By Sarah Mosqueda,
Henry Winkler is most recognized for his portrayal of Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, or “The Fonz” on the popular television series, Happy Days. Fonzie, is widely regarded as one of the greatest television characters of all time; a leather-jacket-wearing loyal friend and flirt. The character was also portrayed as a high school dropout. The aversion to school was one Winkler was familiar with.
“It really wasn’t called school to me,” Winkler said. “It was called ‘oh, you gotta go to struggle today.’”
It’s difficult to imagine Winkler, a successful actor, producer, director and author, ever struggled with anything. But Winkler’s transparency about his battle with dyslexia, and the efforts he has made to bring awareness to the learning disability, is inspiring enough to make even the Fonz say “whoa.”
Henry Franklin Winkler was born in New York on October 30th, 1945 to Ilse Anna Marie and Harry Irving Winkler. His academic struggles were the result of undiagnosed dyslexia and it created challenges for him throughout his life.
“From the very beginning I couldn’t read, I couldn’t do math,” Winkler said. “If I bought a piece of pizza from a pizzeria on Broadway and I gave them paper money, I had no idea how much change I was supposed to get back nor could I count up the change in my hand. I just had to trust that everybody was being fair.”
Dyslexia is a neuro-cognitive disorder that can make reading challenging due to difficulty identifying speech sounds. Sometimes called a learning disability, dyslexia is hard to identify because the problems it causes are often misdiagnosed as hearing, vision or even intelligence issues. According to the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, dyslexia is the most common neuro-cognitive disorder, affecting 20% of the population.
Winkler had a hard time in school, first at P.S. 087 William Sherman in Manhattan, and then at McBurney School, an all-boys college prep school.
There was, however, one place where Winkler felt right at home: the stage. Unfortunately, his academics sometimes stood in the way of his acting.
“I am unbelievably ambitious so I tried out for school plays. Of course, I went to a private school where unless your grades were good enough you couldn’t do extracurricular activities,” said Winkler. “So, I couldn’t do the very thing I loved.”
He pursued acting at the collegiate level and majored in theater at Emerson College in Boston. During his senior year, he auditioned for the Yale School of Drama and was admitted into the MFA program in 1967. After receiving his MFA in 1970, he was among the select few invited to join the Yale Repertory Theatre.
“I went to the Yale Drama School and then I became a member of the Yale Repertory,” Winkler said. “On June 30th, 1970, I got my first paycheck for $173 for being an actor, and I was now earning money doing my dream.”
Winkler charged ahead, appearing in plays on Broadway, but struggled through cold reads.
“I could not read half a page and do anything else at the same time. I stumbled over every word, so auditioning was a very special challenge,” he said. “I memorized all the words I could in the shortest amount of time, and then when I went to audition and I ran out of what I knew, I ad-libbed.”
Winkler also used other techniques to cope with his disability. “They would say, ‘hmm, well wait a minute, that’s not what we wrote.’ I would say, ‘yes, but I’m giving you the essence of the character.’ And it worked great.”
In 1973, at the behest of his agent, Winkler set out for Hollywood.
“My agent came out to California in order to start a satellite office and a man named John Kimball was in New York and running her New York office. He said to me, ‘look, you wanna be known to New York? Stay here. You wanna be known to the world? Go to California.’”
Within a week, Winkler was hired for a small role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Not long after, he auditioned for a part on a new television show.
“I went to Los Angeles on September 18th, 1973,” recalls Winkler. “Two weeks later, I auditioned at Paramount Studios for a brand new show that turned out to be Happy Days.”
Weekly table reads on the Happy Days set were a struggle for the 27-year-old actor, but in some ways, Winkler’s dyslexia pushed him to explore other aspects of his craft. He relied on physical comedy and facial expression, rather than lines.
As many will recall, on Happy Days, simple acts like snapping his fingers or a swift pound on the jukebox, could elicit laughs. Even his catchphrase, “Ayyyee,” was infused with different inflections, depending on what the scene called for. In short, he was a good actor.
