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Henry Winkler tells Jimmy Kimmel about the time he saved a life over the phone

Henry Winkler
Screenshot: Jimmy Kimmel Live!

If there’s one good thing in this benighted world, it’s that renowned nice guy Henry Winkler is a big star once again. (Not 56 percent of the viewing audience big, but there were only three networks the first time around.) On Tuesday’s show, Jimmy Kimmel brought out some vintage Happy Days memorabilia from Winkler’s long-ago first foray into TV stardom, with the clearly tickled Winkler happily debunking some of the studio-manufactured hobbies chronicled in an all-Fonzie fan magazine. (The Fonz may have liked making birdhouses on the show, but, sadly, Winkler himself was not, as the magazine assured fans with an elaborate potter’s wheel photo layout, an avid ceramics enthusiast.) With Happy Days childhood fan Kimmel quizzing Winkler on the Fonz’s most infamous, lexicon-spawning stunt, the legendarily affable Winkler happily explained that, yes, he did do all of his own waterskiing (apart from the actual jump over a very real, penned-up shark), thanks to his father’s prodding that he tell producer Garry Marshall that waterskiing was an actual skill that could be added to Arthur Fonzarelli’s coolness quiver. (Winkler, ever the mensch, even donned a wetsuit later in the show to take part in Kimmel’s ongoing bellyflop tournament.)

And as delighted as Winkler is at his Emmy-winning late-career renaissance as Barry’s self-obsessed acting teacher Gene Cousineau, he did tell Kimmel about one time that being the biggest star on television gave him the power to do some real good. Explaining how, on his Happy Days rehearsal hotline phone (which is something the Fonz would definitely have), he one day received a call from a sheepish Illinois state trooper with an active jumper on the other line, Winkler told Kimmel that he channeled some of his character’s storied cool to actually talk to the 17-year-old aspiring actor, who claimed he was going to jump unless he could talk to his acting idol. “I don’t know where I got the nerve to take the phone,” said Winkler, although the effectively gruff tough love tack he described taking with the troubled young man had more than a little of the the Fonz to it. And while handing the fate of a suicidal person to a TV star seems like questionable police procedure, at least Winkler wouldn’t have been channeling the self-importantly oblivious Gene Cousineau back in the 70s. Or, even/arguably worse, Barry Zuckerkorn.

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Dennis Perkins

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.