From ‘Happy Days’ to ‘Barry’: How Henry Winkler triumphed over dyslexia
LOS ANGELES—Henry Winkler—The Fonz himself, in person—preferred to stand up throughout this interview. “I feel more comfortable. I feel constricted (when I am sitting down). I feel that I need my whole body to communicate.”
So, for about 40 minutes, the man whose “Happy Days” character became such a cultural icon that his Fonzie leather jacket is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution talked about his life and career amid his struggles with dyslexia.
On this recent morning in a hotel meeting room in Los Angeles, the actor was dressed in the most colorful combination—brown suede jacket, purple sweater, yellow dress shirt, green pants and moss green suede shoes.
“I had a dream,” said Henry, who was born in New York City in 1945. “I was 7, lying in my bed. My parents were short Germans. They did not want me to be an actor. They wanted me to sell wood. The only wood I was interested in was Hollywood. It was true. And I ate through brick. I never let the dream out of my mind.”
The boy was determined, even though he suffered from anxiety as a result of his dyslexia, which was undiagnosed at the time.
Henry’s condition strained his relationship with his parents, who are both deceased. His father often told him in German, “You are a dumb dog.”
“I know now that having a learning challenge, I was not good in math,” said the 73-year-old. “I wasn’t good in reading. I can’t spell, even today. I was great at lunch. When you have a learning challenge, there is an emotional component where you have no self-image.”
“It is genetic,” Henry said of dyslexia. “So my parents, who were yelling at me and who were punishing me the whole time, were the ones who passed it on to me. I didn’t like them much. When I found out that my oldest son, who is my stepson (Jed Weitzman), is dyslexic, that was when I realized that I had something with a name.”
Henry has two children, Max Daniel and Zoe Emilie, with Stacey Winkler, his wife since 1978.
“I wanted to be somebody,” Henry continued to reminisce. “In the last [children’s] book I wrote, ‘Here’s Hank,’ which came out at the end of January, a little boy at the end of it says, ‘I know I can be somebody.’ Because when I was lying in my bed, I thought, I am failing at everything.”
Henry revealed that memorizing lines remains a challenge. “I didn’t have a go-to scene (for auditions) because I can’t read off a page to this day. So I would memorize as quickly as I could whatever it was and improvise the rest.”
The boy found roles onstage as a relief from his academic struggles. In eighth grade, Henry landed the title role of Billy Budd in a school production. He appeared in plays from high school to college (Emerson) and earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) from the Yale School of Drama.
After surviving on commercial jobs, Henry started appearing in TV shows, until he landed the Albert Herbert Fonzarelli role opposite Ron Howard in Garry Marshall’s “Happy Days.”
The black leather-jacketed dropout and greaser with a heart of gold, originally a supporting character, won the hearts of viewers. The Fonz became an iconic character of the 1970s.
“I got to play The Fonz for 10 years,” Henry said. “When The Fonz was done, I never had a plan B. Now, I have lived my dream. I had an office at Paramount Studios, and I was producing ‘MacGyver’ as part of my work there. I sold it to ABC.
“But ‘Happy Days’ was over and I did not have a vision of what I was going to do next. I was physically in pain. What I was smart enough to realize was that if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.
“But I thought, maybe I am done … The Fonz was so big. I got 55,000 letters a week. For the next eight or nine years, I couldn’t get hired.”
Today, Henry is riding a new career high. After six nominations, including three for “Happy Days,” Henry finally won his first Primetime Emmy last year.
Thanks to his portrayal of acting coach Gene Cousineau in Bill Hader’s HBO comedy “Barry,” Henry cinched the best supporting actor in a comedy series prize. He has previously won two Golden Globe Awards for playing The Fonz and two Daytime Emmys.
“I live by two words, will and gratitude,” he pointed out. “If you don’t have will, if you don’t have a clear vision, you can just kiss whatever it is goodbye. I won the Emmy for ‘Barry,’ my first Emmy, and it was unbelievable.”
Henry happily reported that he is in “The French Dispatch,” a project wrapped in secrecy. “I just came back from France where I did a movie with Wes Anderson. Oh my God, it was cold. There were no stand-ins, so at 73, I stood … for hours, until Wes saw what he wanted.
“And then we did 41 takes (laughs). I had no idea what the difference was.”
Looking back, Henry shared, “When I started on ‘Happy Days,’ I saw myself as a forest ranger. I had a vision at 27 [of who I wanted to be as an actor]. That’s when I got The Fonz.
“Through ‘Barry,’ I am able to taste some of what I envisioned at 27. People like Ryan Gosling, Timothée Chalamet and Jack Nicholson were able to do it immediately. It has taken me quite awhile to get to where I am.”
On creating a character who epitomized cool in the 70s, Henry cited, “It is being authentic. If you are authentic, you will be a magnet.”
On the iconic jacket, Henry disclosed, “I wasn’t allowed to wear leather (at first), because ABC thought I would be associated with crime. Garry Marshall (imitates Garry’s voice) said, ‘If he rides a motorcycle and falls off, in a cloth jacket, he could be hurt.’ So, they let me wear leather.”
Beaming, Henry pulled out his mobile phone. “It was in October and this is my grandson as Fonzie (Henry shows him in The Fonz costume). Not only does he have great taste, but he also loves his grandfather.”
On what to expect in Season 2 of “Barry,” Henry quipped, “If you thought last year was dark, this year, I needed a flashlight to read the script (laughs). This is the only thing that they will allow me to say or I will be dead. It’s (the Season 2 premiere) on March 31st (laughs). They won’t let me say a word except that I start off depressed. Season 2 is about whether or not we can actually move from who we are to our better self. That is the underlying theme.”
As for fame, especially at the height of Fonzie’s popularity, Henry remarked, “Maybe this also comes from my dyslexia. People would try to take off my socks without ever taking off my shoes. They wanted a piece of whatever I was wearing. They would talk to me like I would walk on water, because I was on television playing this character they liked.
“I would like to play a mute, I don’t know why,” Henry replied when asked if there’s still a role he’s dreaming of playing. “I think it would just be an amazing thing to communicate without sound.”
He cited his wife and children as the ones who keep him grounded. Then, he added with a grin, “except my daughter (age 16) who would use me like a garden tool.”
“Nope, I don’t have any regrets,” Henry quickly answered when he was asked, “with all the ups and downs and all of the imperfections that I am as a person … ”
On how he would like to be remembered, Henry replied, “The proudest moments outside of my family—are the books that I have written, because I believed I really was as stupid as everyone told me I was. I have written 34 novels for children with my partner (Lin Oliver) and I cannot believe it. They are in seven or nine languages, and they were just converted to Braille.”
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