Acting, writing, producing, directing, fly fishing – there’s not much TV icon Henry Winkler hasn’t done.
But for his new NBC series “Better Late Than Never” (Tuesdays, 10-11 p.m. ET), there was one adventure the 70-year-old “Happy Days” star initially refused to attempt: Eating a live octopus.
“I said to [one of the producers], ‘I’m so sorry. This is one thing I will not be able to do,’” Winkler told me during a recent interview. “‘I come to play every day. I’m here. I’m up for this. I’m enjoying myself. I’m so sorry, I will not be able to do this.’”
Of course, 15 hours later, the seasoned showman came to play once again.
“At 10:30 at night, I picked my own private octopus out of a tank, I watched it being chopped up, I looked at it wiggling on the ceramic plate, I rolled it in oil and I ate it,” he explained. “And it wiggled all the way down.”
Twitching tentacles, dirt-covered steak, cow penis soup and pork vagina are just a few of the delicacies that Henry and his road trip companions William Shatner, Terry Bradshaw and George Foreman devoured while filming “Better Late Than Never,” which chronicles the four sports and entertainment legends’ 35-day road trip across Asia and through Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan; Seoul, South Korea; Hong Kong; and Phuket and Chiang Mai, Thailand.
While not all of the group’s adventures were as—ahem—hard to swallow as a live octopus, the gnarly meal encapsulates the overarching message of the often-touching reality series: You’re never too old to try something new.
“I wasn’t kidding. I wasn’t being dramatic. I was convinced this was something I just couldn’t do,” Winkler insisted. “And I overcame a lot of things that normally I would just say ‘no’ to, and I’d rather not just say ‘no.’”
For more on “Better Late Than Never,” check out my full interview with Henry Winkler below:
David Onda: Why were these three legends, along with comedian Jeff Dye, the guys you wanted to take this amazing journey with?
Henry Winkler: We went through a lot of human beings. Some weren’t available, some didn’t wanna travel, some didn’t wanna go to Asia. And then slowly, slowly, slowly, we whittled down to gigantic personalities who each bring something of their own to the party, so that nobody is like anybody else on this show. Jeff Dye is a stand-up comic who travels around the country. George Foreman was known as a killer in the ring, and is now a man of God. Terry Bradshaw is funny and a big personality and all heart. And Bill [Shatner] just knows everything about everything and wants to share with you that he knows everything about everything.
Onda: And he’s so funny in the show. Surprising funny.
Winkler: He’s surprisingly funny. He is. And we all got along. No matter how much fun we had, everybody was an adult. If anybody got on anybody’s nerves, everybody understood there was a bigger whole, there was a bigger purpose. I wound up with four friends I never had before.
Onda: So you were not acquainted with any of these men previously?
Winkler: None of them. I met Bill because I did his talk show, but I did not know these men before we went on this road trip. That’s just the truth. We play it as if we’re four friends and we should go on this great journey together, and what happened was we became great friends. I talk to Terry all the time. I see Bill. George is in Houston, so I don’t see him, but we tweet with his son [George’s manager], who was also on the trip.
Onda: In the first episode, you received a lot of attention from people in Japan…
Winkler: Yes. And there was an Asian gentleman who came up to us wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet that he wanted Terry to sign. And everybody knew the champ [Foreman].
Onda: Was it interesting to see who got the most attention depending on which country or area you visited?
Winkler: Not to me. I did not think about who got attention and who didn’t. I’ll tell you why, and there are three or four reasons. One, we are traveling at a feverish pitch. We work from about 7:45 in the morning until 10 at night. It is so hot that you literally think that you are clothed in bubble wrap. We don’t know what adventure we’re going to go to next. All we do is get on a bus or a train or a plane or a bullet train or a car or van and we go and get out and there is no script. You’re concentrating at the highest level in order to be present, to be part of the group, to not talk over the group, to be funny, to listen. And so, I have to tell you, I didn’t care for one minute who was famous and who wasn’t.
Onda: You mentioned no script. Reality shows get criticized for “assisted reality.” As one of the producers on the show, how important was it for you that the events of this trip play out naturally?
Winkler: I’ll tell you something, we were in Korea, which is the entertainment capital of the world. The young people party the hardest of any country, any city anywhere. And we’re in this nightclub and we’re shooting and shooting and shooting, and the story is not coming together. We literally worked all together as a team to figure out exactly where the kernel was for being in this incredible famous nightclub in Korea. And, eventually, it turned out and we tried to be matchmakers for Jeff. It evolved. That all evolved. Nobody was certain in the beginning, and all of a sudden, there it presented itself. I think it’s very funny.
Onda: What were some of the things you learned about Terry, George and Bill that surprised you?
Winkler: Terry has been knocked down, has been punched around, has been a Super Bowl winner, and there is wonderful fear inside him, inside this titan. George was amazing. I wish I could do this – George could nap at any moment during a 24-hour period. Bill is unfazed. Bill wants to be in the culture. I wanted to learn moves from the ninjas. Bill sat with them for two hours and wanted to know who the first ninja was.
Onda: The “Better Late Than Never” previews show a lot of the group’s funny antics, but I really loved a scene in the first episode where you all had dinner and talked about your lives and fears. I think that will speak to a lot of people.
Winkler: You know what, I think that is a majorly important component. We’re silly, we’re funny, we are good sports, but the depth of each man – there are some stories that are on the cutting room floor that I really hope we’re able to reproduce another day. Everybody mentions the heart of this show, and enjoying the moment we just take a breather and exist together. They were very touching.
Onda: What’s something that’s surprised you most about aging?
Winkler: Two things: That youth is wasted on the young and I wish I knew then what I know now. I probably would not have worried just as much as I did. The other thing is that – if your body cooperates to any degree, age is really in the mind. Bill Shatner was the oldest of all of us. He’s 85 years old. His energy was something to be emulated.
Onda: Tell me a little bit about the adventures fans can look forward to in the next episodes of “Better Late Than Never.”
Winkler: I got to dance in a video with a K-pop band, which is very popular in Korea. Beautiful girls. They’re all in their teens or 20s. They sell 40 million singles. I got to meet an elephant. We went to the DMZ in Korea, and at that time when we were there, there was such tension between North and South Korea, it honestly felt like a war could break out at any moment. Kyoto is one of my favorite cities in the universe. It is a small city, it is a religious city, it’s a ritualistic city, it’s a delicious, beautiful city. The shrines, the gardens are breathtaking. We visited a Zen garden of white pebbles, 11 stones and cedar moss that has been raked every day since 1524. I’m telling you, it was a gift as if it had fallen out of heaven into my lap.
Onda: Do you have any plans to finally retire and settle down a bit?
Winkler: I hope not. One of the things on my bucket list is to work until I actually cannot get out of the chair. I am so blessed, I cannot even begin to tell you. And I am so grateful.
Catch Henry Winkler in “Better Late Than Never” Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC. Click here to watch the premiere episode online now.