“It kept me light on my feet, I’ll tell you that,” said Winkler. “I had to be aware. I had to listen with laser focus so that I would know what to say, when to say it and how to answer it if I didn’t know what I was supposed to say for sure.”
‘I Loved Every Moment’
Winkler worked on Happy Days until the show ended in 1984 and he remembers his time on the iconic sitcom fondly. “From the moment I started ‘til the minute we said goodbye, I loved every moment,” he said.
After the show ended, Winkler directed and served as executive producer for the CBS Schoolbreak Special: All the Kids Do It, starring his former Happy Days co-star, Scott Baio. The special earned a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Special in 1985 and was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Directing in Children’s Programming the same year.
Winkler went on to direct television sitcoms and theatrical releases, like 1988’s Memories of Me. When Adam Sandler listed Arthur Fonzarelli among the famous Jewish celebrities and fictional characters in “The Chanukah Song” he performed on Saturday Night Live in 1994, Winkler reached out to thank him, and the two began a friendship that goes on to this day.
“Now I will tell you just as an aside, Adam Sandler has a new movie on Netflix called, You Are So Not Invited to my Bat Mitzvah. We just watched it last night and I cannot say enough about it,” Winkler said. “It is so human.”
Sandler cast Winkler in 1998 in The Waterboy as Coach Klein and in four other subsequent films. Winkler went on to play lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn in Arrested Development and worked on the HBO comedy Barry with Bill Hader as acting teacher Gene Cousineau.
“We just finished our run on television and we did four seasons,” Winkler said. “I will tell you that it was one of the greatest experiences because everybody involved was at the top of their game. Allen Berg is a brilliant man and had brilliant vision, and they cast so well; we just had the best time.”
Winkler was awarded a Primetime Emmy in 2018 for his role on Barry and also took home two Critics Choice Television Awards for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 2019 and 2023.
“You know, it’s a very humbling thing, being nominated four years in a row for the Emmys,” he said.
From Actor to Author
At 31, Winkler realized his stepson was having the same frustrating experience he had in school.
“My stepson is now in his 50s, but when he was in the third grade, he was having trouble with eye hand coordination. He was so verbal and so funny and could get along with everybody but he could not write a report long hand to present to the teacher,” Winkler said. “So, we had him tested and everything that they said about him I went, ‘Oh my God that’s me!’ That’s how I found out [that I had dyslexia].”
Winkler still marvels that he’s since added best-selling author to his resume. “It is something I never thought I could be, first of all, and second of all, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be doing it,” he said.
Winkler advocates for children with learning disabilities through his Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever children’s book series. The title character is a young boy who is dyslexic and his stories are based on Winkler’s own childhood difficulties with school.
“On October 14th, our 39th novel comes out,” he added.
Winkler has also written other children’s book series, like Alien Super Star, a middle school book series centered around a 13-year-old alien who crash lands in Hollywood, California.
“I just got a copy of Alien Super Star from France—it now exists in seven or eight languages.”
His latest children’s series, Detective Duck, involves an environmentally-conscious yellow duck.
“She is a wonderful duck, she dreams about being a detective and she is also ecologically aware; she protects her habitat,” said Winkler. “It’s very important for young people to start to understand that if we don’t take care of our environment then, you know, just hold your nose and say goodbye.”
On October 31st, adult fans can look forward to the release of Winkler’s latest memoir, Being Henry: The Fonz…and Beyond. He recorded the audio of his new book himself, which meant doing something he never looks forward to: reading aloud.
“When I read it on tape—which is the hardest thing in my career, I think, to read this, to record it on Audible—what I heard as I started off was being who I thought I should be,” said Winkler. “I’m trying very hard to get to who I am right now.”
The iconic actor says it’s a journey he is still navigating, but he assures anyone struggling with dyslexia that it is possible to find a path to success.
“When there’s a will there’s a way,” said Winkler. “One road that leads to your enjoyment, leads to your success and then leads to your contentment, and it’s up to you to keep exploring until you find your road.”