The star of “Happy Days” and “Barry,” honored by the L.A. Press Club for his 34 children’s books, opens up about his career, life, learning disabilities, Fonzie’s library card and his message for kids.
"Barry's" Bill Hader (on the right) on his co-star: “He likes to bring a lot of happiness into the world.”
Fifty years ago, Henry Winkler exploded as the hottest star on American TV playing super cool Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, on “Happy Days,” for which he won two Golden Globes.
This past September, he won his first Emmy, for his role on the HBO show “Barry.” At age 73, Winkler is enjoying a career renaissance, with critics applauding his performance as the complicated, tortured acting teacher Gene Cousineau.
On June 30, he added to his honors the prestigious Bill Rosendahl Public Service Award, presented at the 61st Southern California Journalism Awards. A version of this profile appeared in the awards journal.
Starting with his first screen appearance in 1974’s “Crazy Joe” and “The Lords of Flatbush,” Winkler has been part of America’s cultural consciousness. He appeared in three Adam Sandler films, including playing Coach Klein in the ever popular “Waterboy,” and he directed Billy Crystal iin “Memories of Me.” He starred opposite Michael Keaton in his first film role in director Ron Howard’s cult classic, “Night Shift.”
Winkler’s friendship with Howard goes way beyond the typical showbiz relationship. Winkler is godfather to Howard’s children and the “Happy Days” star who has become a top Hollywood director had this to say about the honoree: “You’re a friend to the world. A world class friend. I love ya, man.”
Yet despite the accolades, and the stints directing, writing and producing (the TV hit “MacGyver” is among his many credits), Winkler considers his greatest achievement - aside from staying married to his wife Stacey more than 40 years, having three children and five grandkids – is being the co-author of 34 children’s books, with more on the way.
This commitment to children and books, children, which often include poignant stories about kids affected by learning disabilities, is what prompted the Los Angeles Press Club to honor Winkler.
What makes being an author so special to him is that he never imagined he could write a book. Winkler is dyslexic, something he discovered at age 31, during his fourth year on “Happy Days,” after his son was similarly diagnosed. All three of his children suffered from some learning disabilities, and all are now grown and functional adults.
In his books for elementary age children, Winkler uses comedy to provide what he calls, “a direct line to the reluctant reader.”
He works with a partner on the books, Lin Oliver, but provides the vision and the voice.
“This is a story I understood,” says Winkler. “It was a story I knew and it was easy to get into the eight-year-old who failed all the time. Even now at 70, I was able to access that.”
His books carry a positive message to challenged children that there is greatness inside each and every one of them. When children tell him their stories of dealing with learning disabilities, Winkler relates to what they face.
“When I was growing up they talked about me as being slow, and stupid,” recalls Winkler. “They talked about me not living up to my potential but they never talked about the fact I didn’t have the ability to learn.”
Promoting his books, Winkler has developed a positive message
“I’m not a professional,” he explains. “But in my way I support the child who learns differently and talk to children who don’t have learning challenges and say, ‘your life will be so much better when you see a kid in your class who’s got a problem you know you can solve, and you help him.’ That kid feels good. You feel good. It’s a win-win.”
Winkler started traveling the world to sell books by sharing his personal story - and instead it has changed his life.
“I did it to let people know the book existed,” recalls Winkler.
On one of his first promo trips to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, accompanied by his wife, Winkler remembers arriving for the night.
“We get out of the car and go into the hotel,” says Winkler, “and the Bellman who was about 20 comes flying out from behind his desk and says, ‘Oh, I read every one of your books. They got me through.’”
“That happens more and more to me now,” continues Winkler. “I meet these children and young adults who tell me that ours was the first book they ever read.”
“Henry doesn’t just dabble in do-gooding,” says Chris Palmeri, president of the Los Angeles Press Club, “he puts serious and creative time into ways to support people with disabilities.”
“Winkler has gone on reading tours of schools and donated books to the needy, among the many charitable efforts he has made,” adds Palmeri.
His Emmy winning co-star on “Barry,” Bill Hader, who plays a conflicted hit man who studies acting with Winker’s character, says his co-star really lives the life he preaches.
