Henry Winkler Interview: Latest Book Reflects on Family, Fishing, Photography and Dyslexia
Image attributed to Henry Winkler
Henry Franklin Winkler is best known for the role of Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli (Fonzie, The Fonz or Fonz) in the iconic ABC series Happy Days which originally aired from January 15, 1974 to September 24, 1984.
Set in the Midwestern city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the series revolved around teenager Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and his parents, Howard (Tom Bosley) and Marion (Marion Ross); younger sister Joanie (Erin Moran) and Fonzie, the leather-clad mechanic and suave ladies man. Winkler began as a minor character in the show’s beginning but achieved top billing by the time Happy Days ended.
“I’ll tell you what goes through your mind. What they are saying about you on the outside is not meshing with how you feel on the inside. I didn’t want to be stupid. I didn’t want to fail.”
Winkler’s other television credits include The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, Joanie Loves Chachi, The Larry Sanders Show, South Park, The Simpsons, Battery Park, Third Watch, Crossing Jordan, Numb3rs, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (TV movie), Merry Christmas, Drake & Josh (TV movie), Arrested Development, and Childrens Hospital.
Film appearances included Night Shift, Heroes, Scream, The Waterboy, Little Nicky, Click, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Down to You, Holes, and I Could Never Be Your Woman.
The New York native struggled in school with low self-esteem and endured both his parents and his teachers labeling him “dumb” and “lazy.” He was finally diagnosed at the age of 31 with the learning disability dyslexia. Since 2003, Winkler has collaborated with Lin Oliver on a series of children’s books about a 4thgrade boy, Hank Zipzer, who is dyslexic.
The actor/producer/author/humanitarian has been married to Stacey Weitzman since May 5, 1978 and they have three children, Zoe Emily, Max Daniel, and Jed (from Stacey’s previous marriage with Howard Weitzman).
In his latest book, I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River: Reflections on Family, Fishing, and Photography, released May 31, 2011, Winkler shares the joy and wisdom he’s accumulated while honing his skills as a fly fisherman, writing about his family and life experiences and how perseverance is the key to realizing your dreams.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Henry, how are you today?
Henry Winkler: I’m so good. I love your accent.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Thank you. We actually met a couple of years ago in Montgomery, Alabama.
Henry Winkler: Was I polite?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very.
Henry Winkler: Thank God!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It was an event for the Family Guidance Center’s 50th anniversary.
Henry Winkler: I remember. I had a wonderful barbecue around the corner from the hotel.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I had a short video Q/A with you and we discussed politics. At the time you backed President Obama’s health plan. Two years later are you still convinced that he is a good president?
Henry Winkler: Yes. Sometimes it is a little infuriating that he is so calm, but then he makes up for it when he finally gets to the breaking point like he was recently. Here’s the thing. For me at the moment, the worst word in the English language is “beholding.” What it seems is our entire political system is about being beholding to the person who gives you the most money as opposed to the population that needs you the most.
Slowly but surely Obama goes at his own pace but somehow he gets it done. You know, at Christmastime all of a sudden there was all of that snarkiness and then slowly but surely all of these things got passed.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What about the debt crisis?
Henry Winkler: I’m not sure that the debt crisis … I’m sure it’s important but I don’t know that it’s as important as they’ve made it to be. What is more important is that there is a nation who needs desperately to figure out how to take care of itself.
If we vote Obama out when he’s just getting his footing on what it’s like to be a president and one of those other people get to be president, are they going to make it all right? They’ve got to get in there and sit down and say, “Oh, I know what to do!” We have allowed our problems to gestate and marinate to the point where it’s going to take more than really nice words.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I interviewed your Royal Pains co-star Ed Asner a few weeks ago.
Henry Winkler: Oh, HE is political!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He is a Socialist.
Henry Winkler: Yeah, he suffers no fools. My first job in Hollywood … Ed Asner … and now he’s my dad on Royal Pains.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your character, Eddie Lawson, seems to continue his troubles in prison.
Henry Winkler: Yes. But, I’m telling you, I’m so blessed because what a show! I mean, it’s well written, it’s fun and it’s beautiful. The people are wonderful. My sons on the show, Paulo Costanzo and Mark Feuerstein could be my sons. And Ed, I’m not kidding, he must have put on baby oil because he slipped right in as if he had been there the whole time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): At 81 he hasn’t slowed down a bit!
