Henry Winkler Reflects on ‘Happy Days’ ‘Emotional’ Christmas Special

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On December 17, 1974, the classic sitcom, Happy Days, about life in 1950s Milwaukee aired its first holiday episode, “Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas.” The answer to that question: cooler-than-cool Arthur Fonzarelli, played indelibly by Henry Winkler, who recalls that this “emotional” Season 2 installment “started turning the tide for the character of Fonzie.”

Now iconic (his leather jacket is in the Smithsonian!), the biker/high school dropout started off as a supporting role. This Christmas Eve tale “was one of the very first episodes [in which] the Fonz was completely featured,” Winkler says — and gave the actor more to do than offer advice to squeaky-clean teen Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) on “chicks.” On Sunday night, Fonzie claims he has plans in nearby Waukesha to cover up the fact that he’s spending the holiday solo. “I remember being moved by the story that a guy with all this bravado was by himself,” says Winkler, “and left with a canned meal and a tree the size of two ballpoint pens.”

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Once Richie discovers the truth, he and cantankerous dad Howard (Tom Bosley) invite Fonzie over on the pretext of needing his expertise to fix their mechanical Santa Claus. There, the greaser slowly reveals a softer side, even reading aloud from “A Visit From St. Nicholas” as he bonds with the family, especially matriarch Marion (Marion Ross). Fun fact: “Mrs. C” calling Fonzie “Arthur,” which begins two episodes later, was a happy accident. “Marion just did it in a rehearsal, and I stopped and said, ‘I think this is the way it’s got to be!’” shares Winkler, who fondly describes the 90-year-old as “one of the great ladies of the 21st century.”

Sunday night’s episode also marks the final appearance of dim-witted eldest son Chuck (Randolph Roberts), who is never mentioned again. “People still ask me about Chuck,” Winkler says with a laugh, adding that the writers “couldn’t write for Chuck anymore because Fonzie was essentially the big brother.”

Over 11 seasons, Happy Days brought Winkler three Emmy nods (and a Sunday tradition of cast softball games). He finally won his first statue in September for playing acting teacher extraordinaire Gene Cousineau on HBO’s Barry. Says Winkler, who is Jewish: “It was Hanukkah coming early!”

Happy Days, Airs, Sunday, Dec. 16, 5/4c, MeTV and CBS All Access