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My worst moment: Henry Winkler and his first big disappointment as an actor before The Fonz

Some things to know about Henry Winkler. He is an early riser — so early that he happily arranges an interview for 6:30 a.m. his time. He is also a huge fan of Bill Hader’s writing talent.

Hader is the star and co-creator of the HBO series “Barry,” about a hit man who stumbles into an acting class led by the hilariously ridiculous Winkler.

“My character is every acting teacher I have either met, had or heard about,” said Winkler. “He is puffed up. He is pompous. He is narcissistic. His ego and ambition know no bounds and have leaked into the outer stratosphere!

“He’s loosely based on a real teacher who actually used to sell his paintings to his students — students who made no money. He would just fleece his students. So that’s all you need to know about him.” A man with delusions of grandeur and a name-dropper extraordinaire who looks at a struggling student and decides, ‘You’re in a shell. You need to break out, and I’ve got the perfect antidote for you: 10 ccs of pure Mamet!’”

Winkler’s own career includes his iconic turn as The Fonz for a decade on “Happy Days,” and a pronounced dry spell afterward, prompting him to shift gears and start directing. And producing. He’s one of the main forces behind the TV series “MacGyver” on CBS.

When asked about the worst moment in his career for this column, Winkler didn’t hesitate.

My worst moment …

“After I got my master’s at Yale drama school, I was asked to join the repertory theater there. I was making $173 a week. But I then I left that job, I put my snow tires in my 1966 Cutlass and I drove down to Washington, D.C., to the Arena Stage to do a play with James Woods, Michael Tucker, Jill Eikenberry, Stephen Collins and Christopher Guest. This was my first job outside the womb, really. It was called ‘Moon Children,’ and it was about a group of young people living in an apartment. The experience was so bad I have blocked anything more about what it was about from my mind!

“Three weeks into the run, I solved (i.e., figured out the emotional resonance of) my character’s monologue in the third act, and I went to the director and said, ‘I have solved my monologue!’ And he said: ‘You’re fired.’ And in that moment my brain turned to cream cheese. It sounded as if he was talking to me from a great distance. All I heard was ‘You’re fireeeeeeeed.’

“So I put my snow tires back in my car, and I drove home to New York City and I cried the entire way on the turnpike, thinking: ‘Here it is, the very beginning of my career. I have left the womb of drama school, and now I’m fired. I will never work again.’

“I have been fired as an actor and as a director. And each time you think to yourself — or I did, anyway — my career is over. And then you pick yourself up and dust yourself off. I picture myself as that toy, you know the clown that you hit in the nose, and it goes down and then it comes right back up again? And that’s who you must be. You must be resilient and tenacious.”

Was there any hint that his job was on the line?

“No! What really happened was that an actor was doing a movie, and I was only filling time and space until the movie was over until this other guy came back and took his rightful place because he was the one originally cast. It was only years later that I found that out. Cheap and hurtful and devastating and almost damaging. I was 22 or 23. I had very little sense of self at the time, and I was just going on instinct and nerve and insecurity and only later do you realize that being authentic, being who you are, makes you strong and better at everything.

“It was terrible that a director would do this, but this guy had a reputation — there were actors in New York on Broadway who had it in their contract that if they were doing a play and the director got fired and this guy got hired, they could leave the play.”

Could Winkler have imagined that just a handful of years later he would land a major TV role?

“No! Because I was pretty sure that the next thing I was doing was commercials. I did plays for free in New York at the Manhattan Theatre Club. And then I did ‘The Lords of Flatbush’ with Sly Stallone (in 1974), and I got $2,000 for a year’s work. And then I did a Broadway play that opened and closed on the same night in 1973, oh my God! I’m thinking, this is not good. And then finally I made enough money to go to California for one month. And on the second week of that month, I auditioned for ‘Happy Days,’ and I got it. It was amazing.

“I did the show for 10 years and … you don’t get much from that. Every fiber of my being that wanted to be an actor and did everything to be ready for the moment — well, now I’d done the moment and I didn’t know what to do next when ‘Happy Days’ was over. It was psychically painful. So I started to direct. And produce. I went through a series of partners who were writer-creators and then finally hooked up with a guy named John Rich, and we ended up producing ‘MacGyver.’ But I plan on acting until I can’t do it anymore.”

The takeaway …

“You are stronger than the circumstance. This moment might be horrible, but there is a brighter day. The worst time for me on a set is the first day, because I constantly think I have no idea if I can still do this job and it’s your will and tenacity that gets you through it.

“A lot of actors don’t audition when they get to this point in their career. But I do. I sit in those chairs in the waiting area with those young actors looking at me like, ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ And I say, ‘I’m looking for a job. You?’

“It’s the only way, because the young people who are the executives, their life expectancy (in the job) is 19 months. So they need to see you, they need to know you can do the job. When I auditioned for ‘Barry,’ I could see out of the corner of my eye, I think Bill Hader’s laughing! And then I had to come back a second time, and Bill said, ‘I just want to test out some new scenes I wrote last night,’ and the two scenes were better than most entire scripts, honest to God. I was over the moon. The writing on this show, it’s the finest caviar, as opposed to chocolate pudding. It’s that good. And I’m thrilled out of my pants to be doing this.”

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @Nina_Metz

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