Henry Winkler Reveals Why He Turned Down An Iconic Role In Grease After Happy Days, And Why He Regrets It

John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in Grease
(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Henry Winkler has over 150 acting credits in his career, but regardless of what generation you’re from, he will always be The Fonz from Happy Days first and foremost. It’s not only his most iconic role, it’s one of the most iconic roles in the history of television, but it caused Winkler a number of problems in his career, including causing him to turn down the lead in Grease, the movie that made John Travolta a star.

In a recent appearance on CNN Henry Winkler reflected on his career. It turns out that following his run as Arthur Fozerelli, aka The Fonz, Winkler had serious trouble finding work because he was so closely associated with the character. Winkler explained… 

It was so bad that not only could I not find work, but I was sitting at my desk at Paramount and I literally thought ‘am I ever going to find anything with as much impact as the Fonz? How will I know? Will anybody ever ask me? I’m not getting any offers.'

A look at Henry Winkler’s filmography shows just how bad it got for him, during the decade that Happy Days was on the air, and the years immediately after, he did very little else, and most of what he did do was appear as The Fonz on the various shows that spun off from Happy Days. The only role of any size he had outside was his co-starring role alongside a young Michael Keaton in Night Shift, a movie directed by Winkler’s Happy Days castmate Ron Howard. 

Fonzie had become such a force of nature they almost changed the name of
Happy Days
to be about him. It's not a shock that people in Hollywood had trouble seeing him in another role. However, CNN interviewer Chris Wallace pointed out that there was another significant role that Winkler was offered, and turned down…

You do get offered a part. You get offered the part of the lead in Grease over John Travolta, before John Travolta, and you turned it down. Are you a damned fool?

Grease came out in 1978, smack in the middle of Happy Days’ run on TV. It’s blindingly obvious to see why Henry Winkler would be offered the role of Danny Zuko. The leather jacket clad biker was such a similar role to the Fonz that it was obvious Winkler could play the part. And this is exactly why the actor turned it down.

Most actors hate to be typecast. One of the great things about acting is the ability to inhabit a variety of different  roles. Winkler didn’t want to play a role similar to Fonzie because he didn’t want to be typecast. Unfortunately, Winkler agrees that he was a damned fool for turning the role down, because he didn’t realize at the time that the typecasting ship had already sailed. Winkler said… 

Yes, I am. I only realized years afterward. I thought I’ve played the Fonz, I don’t want to do it again. I’m going to cement, it has already happened. I’m already typecast. I should have just shut up, and had a really good time making that movie. Now, I go home, I say ‘no’ and I have a Diet Coke. John Travolta goes home and has done the movie and buys a plane.

Hollywood is full of “what if” stories that have come from actors turning down roles. Will Smith could have been in The Matrix. Mel Gibson was almost James Bond. In the end those careers turned out ok, and while Henry Winkler never became a massive movie star after Happy Days, he built a successful career both in front of the camera as well as behind it that he can certainly be proud of.  

Dirk Libbey
Content Producer/Theme Park Beat

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian, Dirk began writing for CinemaBlend as a freelancer in 2015 before joining the site full-time in 2018. He has previously held positions as a Staff Writer and Games Editor, but has more recently transformed his true passion into his job as the head of the site's Theme Park section. He has previously done freelance work for various gaming and technology sites. Prior to starting his second career as a writer he worked for 12 years in sales for various companies within the consumer electronics industry. He has a degree in political science from the University of California, Davis.  Is an armchair Imagineer, Epcot Stan, Future Club 33 Member.