Comedy icon Henry Winkler stars in surrealistic ‘Childrens Hospital’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Henry Winkler apologized for being a bit under the weather as he began his interview with Toledo Free Press Star, but one could never have guessed that from the enthusiasm in his voice. The iconic comic actor was thrilled as he shared details of his newest project. A series of children’s books he wrote about a character named Hank Zipzer, inspired by his own childhood experiences growing up dyslexic, is being turned into a television series by the BBC.
“I’m leaving in the middle of September, and I’m going to play the music teacher,” Winkler said of the project.
“But this is a major thing in my life, because I … we tried to sell them, and over the years, for some reason, we couldn’t sell them. And now they’re going to be on the BBC.
“It’s amazing. I’m not kidding, it’s like you’ve climbed Mount Everest, and you can open a bottle at the top. For me, it would be seltzer water.”
It’s clearly an exciting time for Winkler, and not just because of the Zipzer project on the horizon. Between his memorable turns on “Arrested Development” and “Royal Pains,” the actor and producer — famous worldwide for his portrayal of The Fonz on the classic series “Happy Days” — has been seeing a remarkable revival as a performer in recent years.
What may be his most prominent current role, though, comes from a very unusual source — a 15-minute television show. That began life as a Web series. Which, despite being live-action, airs on a network devoted to animation.
“Childrens Hospital,” creator and star Rob Corddry’s bizarrely hilarious satire of medical dramas, recently began its fifth season on Cartoon Network’s late-night comedy block Adult Swim. Winkler was on hand reprising his role as hospital administrator Sy Mittleman.
“I got a call that Rob Corddry would like to invite you to be on ‘Childrens Hospital,’” said Winkler, who joined the cast in its second season. “And then, there it was. And I was smart enough to say yes. Because I had no idea — I go completely on my instinct and I had never seen the webisodes. And boom, here we are.”
Surrounded by actors who are deliberately playing over-the-top and gleefully surrealistic, Winkler’s portrayal of the relatively subdued Mittleman stands in stark contrast — which the actor said was completely by design.
“He’s kind of like the head of the hospital, so he has to have a little — a little weight. But he gets tangled up in all of these people, and has no idea what they’re talking about. I mean, I’m telling you, there are times when we’re doing the show, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the hell am I talking about?’ I don’t have the slightest idea. And somehow, it all seems to work out.
“That is Rob, that is [producers] David Wain and Jon Stern. They are in control, they are very … concerned and very aware of how a scene is going. They’re there all the time. They allow us to improvise, but if we go too far from their vision, it’s pulled back. It is a well-thought-out chaos.”
It’s clear that this newfound renaissance as an actor delights Winkler, who made it plain that he’s still not quite sure how it happened. “It was not totally my decision. Mitch Hurwitz asked me to be the lawyer for the Bluths (on ‘Arrested Development’). And I was supposed to do one episode. I stayed for four years, you know? On ‘Royal Pains,’ I went in, I played the dad, I was supposed to do, like, a few episodes. And I just finished my episodes for season five. It’s just amazing to me.”
There have been some adjustments to be made for this new era of comedy — while back in the early days of Winkler’s career, multicamera sitcoms in front of an audience were the rule, these days single-camera shows dominate.
“The only difference — because acting is acting is acting — the only difference is, when you do multicam, you have an audience that dictates your timing,” Winkler said. “You hear the laugh, you have to be, as an actor, aware of the laugh. You have to be aware of the apex of the laugh, and then start your next line as it starts to wane.
“In the one camera — like doing a scene with Malin Akerman or with Megan Mullaly or Rob Huebel — these people are so genuinely funny, that you have got to concentrate. Because Megan will do something, and I will think to myself, ‘Wow. I wish I had thought of that. Wow, how did she get there?’ And I totally forget it’s my next line.”
But no matter the example — whether it’s “Hospital,” “Arrested,” “Royal Pains” or more —Winkler said there is usually a common ground among shows that garner the love of their audience. Even his most famous one.
“You know, what is true about all the shows we’ve talked about so far — even back to ‘Happy Days,’ with Garry Marshall and Tom Miller and Eddie Milkis — every show had a point of view. And the creators were true to their point of view. And everything had to fit — everything has to fit into the vision of their perception of what they want from the show. And it’s pretty amazing.”