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Happy Days

Welcome Back, Kotter

Two iconic 70's sit-coms complete with popular catch-phrases, laugh-tracks and singable theme songs. (God I miss singable theme songs.) I watched both. I laughed at them. Thought "Sit on it" and "Upper your nose with a rubber hose" were hilarious. I think I probably liked Welcome Back a little better, because the ensemble worked better and there was slightly more of an edge, especially when Kotter and the Sweathogs would do their schticks, especially the Marx Brothers routines. (At the time, Gabe Kaplan did a lot of stand up on Carson and stuff, I THINK He was the one who did a funny impression of a drunk Ed Sullivan that my father found hilarious, although it might also have been Steve Landesberg.)

But the most interesting thing about these shows is that the characters they are most known for weren't the leads.

You couldn't get bigger than the Fonz in 1974 or Vinnie Barbarino in 1975. Break-out stars who completely took over their shows and two young, sexy actors who were clearly headed for super-stardom.

So why when I see Henry Winkler in a promo for a Vince Vaughan movie about a teacher who becomes a wrestler or a mixed martial arts fighter or something, is doing third or forth lead as the coach, whereas John Travolta is still a star who makes the front pages if a masseur accuses him of something untoward?

Was there a charisma gap between the two that I wasn't aware of in 1975/76? Is the difference between a Jew playing an Italian and an actual Italian playing an Italian. Is it the fact that Henry Winkler stuck with his series until the bitter end and when he did make a movie it was Night Shift with Michael Keaton, where in an effort (?) to get away from the Fonz, he played the nebbishy nice guy, where as John Travolta went directly from being Vinnie Barbarino to being Tony Manero and then being Danny Zuko. (Even if you hate everything the "plot" of Grease stands for and you never want to hear any of those songs every again, I still defy you not to start singing along when the opening chords of "Summer Nights" start at your local karaoke bar.)

Because while Henry Winkler has worked consistently, he was never a star of that magnitude again, whereas Travolta managed to survive Moment by Moment, and Battlefield Earth.

Maybe after you've been Tony Manero and Danny Zuko, you get the chance to be Vince Vega and Edna Turnblad eventually and nothing can ever take that away from you. But that still leaves the initial mystery of who has onsceen magic and luck that transcends looking good in a leather jacket and who doesn't.

However...Henry Winkler, when interviewed seems like a happy guy. I don't know if he always had peace with not being the kind of star that Travolta became so quickly, but these days, post various tragedies and tabloid headlines and whatever he does or doesn't get from his buddies in Scientology, you wonder how happy Mr. Travolta actually is, although lots of money and Kelly Preston is not chopped liver.

To quote Pete Townsend, "Stardom in action, that's all they've got."


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 12th, 2012 03:35 am (UTC)
I've only ever seen a couple of interviews of Henry Winkler, but in the ones I have I got the impression that for him acting was more about the craft than it was about fame. Perhaps that's why he's satisfied even though he's not an A-list celebrity anymore. Perhaps he has personal satisfaction with the projects he has done over the years and that's enough for him. If so, then kudos to him.

I have heard a lot of interviews of John Travolta but none of them were memorable enough for me to have a lasting impression from them, so I really can't comment on how satisfied he is or whether or not acting is a job that makes him famous or a vocation that feeds his soul. My heart does go out to him and Kelly at the passing of their son. I cannot imagine the kind of heartache that would bring and I certainly never want to find out. As for being in the tabloids so much lately, unfortunately that comes with stardom. The mass public doesn't care what kind of trash is dragged up for the word to see, I guess. I reserve any kind of judgment on the man since people in glass houses should never be given stones to throw. We all have our skeletons, but most of us aren't famous enough to have our private lives dragged in the mud for the world to see.

Sep. 12th, 2012 04:32 pm (UTC)
Scandal is part of being a star. Always has been. Always will be. Travolta was in the tabloids back in the 70's because of his "shocking" affair with Diana Hyland who was *gasp* 18 years older than him, as well as her tragic death.

