Backstage: Hanging With Henry Winkler and Kevin James
Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable
rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This
week, the King of Queens claims his crown, and the Fonz becomes a friend.
After segueing from the music biz, working behind the scenes at CBS4 in Miami has
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afforded me a number of opportunities to work with some of the big names
brought to fame by the small screen. The stars who
make their living in the public eye are often quite different when
they're not playing out their public persona. One person in particular was Kevin
James, a budding young comedian when I met him in the fall of 1998,
just prior to the launch of his critically acclaimed sitcom The King
of Queens. As is often the case, the network brought him to town as
part of a publicity tour to drum up interest in his new show. James was
still a novice at that point, having been plucked off the standup
circuit by buddy Ray Romano.
So when he came to South Florida, we were quite surprised to find him somewhat shy and introverted -- nothing like the brassy character he portrayed so adeptly onscreen. On the other hand, he was also quite willing to do whatever was required to reap some publicity during his short South Florida stay. We learned that he had just broken up with his girlfriend and was still living in a small Hollywood studio apartment. That made him seem somewhat humble, and sure enough, when we took him to a "houses for the homeless" project the station was sponsoring, he was quite content to mingle with the volunteers and thank them for their efforts. We had him running all day, in fact, bringing him to radio and newspaper interviews, and when we informed him that he'd be working into the evening as a special guest at a dinner on South Beach that would be attended by our sales clients, he didn't mutter a single complaint, despite the long hours he had already undertaken. We were genuinely impressed with how gracious and cooperative he was, and when he left, we were wishing him and the show every success.
James was the same nice guy when I saw him doing a standup show at a Kendall comedy club a year later, although by that time, the show had become a big hit and he was feeling the first flush of stardom. He was still as friendly as ever when I approached him after the gig, but surrounded by friends and fans -- including a new girlfriend, who resided in West Palm Beach -- he was boisterous and outgoing, no longer the shy, withdrawn individual whom we had encountered the year before. Eventually, James hit the big time, with a hit show and a successful movie career to boot, and it makes me happy to know that I knew him way back when.
The death last week of actor Tom Bosley, best-known as the dad on the show Happy Days, brings to mind memories of working with Henry Winkler, forever "The Fonz" on that fondly remembered family sitcom. I had the opportunity to work with Winkler twice, both times while he was in South Florida to promote a new CBS series. Most recently, it was for the sitcom Out of Practice, a show about a family of physicians that ran one season from 2005 to 2006. Winkler, who hates being labeled simply as "The Fonz" (and shudders when people ask him to repeat the character's trademark line, "ehhhhhhhh"), was the best-known actor in that ensemble cast, and he made it his mission to see it succeed. Consequently, he was willing to get up early, hop in a limo, and do a full day of radio appearances and sit-down interviews. We started the day at 7 a.m., but despite the early hour, he was personable and engaging. He remembered meeting me from the previous time we had worked together, and I must say, for a star who had as much success as he has, he was remarkably down-to-earth and unaffected, a genuinely nice guy who enjoyed engaging in chit-chat as if he were your neighbor next door. He was gracious enough when the interviewers brought up his role as Fonzie and spoke fondly about the series, but it was apparent that he was eager to promote the new show above all.
In fact, I saw him get flustered only once, and that was at the end of the day, after a meet-and-greet with a bunch of awe-struck clients at a fancy Miami steak house. Everyone had left, and Winkler's final mission of the day was to complete a phone interview with a reporter from the Miami Herald. It wasn't the usual TV critic but rather an individual who had been recruited at the last minute. Apparently it was a young guy who had no idea who he was speaking with and didn't know anything about Winkler's work, because when Winkler hung up the phone, he was visibly annoyed. I'd never seen him so angry, and he began berating me about the reporter's lack of preparation and the lack of knowledge of his subject. I was dismayed, of course, not wishing to bear the brunt of his outrage. Thankfully, the afternoon ended as a happy day when a moment later, a photographer asked the two of us to pose for pictures. Winkler regained his amiable demeanor in an instant, getting back in character, so to speak. Looking at the photo now, its impossible to tell that moments before, he had been on a tirade.
Despite Winkler's dedication to save his show, Out of Practice was canceled soon after his visit. We all felt bad for him, especially since he was so committed to the cause. We even heard that on the flight to his next destination, he convinced a flight attendant to let him take the microphone and encourage the other passengers to please tune in. Now, that's determination.
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