Henry Winkler said he got one chance to play ''Richie Cunningham''
The Eighties movie Night Shift was only Ron Howard's second movie as a director and featured Winkler’s quietest character work.
In the second half of the Happy Days two-part episode "Hollywood," Richie Cunningham and Fonzie share a moment where they speculate what it would be like to be in a movie together.
Five years later, the speculation ended when Ron Howard directed the Eighties comedy Night Shift and cast Henry Winkler to star.
Throughout the movie, Howard could be spotted making cameos, like playing a saxophone in the subway or making out with his real-life wife outside Winkler’s character’s apartment. In that way, the movie followed through on painting the picture that Happy Days scene imagined and for the first time, the Happy Days stars acted together on the big screen.
In Howard’s movie, Winkler’s character is described by critics as "mild-mannered," and apparently, the Fonzie actor actually chose to play the more mild-mannered movie role when Howard approached him on the Paramount lot while he was eating lunch.
As Howard remembered, he offered Winkler whichever Night Shift movie part he wanted: the loud unpredictable frat guy or the clean-cut do-right guy. Winkler made the unpredictable choice of playing the latter.
Winkler himself once famously tweeted that he saw taking the Night Shift role as his chance to step away from playing tough guys.
"I thought I'd play Richie Cunningham for once," Winkler joked, telling news outlets that in this movie, he was playing "the kind of character Howard would ordinarily play."
"It’s a sweet character," Winkler told Field News Service in 1982.
To make the movie, it’s said that Winkler divided his time between filming Happy Days episodes in California on Thursdays and Fridays, then joining Howard on the movie set in New York on Mondays through Wednesdays.
The movie was in the same vein as other campy Eighties comedies like Risky Business, showing how a guy as straight and narrow as Richie Cunningham reacts when his moral compass is challenged.
When promoting the movie, Howard played up how many Happy Days people were involved in the movie, including some of the sitcom’s writers.
Night Shift debuted when Happy Days was still on air, clearly trying to tap into Howard’s and Winkler’s established fan base, and out of all the movies where Winkler took a leading role, Night Shift is still said to be his best-performing movie at the box office.
Critics weren’t as crazy about the movie, though, claiming that the jury was still out on whether Howard would fulfill the prophecies that he would become his generation’s greatest director.
Night Shift was only Howard’s second theatrical film as a director, after 1977's Grand Theft Auto, and it’s sweet that he tapped Winkler to help him get through it, even if critics thought Winkler wasn’t as funny as Michael Keaton was in the movie. Keaton took the role that Winkler didn’t take, and it became one of that actor’s earliest roles.
Howard said it was intentional that Keaton was funnier and that Winkler was the one who set up the laughs.
"It was totally planned that way," Howard told The Boston Globe in 1982. "Henry was offered either part, and he opted for the quieter one. Then he helped Michael steal the picture. He gave Michael a lot of choices. With some of the bits, he’d tell Michael, ‘I know you’ll get laughs if you take this routine one step further.’"
We all know now that Howard swiftly proved the prophecies were right, following up Night Shift by directing smash hits like Splash, Cocoon and Parenthood before the Eighties ended.
Going from playing the muted character of Richie Cunningham to his generation’s most exciting director was a natural next step for Howard, who grew up in Hollywood and knew the landscape like most kids know their own backyards. If anything, he felt more at home being in charge on a film set.
"Directing gives me a sense of control that I don’t have in real life," Howard said.
Winkler was happy to continue being part of Howard’s life, still learning about acting from his old pal Ron as he moved on to directing.
"I always listen to Ron," Winkler told Field News Service. "I think he has a real good sense, and he’s very serious about directing."