Kitsap’s Connection to The Fonz

Yesterday, I covered an appearance by Henry Winkler on Bainbridge Island. Winkler is arguably best known as the Fonz on the 1970s sitcom “Happy Days.”

Winkler, who was in Seattle promoting a children’s book he has written, accommodated a request from West Sound Reads! to speak at Bainbridge High School about the book, which is part of a series on “Hank Zipzer, the World’s Greatest Underachiever.” The series is loosely, and in spots not so loosely based on Winkler’s own lifelong struggle with dyslexia.

I learned from arts and entertainment reporter Mike Moore that Kitsap County has its own connection to The Fonz in Frank Buxton, a Bainbridge Island resident with a 60 year career in the entertainment industry. Buxton and I were unable to hook up in time for me to include his comments in the story. They’re worthy of note, however.

And yes, we were going to call this blog “Everything But Bainbridge.” Now I guess that’s off the table.

Buxton, who spent 20 + years in Los Angeles writing, producing, directing and acting, was a story editor and director for “Happy Days”. According to Buxton, the sitcom evolved out of an episode of “Love American Style,” a show he also worked on. The episode included Ron Howard (Ritchie Cunningham) and a couple other cast members of what would become “Happy Days.” The plot of the pilot episode revolved around the family getting the first television set in the neighborhood, with the dad having to walk the rabbit ears antenae out into the hallway to get reception. (Just try explaining this to anyone under 20. You may as well be speaking Martian.)

Speaking of martians, Buxton, in his lengthy and diverse career, directed segments of “Mork and Mindy,” staring a then youthful Robin Williams, known for his zany improvisation. “I would let him go, but then I’d have to rein him in,” Buxton said. And right, I know, Mork was from Ork not Mars.

BTW, Buxton’s career is far from over. He remains active in local theater, on a syndicated radio program produced in Seattle and in other acting parts. His website is worth a look-see. His motto pretty much says it all, “I have lived for many years on the outskirts of show business with an occasional trip into town.”

Back to the Fonz. Winkler, unlike Howard, was a relative newcomer to television. He had played a similar greaser-type character on the movie “Lords of Flatbush.” Buxton said he never was aware that Winkler had a learning disability. It did not impair his ability to memorize lines from a script, even when they went to a taped-before-live-audience format that required longer segments of filming.

Buxton said Winkler’s character, which didn’t have much of a presence until some time after the show started, was a good counterpoint to Howard’s squeeky clean, all-American boy character.

Winkler himself was easy to work with, Buxton said. “From where I stood, he took direction very well. If we had a difference of opinion, as sometimes happens, we’d work it out.”

In fact, said Buxton, the whole cast of “Happy Days” lived up to their show’s name. “Henry was a delight to work with,” he said. “In fact everyone was. There were no prima donnas on that show.”

That description of Winkler held up in my brief observation of him. He was down-to-earth, funny and honest. He answered questions from the kids in the audience with the same attention and respect he showed the adults. At the book-signing afterward, he was warm and genuine in his praise and encouragement of the youngsters, some of whom had read his books. Some of whom had not.

It was refreshing to me to see someone who has spent so much time in show biz come out so unscathed. I’m thinking his dyslexia, which used to make him feel insecure, has given him a sense of humility not typically associated with the words “movie star.”

In the brief time I had to talk with him before he hurried off to catch the ferry, I shared with him that one of my kids has a learning disability. He was very encouraging, very kind. He told me, “You tell her, ‘When you get out of school, you’ll soar like an eagle.'”

OK, we couldn’t check out without seeing the Fonz in action.

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