Henry Winkler: No! I saw him yesterday and he’s just adorable. You probably don’t want to attribute that word and say it came from me, but he is adorable.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve written 19 books.
Henry Winkler: Yes, 17 Hank Zipzers which then got me the Order of the British Empire from the Queen for the work that I do with the kids over there, the brand new book that comes out next spring, a new series by Scholastic, and my first adult book (I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River) which got on The New York Times Best Seller List.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I loved the book and its message, which is to keep persevering in spite of your shortcomings.
Henry Winkler: Oh thank you. Most times I talk to people who say, “Wow, can’t wait to read your book, but it looks great!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you were struggling in school with dyslexia, what kept going through your mind?
Henry Winkler: I’ll tell you what goes through your mind. What they are saying about you on the outside is not meshing with how you feel on the inside. I didn’t want to be stupid. I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to necessarily disrupt class and be a class clown. These were not the first things I thought about when I got up in the morning. But if you say it long enough and often enough to the child then they start to shift and start to believe and say, “Well, I guess that’s who I am.”
My major thought at this moment besides the word “beholding” is that we celebrate the kids in the top 10% of the class. I think they are very important and I admire them. I truly do. They’re going to be doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, chemists and engineers. But there is another bunch of people in that class who might be allergic to school. Their brains are wired differently, but they are good with their hands and with their bodies. They are athletes or plasterers or plumbers.
Now I think to myself, “You know, I’m on a show, I make some money and can buy a house.” Well, I’m not going to build that house myself. I need those kids who can figure out how to make a room and have running water. Why aren’t they celebrated in the same fervent way? I don’t even know if that’s the right word, is it?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Synonyms are ecstatic, heartfelt, intense. Yes, “fervent” is appropriate. Have you ever spoken to a former teacher after you were diagnosed as dyslexia?
Henry Winkler: I have, but she was a college professor. Charlotte Lindgren was my English teacher at Emerson College and she was always supportive. She let me fall asleep in her class when I had to go on a trip for pledging my fraternity and I have seen her now a couple of times.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I would have been tempted to contact some of the teachers who had called me lazy and stupid to tell them that I had been diagnosed with a learning disability.
Henry Winkler: Yeah, but you know what? It was so severe, it was so mean that I don’t care.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You just don’t want to go back there.
Henry Winkler: No and I don’t think they are alive. I will say that I put in my math teacher in the first couple of books of Hank Zipzer, Mr. Sicilian, and I sent him a signed copy of the book. I got a lovely letter back. He was a good guy. I would have liked to have seen Mr. Rock, my music teacher.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You talk in the book about how your parents were always calling you dumb.
Henry Winkler: Yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever discuss the dyslexia with them?
Henry Winkler: I tried. But, once I got on television all of a sudden they became the “co-producers” of Henry Winkler.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did they ever apologize to you for their hurtful words?
Henry Winkler: No. You know, finally now it’s very hard to hold on to the resentment.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have to let it go for your own peace of mind.
Henry Winkler: Yeah. But it took a long time … like until just before my shower (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wanted your son Max to love fishing as much as you do.
Henry Winkler: Sometimes I hear a song and I cannot imagine that somebody else hearing the song doesn’t feel exactly the same intensity I feel. That was a big wake up. I thought, “Whoa! Not everybody gets it the same way as everybody else gets it!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Even though Max didn’t like fishing, it was still a great bonding time for the two of you.
Henry Winkler: It was. And I must say that I have a wonderful relationship … I’m proud of all of my relationships with each child.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Max has directed his first film.
Henry Winkler: It’s called Ceremony. Zoe is an extraordinary teacher. Each one of them is learning challenged. Jed is clever in business and he and his wife gave us our first granddaughter.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you offer Max advice for coping in show business?
Henry Winkler: You can only give him advice. He calls you up and asks you a laser surgical strike question and then you can answer only that question.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You can’t vary from his question.
Henry Winkler: No you cannot nor can you bury inside that answer other information you want him to know. So you can’t vary and you can’t bury.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you always been a catch and release kind of guy?
Henry Winkler: Yes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is that for humane reasons?
Henry Winkler: You know, at the bottom I never thought of it that way, but at the bottom of it that is the reason. But also I don’t believe in true altruism that no matter what I do at the end of the day I still feel great about the fact that I’ve gone to that hospital. No matter how tough the experience I get to benefit from it also. I’m very happy to watch the fish and see it snap in the water and shoot like a rocket away from the boat, but at the same time there’s a possibility I can catch that guy again next year.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Where would you go to fish that you have not yet visited?
