cast and then you just reel it in. You’ve got to totally be in touch with what that fish wants to do or you lose it.”
This year’s Iola Car Show is Winkler’s first trip to Waupaca County, but he’s no stranger to Wisconsin. “Happy Days” was set in Milwaukee and the city unveiled a bronze statue of Fonzie in 2018. Winkler showed up for the unveiling.
“I never stop myself from having the experience of being in the world,” he said. “People are amazing to me.”
That’s another reason Winkler enjoys events such as the Iola show.
“I get to meet people I would never meet and I get to meet people who have watched all different aspects of my career,” he said. “I’m not a car guy, but having gone to car shows now, my wife and I are amazed at the artistry these men and women do building their cars from the ground up. They are gorgeous and I have deep respect for that.”