Did you know Happy Days star Henry Winkler, who played pop-culture phenom Fonzie, is related in real life to another long-time TV character.
Winkler and Richard Belzer are cousins. Belzer is a stand-up comedian who doubles as a serious actor. He portrayed John Munch, a character on two different TV series and several other shows in cross-over episodes. First, starting in 1993, Belzer played Munch, a detective, on Homicide: Life on the Street. Then, when that show was canceled, he shifted to Law & Order: SVU. Munch finally retired from SVU in 2016 having played Detective Munch for 23 years.
Belzer is a TV icon, whose character was first featured in the book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Munch, with his dry one-liners, was so cool that his character appeared in 10 different series across numerous networks. He even inspired a Muppet.
But Munch probably isn’t as famous as his cousin from Happy Days. Winkler wasn’t in the pilot of the show in 1972 and he was intended to be a recurring character on Happy Days when it was launched by ABC in 1974.
Munch Was Popular, but Fonzie from Happy Days was 70s Icon
But Winkler was so popular with the audience, he quickly became a permanent cast member. Garry Marshall, who created Happy Days, said of the Fonz: “he wasn’t in the original, but I soon realized I wanted a character from the other side of the tracks.”
Marshall said Fonzie was based on a tough guy named Anthony who lived in the Bronx, his old neighborhood. Marshall said Anthony “could tie a rope to an ice truck and pull it along with his teeth. I always thought that was magical.”
The Happy Days star did work with his cousin, but not on his original show. But the movie, Night Shift, did have ties to Happy Days. Ron Howard, who was Richie Cunningham on the show, directed the 1982 movie. Winkler starred as Chuck Lumley, a former stockbroker turned New York morgue worker. Belzer played a character named Pig. The movie made $21 million at the box office and helped launch Howard’s dazzling career as a director.
Winkler Played Against Type in Law & Order: SVU
Two decades later, Law & Order: SVU got a taste of Happy Days. That’s when Winkler was on an episode called Greed. He played Edwin Todd. While Happy Days was a light-hearted, family-oriented comedy, this Winkler episode was anything but. Todd was a scam artist who stole the name of a Canadian man.
He was trying to scam money from his new wife. But the new wife didn’t have to, nor want to, testify against him. Turns out, Winkler’s character wasn’t legally married, so he did eventually get busted for all his crimes.
Winkler finally won an Emmy in 2018 for his co-starring role as Gene Cousineau, an acting coach on Barry, the dark comedy on HBO. He gave the same Emmy speech he wrote for the first time he was nominated for his work on Happy Days.
“At 27, I got the Fonz,” Winkler told USA Today. “At 72, I got Gene Cousineau. Pretty amazing!”
With Winkler and Belzer, maybe it was all in the DNA.