I'd hate to think that part of the Winkler vs Travolta conundrum is that Mr. Winkler has been married to the same woman since 1978 and hasn't really had any scandal attached to him that I can think of. Hence, nothing for the tabs to glom onto and not as much for the public to incorporate into their collective fantasies.
Sep. 12th, 2012 07:00 am (UTC)
We didn't get "Welcome back, Kotter" in Italy. At least not that I can remember: wikipedia tells me that the airing was stopped after season one for lack of public interest. It was shown in full much kater, when John Travolta became famous.
On the other hand, the whole country went crazy after "Happy Days", all boys wanted to look like Fonzie, and girls were supposed to try and wear unheard of combinations, like skirts and ankle socks with flat footed shoes. Yeah, in retrospect I'm mostly bothered by how male-centered all these shows were; at the time, it was just normal.
And we didn't notice either that Winkler was Jewish, or that Fonzie was supposed to be italoamericano.

Almost OT: In a moment of brilliance, or maybe laziness, the theme song was left unchanged. The words were so easy that I can remember eventually understanding a few verses, a year or two into learning English. It felt more wonderful than I can coherently express.
Sep. 12th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
"in retrospect I'm mostly bothered by how male-centered all these shows were"
this is an excellent point. Especially Kotter. His wife was the only woman on the show and about all she ever did was laugh at his jokes and say "and then what happened, honey?"
Sep. 12th, 2012 04:18 pm (UTC)
Let's not forget Debralee Scott (who I LOVED On Mary Hartman) as Rosalie "Hotsie" Totsie. In fact one of the few episodes I remember in any detail was when she was trying to fight her slut reputation by claiming to be pregnant and all of sudden the Sweathogs who'd been bragging that they slept with her all backed off.

But the point stands. Welcome Back, Kotter was essentially a male preserve. I think Happy Days did slightly better and of course they did spin off Laverne and Shirley.
Sep. 12th, 2012 04:23 pm (UTC)
i was thinking more in terms of regulars. DLS was only in one episode (the faked pregnancy one you mentioned). Mary Hartman allowed all its female characters to be funny and have personalities. :)
Sep. 12th, 2012 04:26 pm (UTC)
IMDB says six episodes, but your point stands, since that's the only one I can remember at all.

I'll have to put MH, MH on the list for my meme. Need to so some more contemporary shows first.
Sep. 12th, 2012 04:21 pm (UTC)
An interesting point is that the theme song for Happy Days only started in the second season. In the first they used, "Rock Around The Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets.

Happy Days was spawned by the movie American Graffiti (which had Ron Howard and an amazing cast of soon to be much bigger stars including Harrison Ford in a very small part) and both of them launched a major 50's nostalgia trend in the 70's, which might have had something to do with Watergate/Vietnam and the proverbial longing for a "simpler" time.

It's interesting that today's major "retro" show, Mad Men at least takes a more honest look at the hypocrisies of the period as well as the racism and sexism, and yet people STILL fall into the "things were better then" trap while watching it, because it's done so glamorously.
Sep. 12th, 2012 11:35 am (UTC)
Thinking properly about it, I don't think I really know a great deal about either actor and their outlook on their careers - I think the most I've seen is the VH1 Behind The Music programmes on Grease and Saturday Night Fever. But Henry Winkler always seemed to me to be finding a good balance between his past and present career - many actors who find such wide-reaching fame in early more lightweight roles later try to disown them in order to be taken 'more seriously' but he always seems to be OK about it, well aware that there will always be some people who might see his latest play because it's the guy who was Fonzie in it.
Sep. 12th, 2012 04:24 pm (UTC)
I think another interesting point is that Henry Winkler was already nearly thirty when Happy Days started, so he was in some ways already a bit old to be playing Fonzie, but possibly more mature and grounded in his own life.

Another possibility is that Fonzie was a retro character, whereas Barbarino was very contemporary to the time, so going into Saturday Night Fever wasn't as much of a jump as it might have been for Henry Winkler to do a major contemporary based film at the time. Fairly ironic then that Travolta then went on to do Grease. Although Kenickie is closer to being a Fonzie character in that one.
Sep. 12th, 2012 04:06 pm (UTC)
If Moment to Moment and Battlefield Earth were the only flops Travolta had been in, that would have been one thing but he's been in so many and yet it doesn't kill his career. i want to know how he does it.
Sep. 12th, 2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
Well, Moment By Moment certain stopped his momentum post-Saturday Night Fever and Grease. He wasn't completely in the wilderness until Pulp Fiction, but he wasn't at the level he might have been otherwise. I think after the Pulp Fiction come-back, he can pretty much get away with anything. The individual films might flop, but he has a certain aura of invincibility that allows him to continue as a top-flight star.

In a way, the personal tragedy and scandal adds to that aura. What's a star without a few scandals?

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )



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