In a 2019 interview with NPR, Henry Winkler (AKA Arthur Fonzarelli, The Fonz, Fonzie) told host Terry Gross that the origin of the stunt began with the fact that he had been a water-skiing instructor as a teenager at a summer camp. Winkler’s father used to say to him “every day for years—tell Garry Marshall that you water ski. Dad, I don’t think I’m going to do that. No, no. Tell him you water ski. It’s very important. I finally tell Garry, my father wants you to know I water ski.” Winkler did all of the water skiing for the scene himself, except for the actual jump.

HAPPY DAYS – “Fonzie Goes to Hollywood, Part III” – Season Five – 1977, Fonzie (Henry Winkler) accepted a challenge to jump over a shark tank while water skiing., (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Gross then asked Winkler what it was “about that scene or that episode that came to signify when something’s time is up—when it’s over?” Winkler responded: “You know what? I don’t know. To them, the Fonz water skiing was just like the last straw. The only thing is it wasn’t to the audience because we were No. 1 for years after that. So it didn’t much matter to anybody.” Winkler stated that “newspapers would mention jumping the shark … and they would show a picture of me in my leather jacket and swim shorts water-skiing. And at that time I had great legs. So I thought, ‘I don’t care.’ And we were No. 1 for the next four or five years.” Also, later as his character Barry Zuckerkorn in the sitcom Arrested Development Winkler again hopped over a shark in Season 2, Episode 13. Winkler also noted that there “was a book, there was a board game, and it is an expression that is still used today … I’m very proud that I am the only actor, maybe in the world, that has jumped the shark twice—once on Happy Days, and once on Arrested Development.”

HAPPY DAYS – Gallery – Season Three – 1975 Henry Winkler, Tom Bosley, Anson Williams, Marion Ross, Ron Howard, Erin Moran, Donny Most (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Happy Days was a smash, and 30 million viewers watched as the Fonz was crowned king of the beach. While some may believe it was the beginning of the end for the series, the show was only midway through its run. It aired for another six seasons.

It wasn’t until 1987, when University of Michigan college student Sean Connolly coined the phrase “jumping the shark” to describe a particularly outlandish turn of events that Fonzie’s beach exploits started to take on a new meaning. Their circle of friends used the expression for years. In 1997, Connolly’s college roommate Jon Hein started the website, which chronicled the moments when beloved television shows took a sudden and alarming dip in quality.

Fred Fox Jr., who wrote the episode, chafed at the idea that it signaled a downturn for the show. In 2010, he wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times objecting to the phrase. “That’s why, when I first heard the phrase and found out what it meant, I was incredulous,” Fox wrote. “Then my incredulity turned into amazement. I started thinking about the thousands of television shows that had been on the air since the medium began. And out of all of those, the Happy Days episode in which Fonzie jumps over a shark is the one to be singled out? This made no sense.”

Fox may have a point. Fonzie’s aquatic adventures weren’t even the most bizarre element of Happy Days that season. Later on, the show introduced Robin Williams as Mork, an alien from the planet Ork. The character was a hit, and Williams went on to star in More and Mindy One would think the arrival of an alien in an otherwise grounded sitcom about teenagers would be the real shark-jumping moment, but “meeting Mork” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Henry Winkler (AKA Arthur Fonzarelli, The Fonz, Fonzie) of the popular TV series Happy Days on his Triumph motorcycle built by the legendary racer / builder Bud Ekins.

SOURCES: When Fonzie Jumped the Shark on Happy Days / The ’70s Sitcom ‘Happy Days’ Gave Us This Popular Expression We Know Today / Jumping the shark