LOS ANGELES – During an hour-long chat at his Los Angeles home, Henry Winkler does impressions of George Foreman, Terry Bradshaw and William Shatner (his co-stars in the new NBC reality series “Better Late Than Never”), walks like a ninja who suddenly sports jazz hands, and improvises a scene as the intolerant acting coach he plays in a new HBO comedy.
The 70-year-old entertainer is visibly animated as he discusses his career, which spans four decades and counting. But the overriding vibe from the former Fonz is one of gratitude. It’s not long before he launches into how thankful he is for the opportunities and success he continues to enjoy.
“I live by tenacity and gratitude,” he said. “I am grateful for every inch of earth that I tread on in my life.”
Acting remains a passion. Winkler is also a successful author of children’s books (his 32nd was just published) and travels the country as a motivational speaker. And he’s a doting grandfather of four, including 4 1/2-year-old Ace, a redheaded sprite who calls him “Papa” and stays close to him during this interview.
(Ace just started requesting Winkler’s “Here’s Hank” books as bedtime stories. “I think I’m about to faint,” Winkler said.)
His next television endeavor is “Better Late Than Never,” which premiered Tuesday. The four-episode reality series follows Winkler, Foreman, Bradshaw, Shatner and comedian Jeff Dye on various cultural and culinary adventures in Asia.
As an executive producer, Winkler helped assemble the quintet, who barely knew one another before embarking on the 35-day trip through Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand. But talk about your bonding experiences: Together, they appeared on a Japanese game show, studied with samurai warriors, danced in a K-pop video and befriended elephants at an animal sanctuary.
Now “it’s friends for life,” Winkler said. “It might have been the trip of a lifetime.”
He’s so confident about the show – “to the point that I will come to your house and do the dishes” – if each episode isn’t better than the last.
“The reason that it gets better and better is – if you feel us being a tight unit in the first (episode) – it gets tighter and tighter and we get looser and looser and more outrageous with each other,” he said.
Winkler is also embracing the outrageous in scripted form with “Barry,” a new HBO series that starts production in January. “Saturday Night Live” alum Bill Hader stars as a middling hit man who finds unexpected community among a group of theater hopefuls in Los Angeles. Winkler is their cantankerous acting coach.
Rather than describe the role, he breaks into character.
Winkler studied drama at Yale and has pursued the craft with vigor since he graduated. He only started writing children’s books when he had difficulty shedding the Fonz persona after “Happy Days” ended its 10-year run. But he’s never stopped looking for the next great part. Even now, he still goes out on auditions and dreams big.
“It makes me so happy,” he said. “And now that I’m getting better, that I’m more relaxed, that I’m more in touch with what I’m doing, it’s like I step into nirvana.
“My favorite role is the next role I do,” he continued. “I love going to work.”
Winkler’s joy and gratitude is palpable. He knocks on the wooden table when he mentions his hopes and blessings. He’s kept every single script from “Happy Days” (and every other show and film he’s done) and had them bound in hardback leather like a treasured collection of encyclopedias.
“You cannot take for granted one single second,” he said.
Though he is still yearning for one particular piece of hardware.
“Here’s my bucket list,” Winkler said. “I would like to see my grandchildren thrive. I would like to work until I absolutely cannot anymore. I would like to win a Tony. I watch the Tony Awards and cry every year. I love it. That is my dream. That is my dream. Whatever it is, that is my dream: to win a Tony.”
His thank-you speech may already be written.