Under the Leather Jackets: Anxiety, Bravado and the Keys to TV Stardom

IF YOU WOULD HAVE TOLD ME: A Memoir, by John Stamos with Daphne Young

BEING HENRY: The Fonz … and Beyond, by Henry Winkler with James Kaplan

When I worked for a casting director in the 1980s, the most fun part of the job was looking at the marked-up appointment sheet at the end of each day. Because film and TV auditions are intimate, often conducted over a desk, my boss had devised a code by which to secretly rate the sensitive actors sitting just inches away from her: CBNC (close but no cigar), LLIT (a little long in the tooth), and so on.

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So you can imagine my surprise when, after a very chatty young actor known for playing snotty know-it-alls had auditioned one day, my boss abandoned her usual hieroglyphics and simply scrawled next to the actor’s name on the appointment sheet, in all caps, the seven-letter epithet that starts with “A” and ends with “E” and is synonymous with “backside.” Cowabunga!

Neither of the smart and entertaining new memoirs by Henry Winkler and John Stamos inspires such odium — even if both TV stars have written books that traffic heavily in their authors’ lesser angels. These foibles elicited differing reactions from me — I wanted to give the adorably needy Winkler the kind of slow-burn hug that would both congratulate and pacify him; I wanted to abandon the businesslike and unidealistic Stamos in a black box theater with Stella Adler until he starts babbling about “making choices” and his “instrument.”

Winkler’s essential m.o. in life, we learn, is to try to make everyone love him because his Holocaust survivor parents didn’t. After graduating from Yale Drama School, he got his breakout role as the too-cool-for-school Fonzie on “Happy Days” just six weeks after moving to Los Angeles.

Playing the Fonz has been a meal ticket that has yielded Winkler interesting reactions from unlikely sources. “You do not have to tell me who you are,” Marcello Mastroianni made clear. “Finally, we meet,” Orson Welles uttered.

On the flip side, Winkler has spent much of his post-Fonzie career trying not to be typecast — an obstacle not made easier by the fact that he didn’t learn he was severely dyslexic until he was 34. Winkler has made up for lost time by branching out into other pursuits — directing, producing,writing children’s books .

But Winkler’s bigger obstacle, it seems, has been emotional immaturity: Until he started therapy seven years ago, he had intimacy problems, including not being able to tell his partner, Stacey, that he loved her. (Wonderfully, Stacey, now his wife, writes responses throughout the book, such as “There were times when I thought … ‘Now I have another child?’”)

Winkler’s affective shortcomings throw his social anxiety and bouts of verbal diarrhea into high relief. After meeting Paul McCartney, Winkler, hoping to hang out with the former Beatle, called him 10 times without getting an answer; after chattering incessantly at Neil Simon’s house over dinner one night, he spent months summoning the courage to ask Simon over, only to be told twice that the playwright was “busy.”

It’s this kind of candor — coming from someone who once duct-taped deli turkey to his shoes so his dog would play with him — that makes Winkler so lovable on the page. Under the juddering neediness lies a mensch: After Winkler had shot his role in “Scream,” he was told his name couldn’t be on the movie poster because the Fonzie connection would create the wrong expectations for a horror film. But, Hollywood being Hollywood, when the film came out Winkler was asked to do press. Which he agreed to.

Winkler’s story is also aided by the fact that his deepest work as an actor — on the terrific recent HBO series “Barry”came directly after the therapy sessions that helped Winkler with his intimacy issues. As my former boss might have written, VTEBNLPBI (very tidy ending, but no less powerful because of it).

John Stamos, he of “Full House” and “E.R.” and Broadway, takes longer to warm to on the page. Stamos is blessed with some of Winkler’s candor — he admits to having had two nose jobsand having gone to Alcoholics Anonymous. However, it’s hard to rouse a head of steam for a thespian whose raison d’être is to “get famous”and who cops to “trying to achieve sex symbol status.”WIJJ (where is the joy, John)?

Such dampening pragmatism seems to spill over even to Stamos’s love life. After saying of one actress more famous than he was that “it wouldn’t hurt to get to know her,” he dated her for almost a year. Later in the book, Stamos confesses that he used to want to partner up with “someone who has a bigger, more exciting life than mine to elevate me” so they’d be “a power couple always in the press,” but, once he started seeing his now-wife, Caitlyn, he realized that what he’d always needed was someone who’s cozy-making — someone who would tell him when he has “too much product in my hair.”

Some Stamos fans may enjoy this kind of Malibu verismo, but I found myself repeatedly looking floorward in search of a dog to pet. That said, a few things save Stamos from hanging himself. For one, he’s great with period detail. When Stamos auditioned in the early ’80s to play the thief and urchin Blackie Parrish on “General Hospital,” he had his mother feather his hair with a curling iron — hair that was already streaked with Sun In. He rejected his father’s Members Only jacket in favor of his mother’s long leather jacket, and tied a yellow bandanna around his leg in homage to Chachi on “Happy Days.” Then he drove to the audition in an El Camino he calls “the El Co.” You can almost smell the Travolta.

Second, we can chalk some of Stamos’s apparent lack of passion about acting up to the fact that music — specifically, drumming — seems to be his true love. After befriending at Disneyland a Beach Boys cover band called Papa Doo Run Run early in his career, Stamos proceeded to charm his way into the inner circle of the actual Beach Boys and then to play drums hundreds of times with the legacy pop group during the 1980s and ’90s. These sections of the book are some of its most exciting.

Lastly, Stamos is a highly social creature. I enjoyed reading about his mentors, Garry Marshall and Jack Klugman; the charity work he has done with abused and neglected kids; and the strings-pulling that he did on behalf of both his first wife, the actress Rebecca Romijn, and his pal Don Rickles. Similarly, the chapter about his friend and “Full House” colleague Bob Saget, who died last year, is lovely.

Speaking of tidy endings: Winkler, it turns out, was an early influence for Stamos. After meeting the affable fellow actor, Stamos decided, “I’m going to treat people the way he treats me.”

ALAFWARHC: At last, a friend for Winkler who’ll always return his calls.

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.

IF YOU WOULD HAVE TOLD ME: A Memoir | By John Stamos with Daphne Young | 337 pp. | Henry Holt | $26.99

BEING HENRY: The Fonz … and Beyond | By Henry Winkler with James Kaplan | 256 pp. | Celadon | $30

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