I had another great discussion with Howard Stein this week, and our conversation turned from necessary writing, to the Mozart Syndrome, and then into the realm of imagination as described by the great acting teacher, Stella Adler.


The alumni of the Stella Adler Conservatory for Actors is illuminating:

“Stella,” Howard, told me, “believed imagination was in the choice. 
Not a fantastic choice, but a human one.  Real.  Believable.”

As an example of one of Stella’s brightest stars, Howard mentioned Henry Winkler — few people know “The Fonz” is a classically trained actor and he graduated from the Yale School of Drama with an MFA in Acting in 1970 — to illustrate how imagination is revealed in the choice.

When Henry moved to Los Angeles to break into Hollywood, he borrowed a $1,000.00USD and slept at night on the floor of a friend’s apartment. 

In 1974, Henry was called in to read for Fonzie on Happy Days, and the script indicated he was supposed to “try to get the bra off a woman while he was talking to her.”

As Henry read over the scene, he made three imaginative choices for a television comedy set in the sock-hop 1950s:

  1. Fonzie did not wear a leather jacket.
  2. Fonzie never combs his hair.
  3. Fonzie’s power was in speaking very little.

When Henry took his turn to read the scene for the creative team of Happy Days, he was told to comb his hair as part of action.

“The Fonz doesn’t comb his hair.”  Henry said.

The team, pausing for a moment in disbelief at the gall of the young, unproven, actor, yelled at Henry, “go over to that mirror and comb your hair during the scene!”

The scene started and Henry moved over to the mirror, took a comb out of his pocket, started to comb his hair and stopped mid-air — admiring his hair’s existing perfection in the mirror. 

That tidbit — of Henry’s imaginative choice as an actor that Fonzie would never comb his hair — became a part of the opening credits for Happy Days.

A lesser actor than Henry Winkler would’ve either just combed his hair or gone into the realm of the unbelievable and messed up his hair or licked his palms to smooth down the stray follicles — but Henry’s choice to comb his hair by not touching his hair with a comb got him the job, made him a star, and proved without a moment’s pause that Stella Adler was right:  “Imagination is in the choice.”

Oh, and when Fonzie first appeared on Happy Days in the pilot episode, he was uncomfortably silent and wearing a windbreaker, not a leather jacket.

15 Comments

  1. Happy Days was a great show its first two seasons, Gordon. Then success and wealth began to decay the imagination of the actors as innovative choices were replaced with “crowd pleaser” stereotypes… like what Fonzie became and Chachi after him.

  2. I hope it’s okay that I answer this question as well. Not only do I not usually have to invoke my imagination but sometimes it takes over control! That is why I am afraid of heights, for example – I look and imagine myself falling and the ensuing mess that would inevitably happen.

  3. Gordon!
    Are you revealing an overactive imagination or, perhaps, a slight tendency for paranoia and hypochondria? Is there a difference between any of them!
    Are you, in fact, a preteen Peter Brady who believes — after reading a medical book — that the reason his fingers hurt is because he has arthritis instead of because he plays baseball without a glove?

  4. “If your imagination a natural part of your day, Nicola, or do you have to invoke it?”
    I think that should be *is* not “if”.
    Sometimes it flows – other times it vanishes for days on end – it has a lot to do with my energy levels and my self confidence.