Henry Winkler on his Happy Days in Panto
When David Hasselhoff withdrew from the New Wimbledon Theatre's production of Peter Pan in 2006, it fell on fellow American Henry Winkler to bring villainy to the London stage as Captain Hook.
Known to many as the Fonz in hit-US TV series Happy Days, 2006's performance constituted Winkler's British stage debut and since then he has gone on to perform the dastardly villain across the country in cities such as Milton Keynes, Liverpool and Woking. After a three-year break, Winkler returns to the UK to give his fifth Captain Hook for First Family Entertainment at the Richmond Theatre.
Before being approached by producer Kevin Wood, Winkler had never heard of pantomime. "Kevin called me up and said, 'You won't know what hit you, but you will love every minute of it'. I trusted that he was telling the truth and never looked back."
Five Hooks later, Winkler is the most experienced American star upon the pantomime stage and describes the genre as "controlled chaos with wonderful good humour." Traditionalists may argue that Peter Pan isn't a pantomime at all, but Winkler disagrees.
"To my mind it is the most magical pantomime story," he says, before adding, "And Captain Hook is the best character in all of panto." Having played it so many times, what is it that keeps him returning to the role?
"It’s so much fun because when the crowd boo, I can walk to the lip of the stage and just say whatever is on my mind." Audience participation is an integral part of any pantomime and Winkler relishes the opportunity to engage with the audience. Half a decade of Peter Pans has created many a memorable moment, but one piece of participation will stay with him forever.
"One year an adult yelled out, 'The Fonz!' and I just went to the front of the stage and said, 'Yes I played him too and you are not cool enough to talk to me.' The audience went crazy; I’m surprised that the theatre still has a roof!"
The ability to think on your feet and ad-lib when the moment calls for it is the mark of a real panto pro, but performing two times a day over the Christmas period is no easy feat.
"Panto is so difficult and the schedule is so demanding," Winkler explains. "You lie in bed until the last possible moment and you make the decision should you shave or not shave, because every ounce of energy goes to the performance.
"From the time I start as Captain Hook to the time I go home I have to pull my belt three notches tighter, it’s a great diet plan. I wear so much velvet and run around, sword fighting and carry on in such a way that I perspire the pounds away!"
Winkler is passionate about the genre and particularly loves the fact that "the entire family, from those aged three to grandparents all enjoy different parts."
"It’s our job as performers to make sure everyone has a good time," he says with a great sense of pride and commitment. "I just love the energy created in the theatre."
Having only ever played Hook, I ask Winker whether he might like to try any other of pantomime's many roles in future seasons?
"A Dame would be fun," he says. "I would enjoy that. I’ve been offered to be the father in Cinderella before, but that seems to be a little boring. When I need a zimmer frame, I’ll do that one!"
A true pantomime ambassador, Winkler advises his fellow US stars to "get on a plane as fast as you can" if they get the opportunity to appear in one. With Pamela Anderson, Mickey Rooney and Priscilla Presley all making their pantomime debuts in recent years, I ask Winkler who he'd most like to share the pantomime stage with?
"Anthony Hopkins," he replies whilst throwing down the panto casting gauntlet. Now there's a panto we'd all like to see!
Peter Pan runs at the Richmond Theatre from Friday 6 December 2013 to Sunday 12 January 2014.