Henry Winkler: Bolivia, Argentina. I would like to go to upper Michigan. There’s great fishing there. Alabama. I fished in Tennessee outside of Knoxville and had a great time. My first major fling was from Alabama. Lula Tarlington Blackwell III from Birmingham. She was a ballerina.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your photographs in the book are beautiful.
Henry Winkler: Oh, thank you!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’ve interviewed a couple of famous photographers and both have said that some of the best shots come from a point and shoot camera set on automatic.
Henry Winkler: It’s true. I have a camera that does everything that it’s supposed to do but I don’t know how to do it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you ever want to learn?
Henry Winkler: Here’s the thing. We are right up against exactly what I’ve said in the book and at the moment unwilling to step over the line. For the most part I’m here talking to you on the phone because I didn’t let the anticipatory fear stop me from anything, but I somehow either really don’t want to or don’t care to learn what it would be like to turn the knobs.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What life lessons did you learn from the Happy Days years?
Henry Winkler: Oh I learned so much because I learned how to be an executive producer from Garry Marshall and Tom Miller. I learned how to run an artistic operation, not artistic necessarily, but a creative group.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You say that you are still typecast as Fonzie.
Henry Winkler: Yes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have there been roles you’ve auditioned for and lost because of that?
Henry Winkler: Well, I can’t give you specifics, but absolutely. You have to audition. The executives now are younger. They were just kids when I was on television and I guess that being in those positions and making decisions is so scary that you have to go and audition for the job. Many actors say they know my work. If they want me they can call me.
I go in the room and I sit there in those metal chairs with all the young actors waiting to go into audition. They say, “What are you doing here?” I say, “I’m looking for a job … you?” Part of the process is learning to eat crow. But that’s what you learn is part of every process.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Anson Williams, Don Most, Marion Ross, Erin Morgan, and the estate of Tom Bosley are suing CBS for unpaid Happy Days merchandising revenue. You are not involved in the lawsuit.
Henry Winkler: I had a different contract. But I talked to them about it. I support them.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about the My Way campaign.
Henry Winkler: I went over and toured England for three years in a row with the only newspaper for children called First News. It’s an award winning newspaper. Also it’s just fantastic! A million kids read it. So I toured with the newspaper and Walker Books.
Part of the presentation was the publisher of the paper would talk about being a reporter and then I would talk about Hank Zipzer. We would do two schools a day with 500 or 600 children in each school. Out of that the editor of First News said, “We have to start a campaign from what you’re saying, Henry, called My Way because each child has their own way of learning.” Out of that came a column in the paper where children from all over the United Kingdom write their experiences with a learning challenge; deafness, blindness, dyslexia, cerebral palsy. The parents write what it’s like being a parent so that all of these million children are now reading and going, “Oh, that’s why Billy is the way he is. That’s why Fiona does what she does. That’s why my child doesn’t concentrate.”
One of the little boys is now starring in his second film because he said, “I can do what you do. I want to do what you do.” And he went out and he did it. He’s 15. One little boy is an organizer. We were at 10 Downing Street together and we invited Alfie. Alfie stood toe to toe with the Minister of Education and told him the bathroom stinks. Then there is the First News My Way awards which we just had at 10 Downing Street where the children give the person that supported them, who they cannot live without, an award right there in front of everybody.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s so great.
Henry Winkler: That is the My Way campaign.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In addition to Royal Pains, do you have other acting projects coming up?
Henry Winkler: I do another show tomorrow night at 12:00 on the Cartoon Network that is hardcore spoof comedy. When I say hardcore, I say, “Put your seatbelt on!” That’s called Childrens Hospital and was created by Rob Corddry who is one of those comic minds.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Henry, let me wrap this up by asking you what the secret is to coping with a lifetime of dyslexia.
Henry Winkler: Making friends with whatever the challenge is you have. Negotiating whatever challenge you have. There’s more than one way to get where you want to go.
There is just not one way to be successful. The most important thing, I think, that I say to children ad nauseam is, “No matter how you learn, it has nothing to do with how brilliant you are.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Thanks for your time today.
Henry Winkler: What a wonderful conversation!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I enjoyed it immensely.
Henry Winkler: Me too. Have a wonderful wonderful rest of your summer.
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