Famous for the iconic role of “The Fonz” in the 10-year television series “Happy Days” and currently co-starring in the HBO dark comedy, “Barry,” Henry Winkler spent most of his time as the keynoter of the 13th Annual Boys and Girls Club Kids & Community Gala advocating for children who learn differently.
The event is the main fundraiser annually for the Boys and Girls Club and typically sells out of tickets. This year was no exception, and 400 ticket-holders crowded into the GSU Nessmith-Lane Conference Center on Thursday night.
Winkler boasted very little from the stage of his four decades of success in Hollywood as actor, producer and director. He barely mentioned his fame as Arthur Fonzarelli, except to joke that when he left his apartment, fans would try to take his socks — with his shoes still on. He didn’t mention the two Golden Globe Awards he received for the popular sitcom and the three nominations for an Emmy Award, though he did point out that he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and that his leather jacket and lunchbox became part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum in 1980.
He spoke only briefly about some of the series he’s appeared in, like Arrested Development, Children’s Hospital, Royal Pains, New Girl and Parks and Recreation. He didn’t tell the audience that he starred in and co-executive produced the NBC Reality travel series Better Late Than Never with William Shatner, Terry Bradshaw, George Foreman and Jeff Dye and is an executive producer of the new MacGyver series currently airing its second season on CBS.
The hugely-successful and easily-recognizable Henry Winkler instead spent the evening sharing his plight with a learning disability that created such a passion for children that he travels all over the world as a child advocate. He says, “How you learn has nothing to do with how brilliant you are.”
Struggling as a child
Winkler, who has dyslexia, didn’t find that out until he was in his early 30s.
“I was in the bottom three percent of my class in school,” Winkler said.
He was bullied by his peers and called names, like “stupid,” “dumb” and “lazy.” Winkler was told he’d never be successful. In fact, Winkler remembers only one teacher encouraging him, and that was coupled with a caveat. In high school, a teacher said, “Henry, if you ever do get out of here, you’re going to do something good.”
Winkler struggled to read, agonized over spelling tests, and repeated algebra multiple times. “I didn’t walk with my class; didn’t get my diploma until I passed geometry with a D-,” said Winkler.
Sadly, even Winkler’s parents took part in the name-calling, and from the stage, he spoke the derogatory word his German father called him repeatedly.
“I was grounded most of my high school career. I was told I would never achieve.”
Winkler’s parents wanted him to buy and sell wood, to take over the business his father bought in America after emigrating from Germany.
“From the time I was 7, I wanted to be an actor,” he said. “The only ‘wood’ I was interested in was ‘Hollywood.’”
Winkler took part in one high school production, a musical in the eleventh grade. “My grades were so low that I couldn’t do extra-curricular activities.”
After graduation, Winkler attended Emerson College in Boston.
“I almost failed my freshman year, and I got kicked out of my acting class in my sophomore year,” Winkler said. “But I talked my way back in,” he joked.
Winkler obtained a Masters in Acting from Yale, and then began working in commercials.
Winkler was happy to be working and said, “I was making money. I was in front of a camera. I’d been told I was stupid and would never achieve anything. I believed it. It takes a long time to get over that.
“Life was like living in a stainless-steel cylinder. I couldn’t crawl my way to the top, I kept sliding back down.”
The ‘Happy Days’ break
Winkler’s break came with an audition for Happy Days in 1973. “I went in to audition, and everyone in the Green Room was famous except for me.”
Winkler gesticulated and said, “I had this big sweat stain the size of the Hudson River under my arm. I told (Happy Days producer) Garry Marshall and the others, ‘This is in direct correlation to the fear running through my body.’”
When Winkler got a call offering the part of Arthur Fonzarelli, he answered, “It you let me show the emotionality of this guy, it will be my pleasure.”
According to Winkler, Fonzarelli was expected to pull out a comb from his back pocket, look in a mirror, and comb his hair in the pilot episode.
Winkler said he’d always told himself he didn’t want to do the stereotypical hair-combing, but it was in the script.
“I wanted to be true to myself, true to the script. When the director told me to go to the mirror and comb my hair, I walked to the mirror, pulled out my comb, and said, ‘Aaaayyy. I don’t have to because it’s perfect.’
“That moment defined the character for the next 10 years.”
Winkler stated that his parents became more interested in his life after he was successful.
“I didn’t need them to be proud of me when I figured it all out. I needed them to be there for me when I was confused, when things were a blur. I needed understanding then.”
Winkler said he knew he wanted to be different as a parent. When Winkler married, Stacey Weitzman, his stepson Jed was 4. The couple later had two more children, Max and Zoe.
Winkler stated that when Jed was in third grade and had to write a report, Winkler couldn’t understand why Jed struggled to do the homework and admitted that he said some of the same things his parents had said. “You’re not concentrating; try harder; go back upstairs and work until you get it done.”
When the couple had Jed tested, results showed that Jed had dyslexia, and that was the first time Winkler was aware that his learning challenges had a name.
“I wasn’t lazy. I wasn’t stupid.”
Inspired by that revelation and with a passion to help kids who learn differently, Winkler joined forces with writer Lin Oliver during a lull in his acting career to write children’s books on a character named Hank who has dyslexia.
“I talk, she types, she reads it back to me, we argue over every word. We’ve written 35 novels together.”
He originally shied away from writing the books, because he said he didn’t think he could do it.
“Everyone in this room is powerful,” he said. “Figure out what your power is. We don’t know what we can do until we try.”
Winkler closed his talk with praise and admiration for the workers, volunteers and supporters of the Boys and Girls Club.
“You have the vision to take care of your community, to take care of the children that we’re going to hand the world to, and I applaud you. Thank you for listening. My parents never did.”
Mike Jones, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club, thanked those in attendance. “We all have our challenges in life, physical, learning; we all deal with challenges and struggles. Most of us can overcome by a support network around us.
“Tonight, you can leave knowing that what you’ve done is to be an advocate for these kids that we serve. You are their voice. You are their support network. With your participation, you provide the funds to keep us going.”
When some of the Boys and Girls Club kids presented Winkler with a painting of Hank from his novels, Winkler hugged each one and said, “This will hang in my office in Los Angeles.”