A Look Back At When Fonzie ‘Jumped The Shark’ And Changed TV Forever

Henry Winkler's performance helped define what it means to jump the shark
Henry Winkler's performance helped define what it means to jump the shark
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Several moments from big shows and movies become injected into everyday vocabulary. From old sitcoms to present day, iconic scenes and gimmicks are so memorable, one quick reference is all it takes to get a point across. Happy Days gave us this, with the Fonz himself as the driving force behind that unforgettable moment in TV history. On his birthday, we’re reflecting on his achievements, including giving us the phrase “to jump the shark.”

Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli became a breakout character on the ’70s sitcom Happy Days. Portraying Fonzie was Henry Winkler, born on October 30, 1945. From 1974 to 1984, audiences made this secondary character into a fast favorite. Due to this popularity, this greaser became a lead on the ABC classic. In that time, the show gave viewers a lot to look forward to, but eventually, those contributions changed a bit. By 1977, one episode, in particular, gave a performance that taught us all that happens when the ideas run out. This and more mark Winkler’s contributions to America’s cultural memory.

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Perseverance will get everyone far

A young Henry Winkler
A young Henry Winkler / Biography.com

Winkler’s parents immigrated to the United States from Germany on the eve of World War II. Items of value, including precious gems, were hidden as a box of chocolates carried close by Winkler’s father. There, they settled down on the West Side of Manhattan, where Winkler was born. While Winkler saw success come easily to his father, who spoke 11 languages and could perform mental maths with ease, Winkler struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia. This put a strain on his relationship with his parents and himself. He had a difficult time with academics because his dyslexia went unchecked throughout his school years. His father did not understand it.

RELATED: Henry Winkler Shares A Story Of How Fonzie Saved A Young Fan’s Life

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Eventually, Winkler graduated high school and found more luck at college. He successfully received his BA from Emerson College, then went on to the Yale School of Drama where, in 1970, he earned an MFA. In this less restricted environment, Winkler was able to better pursue his own passions. He knew since he was very young that he wanted to be an actor; it was simply a matter of working through difficulties in geometry class and the like. His continued efforts and refusal to let insults discourage him paid off.

A rocky start revealed a clear path to flourishing

Winkler on Lords of Flatbush
Winkler on Lords of Flatbush / Columbia Pictures on Ultimate Classic Rock

After his time at Yale School of Drama, Winkler returned to New York. There, he auditioned for a role in 42 Seconds from Broadway. He earned a spot among the cast. Still in New York, Winkler made his first appearance on TV as an extra for a game show. Work there earned him a grand total of $10. At least the experience carried some more weight! However, he did hit another rough patch in Washington, where he was fired from a play. That quickly encouraged another return to New York, and that is when the work started to flow more. Winkler appeared in some 30 commercials in one year alone as a means of supporting himself.

Success with acting in commercials gave Winkler some flexibility to pursue theater for free at the Manhattan Theater Club. Gradually, his appearances on TV shifted from commercials to include more shows, and not just game shows. He appeared in season four of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1973. Additionally, he appeared in some episodes of Rhoda and The Bob Newhart Show. In 1974 he even filmed the movie The Lords of Flatbush.

And then came some very Happy Days for Winkler

Winkler became a key part of Happy Days
Winkler became a key part of Happy Days / Biography.com

These many appearances and opportunities made for a high quantity, but in terms of quality, Henry Winkler was not yet a household name. That was about to change. Originally, Happy Days director/producer Garry Marshall imagined the Fonz as a very different individual. Fonzie was supposed to be a secondary, slow foil to better showcase the real star, Ron Howard. That foil was supposed to be a beefy, Italian hunk played by Micky Dolenz. But Winkler’s interpretation during auditions granted him the role instantly.

“The Fonz,” Winkler felt, “was everybody I wasn’t. He was everybody I wanted to be.” In a remarkable twist, soon Ron Howard was completely gone and Winkler’s Fonzie was the central character. Fonzie remained a stereotypical greaser as originally intended, but with Winkler’s personal spin, driven by his personal interpretations, appearance, and short stature. His windbreakers, then leather jackets, appeared with Fonzie in all of the show’s 255 episodes. In some cases, Winkler and Fonzie found some commonalities. Both of them had complex relationships with their fathers, as Fonzie’s disappeared when he was young. He deals with his mixed emotions, all while exerting an outwardly tough demeanor. That toughness eases, though, in the form of respect directed at anyone who shows the guts to stand toe-to-toe with him. If “you got guts,” chances are you’ll have Fonzie’s respect.

That’s great and all, but it’s still not good to jump the shark

255 episodes is a lot of time to fill. In fact, maybe it’s too much time. When the ideas become spread thin and run in short supply, some things get dragged out. Those things are not always the most practical for a TV show. Indeed, they may not fit the themes and trends established by the show to begin with. Such was the concern with Happy Days when the series seemed to have run its course, and viewers learned all too well what it means “to jump the shark.”

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That phrase came into use when Happy Days had the Fonz literally jump a shark. By Season 5, some outlandish concepts got thrown into the mix that were maybe best left on the cutting room floor. Popular shows face a very precarious balance in giving audiences what they want – more of their favorite sitcom – versus running their creativity reserves dry. To jump the shark is defined on Wikipedia as “the moment when something that was once popular that no longer warrants the attention it previously received makes an attempt at publicity, which only serves to highlight its irrelevance. This is especially applicable to television series or other entertainment outlets.”

Fortunately, Winkler’s career did not encounter such an awkward experience

Henry Winkler on HBO's Barry
Henry Winkler on HBO’s Barry / Den of Geek

Everything about that season 5 episode is a bit ridiculous. Fonzie’s wardrobe is unsuitable for any kind of activity in the water, but this was in part due to a deal between him and the producers, when he asserted Fonzie’s windbreaker was impossible to appear cool in. When they relented in letting Winkler have a leather jacket, Winkler apparently clung on to that thing everywhere, including the ocean. There, he depicts the moment Fonzie jet skis up a ramp and over a shark that, miraculously, stays within the ring of floatation devices surrounding it. Maybe someone on that beach was a shark whisperer…or maybe, as some viewers suggested, video of that shark is just stock footage. Goodness knows there’s a lot of it, and overall buildup in general, likely in an effort to pad the runtime.

Henry Winkler too kept his career running like Happy Days just kept running, though with more grace, and with no further need to jump the shark. Across his years as an actor, he has accumulated numerous awards and recognitions to his name. These include two Golden Globe Awards, three Primetime Emmy Nominations, an actual Primetime Emmy Award, two Daytime Emmy Awards, and more. Even after not only redefining and immortalizing a popular character on Happy Days, Winkler was not done with being on popular shows. He has made appearances on Royal Pains, Arrested Development, and even Parks and Recreation. It’s probably no surprise that he is still an active force in the entertainment industry. When you contribute as much as Winkler has, only time will tell what more surprises can be forged. For these reasons, we all wish him a very happy birthday.

Winkler gave us the phrase "to jump the shark"
Winkler gave us the phrase “to jump the shark” / Goliath

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