‘Happy Days’: Henry Winkler Explains How the Iconic ‘Whoa’ and ‘Thumbs Up’ Came to Be

by Clayton Edwards
(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The Fonz is the most enduring part of “Happy Days.” Seriously, who doesn’t love The Fonz? Henry Winkler distilled vintage cool into a single character and introduced it to the world. When you look at the iconic character, there are a few things that really stand out. His appearance is probably chief among them. That leather jacket and slicked-back hair let everybody know what he was about when he walked into a room. Beyond that, he had a handful of catchphrases and mannerisms that have become part of the American vernacular. Even now, his famous thumbs-up gesture, the “aaay,” and “whoa,” all remain popular. Some things never go out of style.

Henry Winkler had plenty of creative control over his character. So, some of those things came straight from him. Others came from the writers. In an interview with the Television Academy Foundation. Winkler discussed how a couple of his iconic phrases and mannerisms came to be. Specifically, he told the Foundation how his iconic thumbs up and, “Whoa” came to be.

Henry Winkler Discusses How He Developed his “Happy Days” Character

Henry Winkler told The Television Academy Foundation that he helped The Fonz become the icon that he is today. When asked if he truly understood his “Happy Days,” character from the beginning, he said he did. However, he helped the character grow over time. Winkler added, “I understood also, he spoke too much sometimes, ya know? They would write paragraphs for me and I reduced language to sound. ‘Aaay.’ ‘Whoa.’.”

He went on to reveal that The Fonz’s iconic thumbs up was actually written. However, he injected his own attitude into it.

On the other hand, the “whoa,” came from his tendency to reduce language to sound. It originated in a scene where The Fonz was supposed to say Grace during a meal with the Cunningham family. The “Happy Days,” writers put together what they thought would be an appropriate prayer for the character. In the end, Winkler told showrunners, “I promise you, I can do this with one sound,” and he did. In the end, The Fonz looked skyward and said, “God. Whoa.”

To Winkler, that pretty much summed it up. The Fonz didn’t show his appreciation lightly. So, giving the Man Upstairs that simple, “Whoa,” spoke volumes. The producer on “Happy Days” at the time, who was also a preacher, did not agree. So, Winkler ended up arguing with him for about an hour. The producer thought that it was disrespectful. Winkler had to make him understand that it was the furthest thing from disrespect. In fact, it was a moment of reverence. In the end, Winkler’s vision for the character won out. That was one of the only times he had to fight for control over his role, according to the interview.

The Fonz was a great character but he wouldn’t have been the same without the edge that Henry Winkler gave him.