3 questions for Henry Winkler on his new PBS talk show and longtime friendship with Jimmy Kimmel

Winkler goes from talk show guest to talk show host on PBS Arts Talk.

Henry Winkler gets to live out his talk show host dreams chatting with Jimmy Kimmel on PBS Arts Talk. (Illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Getty Images, PBS)
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Henry Winkler has been a talk show guest for nearly four decades, sitting down opposite such renowned interviewers as Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Arsenio Hall in their late-night prime. Now, thanks to PBS, the beloved Happy Days and Barry star is finally getting the chance to be a talk show host.

Winkler is one of several artists anchoring PBS Arts Talk, a half-hour interview series that premiered over the summer where famous artists talk to each other about their career paths and signature works. Winkler chatted with Grammy-winning musician, Seal, and Jimmy Kimmel Live host, Jimmy Kimmel, for the show, and he tells Yahoo Entertainment that those two episode left him eager for more.

"Before PBS Arts Talk, there were a few times where I thought, 'I could host a talk show — I would be OK at doing this,''" Winkler says. "But I never thought, 'I'm going to pursue it!' I had a bunch of questions that were written for me, but I found that when you really actively listen, all the questions present themselves. I think it is very important to listen and just go where the adventure takes you."

Winkler's conversation with Kimmel was certainly adventurous as the two real-life friends discussed Kimmel's start in the business and the emotional birth of his son, Billy, who entered the world with a serious heart condition. During their interview, Winkler's obvious affection for his guest takes on an almost fatherly tone.

"I genuinely have affection for Jimmy," the 77-year-old actor says. "I admire him — I really do. He shows his emotion, he's funny and he's ruthless in the world of comedy. He will go where he needs to go."

Of course, not everyone appreciates Kimmel's comic ruthlessness as much as Winkler. The host is a favorite target in conservative circles for his ridiculing of Republican lawmakers like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Ted Cruz. Kimmel has also been criticized by progressive viewers, most notably following the 2022 Emmys when he lay down on the stage during Abbott Elementary creator, Quinta Brunson's acceptance speech. (Kimmel later apologized to Brunson on an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live.)

Asked whether he takes it personally when he sees his friend criticized, Winkler says that Kimmel doesn't need any back-up. "He can handle himself," Winkler notes. "He's always got a comeback and stands in the center of his own belief. It's like that Weebles toy — not matter where you hit him, he always comes right back to the center."

We asked Winkler three questions about the importance of talking about the arts, his friendship with Sylvester Stallone and whether he regrets passing on John Travolta's iconic role in Grease.

1. Why is it more important than ever to hear artists talk about the arts?

Winkler interviews Seal on an episode of PBS Arts Talks. (Courtesy PBS)
Winkler interviews Seal on an episode of PBS Arts Talks. (Courtesy PBS) (PBS)

Because even as a seasoned professional, you listen [to another artist] and you go, "I know that feeling." Or: "That's a great way to look at it. I'm going to use that." Or: "We're the same." If you look at these people and think, "I thought I was far away from that person's art," you'll realize, "I feel that way." That's incredibly helpful, sociologically, psychologically and emotionally.

My conversation with Seal was so genuine. He's quite a powerful person and I thought, "You know what? I'm going to go for the gold." So I said to him, "I'm so interested in your scars. I've heard over the years that they could possibly have been ritual." He said, "Nope," and then he told me when they developed and how they developed and we talked about that for a while. It was amazing. I think it's very important for the interviewer to be the fan to listen and just go where the adventure takes you.

I realized that the differences between us have nothing to do with the sameness. And that's not a bad lesson for this country at this moment in time. I've often said that if you're on your roof because your entire house is flooded and a boat is coming to save you, I don't think that you ask them: "Hey, what's your political party?" We need each other. What the hell are we thinking?

2. Are you still friends with your Lords of Flatbush co-star, Sylvester Stallone?

I just saw him a month ago at a pizza place in Beverly Hills! We had a slice together. He has moved from L.A., but I call him all the time because I think that his new show, Tulsa King, is great and I would debrief him on each episode. He's a wonderful, funny, articulate man who talks out of the side of his mouth, but what's hidden in there is not a rough-cut diamond — it's a diamond.

I remember that he was always really bent on attention to detail. He's a writer and when we were making The Lords of Flatbush, he invited me to his apartment, which was a walk-up on Lexington Avenue that he shared with his first wife, Sasha and their bull mastiff, who was bigger than the apartment! This dog and the slobber from this dog was knee-deep.

Sly had painted his windows black because he didn't want to be affected by the night or day when he wrote. He didn't want to go, "Oh, it's too late to write." He just sat down and wrote whenever he was called by the keyboard. I thought that was amazing.

He also always had these big rings. I would have had to carry a ring like that around in a wheelbarrow! I never could have put that ring on my finger and hold my hand up to hail a cab. I would have had to have used a pulley system.

3. Do you regret turning down the John Travolta role in Grease?

John Travolta beat out Henry Winkler to play Danny Zuko in the movie version of Grease. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
John Travolta beat out Henry Winkler to play Danny Zuko in the movie version of Grease. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection) (Everett Collection)

No, because I turned it down for two reasons. One was because, like a dope, I thought that I would be so typecast and that by not doing Grease, I could beat the system. Not true! So that was number one. Number two — I can't sing!

I know that they have people who can dub the singing in later, but when I was doing the Fonz, they also asked me to make a record. I said, "I can't sing." And they said, "Don't worry about it. We'll record one note at a time and then piece them altogether and you'll sound great." I said, "But that would be a lie."

They did release an album, Fonzie Favorites, in 1976, but those songs weren't my favorites. I don't even know what songs they are! I have very little integrity, but in that place, I had it. Catch me on another day and I will sell my soul!

PBS Arts Talk is currently airing on most PBS stations and streaming on PBS.com