Me and the Fonz, by Jeffrey Weinstock

When the television show, Happy Days, first aired in January 1974, I was in junior high.  I was a geek, a nerd, a total outsider.  The few friends I had were also outsiders –the band kids, the theater kids and, worst of all, the mathletes.

On Tuesday nights, I would rush through my social studies or Spanish homework and scarf down dinner so I could be parked in front of the TV at 8:00 sharp.

For the next half an hour, there was no humiliation in gym class, no getting beat up in the hallway.  There were only happy days with Richie and Potsie (the good guys), Ralph Malph (the class clown) and Joanie (the cute but pesky little sister).

And there was the Fonz.

When the Fonz, played by Henry Winkler, came on camera, I could barely breathe.  He was tough, cool and fearless, everything I yearned to be.  He was also everything my body desired – dark-haired, dark-eyed, with blazing white teeth and a provocative smile.  He wore a black leather jacket and tight blue jeans and walked with a swagger that made my knees buckle.  And, as I learned from my secret subscription to Tiger Beat magazine, he was also Jewish.  Oh. My. God.

The first season of Happy Days, I saw every single episode.  That summer, I watched the reruns, again and again.

In the meantime, my days were anything but happy. By the following spring, I was dreading the end of 9th grade which meant leaving the familiar turf of junior high for the strange, unknown territory of high school.  I wasn’t getting along with my parents or my brother, hated the few friends I had, and was spending all my time moping around the house and being miserable.

Feeling desperate and lonely, I sat down at my desk one day and wrote Henry Winkler a letter.  What should I do about having no real friends?   What should I do about the kids who won’t even look at me?  What should I do about…being me?

I found the address of Paramount Studios in a book at the public library, sent off the letter, and forgot all about it.

One afternoon six weeks later, my brother came into the den while I was watching Match Game ’75. He said, “This came for you today,” and tossed me an envelope.

It was postmarked “Hollywood, CA.” At 15, I rarely received mail, and certainly not from Hollywood.

The envelope contained two folded pages of a script with different characters’ names: Richie, Potsie, Joanie.  Toward the bottom of the first page, a line of dialogue was circled.  It read “Fonzie.”  I turned the pages over and saw the following written in clear, cursive black letters:

Jeff, Dig it!  No one has power unless you give it to them.  Don’t wait for anyone else to open up.  Do it first.

What did that mean?

You are young and growing and then again you are not young at all.  Your letter is one of the most lucid I have received.

I stopped to look up “lucid” in the Webster’s student dictionary on my bookshelf.

Growing pains.  They almost never stop.   I’m 29 ½ and emotionally growing, too, with the pain that goes with it.

I thought—still growing? You’re 29 ½ and still haven’t figured it out? Besides, who are you?”

I remembered something I had read in Tiger Beat. The Fonz received over 10,000 letters a week and would sometimes answer the “special” ones on the back of his script.

I began to breathe faster and my heart started to pound.  I read the letter through and put it down.  I picked it up and read it again.  I ran my index finger over the pages, tracing the shape of the letters, trying to absorb their heat. And each time I got to the end, I examined the signature, still not sure if I believed my eyes.

That night I wrote him back to thank him for the letter.  I was sure we were going to be pen pals and that someday we’d even meet and become best friends.

Weeks went by without a response.  I started to search TV Guide for any talk shows he might be on.  I would mark them down in my diary and always tune in just in case he talked about that one “special” letter from the teenager on Long Island, the one that had moved him so much he simply had to write back.

But he never did.

Twenty years later, I was 35 and had been living overseas for many years.  I was still scared and confused, but now it wasn’t about my lack of popularity.  It was about finding my way out of the dark, airless closet I was living in.

­­­­­­­My parents were moving and had asked me to come home, clean out my childhood bedroom, and take any belongings I wanted to keep.

In the middle drawer of my desk, underneath the report cards from 9th grade and the certificate of a tree planted in Israel in honor of my bar mitzvah, I came across a letter.

For a moment, I didn’t recognize it.  Then I saw the Hollywood, CA postmark and the familiar handwriting in cursive black letters.  I opened the envelope, now yellowed, and pulled out the pages written on the back of the script.

I read the letter three times from beginning to end.  As a lonely 15 year-old boy, I’d been thrilled to get a personal letter from my idol. At 35, confused and closeted, seeing his handwriting still made my heart pound but I thought I was beginning to understand his message of opening up and taking risks.

Now I am 55 and only slightly less confused as I face the solitude of middle age and tarnishing of old dreams.  I reread the letter sometimes and feel an odd mixture of sadness and gratitude.

I realize now how kind it was of him to write me back and how much thought was put into his response.  And, most of all, I finally understand how truly wise his advice was.

If you know who you are, everybody else will, too.  If they can’t see it, leave them behind.  Self-respect is the cornerstone of joy.

The letter ends with the words my 15 year-old, 35 year-old, and 55 year-old selves needed, and still need, to hear:

Trust yourself,” Henry Winkler


Jeffrey Weinstock was born in New York and educated at Yale and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  His writing has been featured in Tablet, NPR’s The Story, The Examined Life, Hippocampus, The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine and Lip Service.  He lives in Miami Beach and teaches at the University of Miami.


Jeffrey Weinstock

%d bloggers like this: