The 61-year-old New Yorker, who first found fame in 1974 starring alongside Sylvester Stallone in The Lords of Flatbush, became a TV legend the same year when he landed the lead role Happy Days. But in Peter Pan at the New Wimbledon Theatre, he swapped his trademark leather jacket and larger-than-life quiff for a hook and a bushy beard.
But whether he’s playing a hip Italian immigrant or an evil English pirate, Henry’s always in touch with his Jewish roots. “I always thought Captain Hook was barmitzvah’d”, he joked.
Reflecting on his heritage, he recalled movingly how his own family were forced to flee from Europe. “My parents escaped Nazi Germany in 1939,” he said. “They came to New York, and my father knew that they weren’t going back again, but he didn’t tell my mother that. My father brought over some jewellery from his mother, but it was encased in pieces of chocolate.
“He bought a box of chocolates, melted it down, and then covered each piece of jewellery with it. If he was stopped by guards, and checked upon leaving Germany, he could honestly say; ‘hey check my bags, I’ve got nothing of value.’”
As to whether he’d ever suffered because of his Jewish faith, he said: “I myself have never experienced anti-semitism, but my oldest son has. It was, believe it or not, in a hotel at Christmas time in Hawaii.”
And although he has never actually visited Israel, Henry said he has strong ties with the country: “I do speak for the Jewish Federation all over America, and I go all over America and Canada to raise money for it.”
He added: “One of the proudest things that I have ever done is written a series of books for children. There are 11 novels altogether, and they are the story of my life in the fourth and fifth grade, as a dyslexic. They describe the pain and humiliation of not being able to figure school out. I had an unbelievably hard time, and dropped out of Hebrew school.”
The Fonz has clearly come a long way since then.
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