“He’s just a very selfless person,” says Hader, who presented the award to Winkler. “He really does live by – and I know it sounds corny – but he likes to bring a lot of happiness into the world.”
“His kind of preset is compassion and a lot of heart,” adds Hader. “He’s just very genuine and he kind of radiates it.”
Hader believes it is even comes through in Winkler’s performance on “Barry:” “On our show he has to play kind of a bad person, but he can’t help but infuse that guy with some sort of compassion and something that makes you feel for him…You can’t teach that.”
Winkler continues working to overcome his disability. Even on “Barry,” his challenges are obvious at times, particularly during the first read through of a script.
“At table reads,” says Hader, “he has to take his time. We’re reading the script and he has to memorize while the rest of us are just reading, so it’s harder for him to cold read stuff.
Winkler learned as early on to compensate for his inability to read by memorizing material, and later scripts, in advance.
“I can do it pretty quickly,” he says, “but around the table you are not just reading your part. It’s you setting up somebody’s joke, having repartee with another character. It is really important you get a rhythm going. Because my brain, eye and mouth don’t all work together, I at times break that rhythm.”
“He is always apologizing like, ‘Hey, I’m really sorry. I know I’m slow. I messed this up or whatever,’” says Hader. “And we’re like, ‘Henry, you’re dyslexic. Don’t worry about it. You’re fine.’ But he puts a ton of work into it.”
How personal are the stories in his books? “The emotion in the books is personal,” he explains, “and the comedy is exaggerated.”
In one of his books, Winkler says the “story of him not being able to be in a school play because he doesn’t know long division” is an echo of the challenges he faced.
“I was not able to be in extra curricular activities most of my junior and high school career,” says Winkler, “because my grades were so low.”
As a result he wasn’t allowed to act in school plays, something he badly wanted to do (he did get to be in plays twice in about five years).
Did that give him a burning desire to be an actor when he got out of school?
“I don’t know what the ‘Aha!’ moment was,” says Winkler. “All I know is that it was in my heart, my body and my mind for as long as I can remember.”
The Fonz in his prime
After he finally realized that he had a lifelong learning disability, Winkler shared his revelation with the team led by the late Garry Marshall, who produced “Happy Days.”
The following season, they wrote an episode in which Fonzie goes to the library to take out a book for the first time.
“I took out ‘Call Of The Wild’ by Jack London,” recalls Winkler of that storyline. “I wanted to badly to read it. I wanted so badly to read the books that I took home from the library in my neighborhood in New York. And I just couldn’t. That is something that was beyond me. But what was so amazing was that the Fonz said one sentence about getting a library card and registration for library cards went up 500 percent in America.”
Along with helping children from all over the globe, Winkler was also able to help his own children with the advice that he had learned to live by, and has shared so many times.
“I said as long as you try, what grade you bring home doesn’t matter,” says Winkler. “Here’s what I’ve learned as a parent and meeting all these wonderful children, their destiny is already inside them. Our job is to help them fly.”
Winkler has flown all over the world to deliver his message.
“I was in Italy, Lynn (Oliver, his co-writer) and I have been all over the United States,” says an emotional Winkler. “I’m talking to the kids. It starts to become evident that telling my story is working. Kids are interested because I say to them whether they want to hear it or not: ‘You have greatness inside you!’ Every single one of you sitting here. And your job is to figure out what your gift is? Give it to the world because the world needs what ever one of you does. We need plasterers. We need plumbers. We need carpenters, we need doctors, we need mathematicians. We need actors, dancers.”
“I asked the children in every class and everywhere I have been, and every child knows what they’re great at.”
“The point is to take the greatness within you,” says Winkler in his melodious voice, “evern if you’re failing in school, even if you’re dyslexic.”
Alex Ben Block with Henry Winkler at the 61st Southern California Journalism Awards on June 30, 2019, where Winkler was honored with the Bill Rosendahl Public Service Award for co-authoring 34 children's books, most using humor to address the impact of learning disabilities on kids. More info at www.LAPressClub.org.