Your Personal Best: Henry Winkler

UPDATED: August 3, 2009
PUBLISHED: August 3, 2009

Arthur Fonzarelli was everything Henry Winkler
wanted to be. “He was confident, he was a leader
among his friends, he was good with women,”
Winkler says. “He had this confidence.” And he
didn’t have dyslexia.

Winkler, best known for playing The Fonz on the popular
sitcom Happy Days in the 1970s and ’80s, has struggled with
dyslexia his entire life. Learning to live with it may, in fact, be
one of the reasons he has achieved unqualified success and
versatility as an actor, director, producer and author. Happily
married for many years to Stacey Weitzman, with whom he has
three children, Winkler is still working on multiple projects,
supporting children’s charities and speaking out about the
importance of believing in oneself.

Winkler, 63, was born in Manhattan to Jewish
immigrants who had fled Nazi Germany. He was educated at
good schools, culminating in an MFA from the Yale School of
Drama in 1970. But it wasn’t easy. “School was unbelievably
difficult for me,” he says. “I was told I was lazy and not living
up to my potential. And it was only at 31 that I realized I had
something with a name.”

Winkler says it took him four years to get through geometry.
Reading was a nightmare. He remembers studying hard, trying
his best and still not making the grade.

“When I was growing up it took me a long, long time to
find my confidence,” Winkler says. “When you have a learning
challenge and you’re not keeping up, it works on your self-image.
I think the beginning and the end of living is keeping
your self-image intact and strong, and as a parent, keeping
your child’s self-image strong. Because when that goes, almost
everything goes.”

get typecast in your own life.”

The key to Winkler’s later success may have started with those
early battles to build and maintain a healthy self-image. He is not
sure to this day how he did it. “All I know is that I would go in
my room, I would put some music on, and I guess what I did was
a form of meditation. Without even knowing it. I would just sit
quietly and drain the anger from a fight with my parents, the lack
of doing well in school, all of which made me nuts. Because, of
course, a child wants to do well. You prepare. You try. And you
can’t even sound a word out. And then I was able to come back
and try again.”

Coming back and trying again is a theme that defines
Winkler’s professional life, from his early auditions to his
late-blooming vocation as an author, which seems to give him
great pride. He has co-written 14 children’s books (sales are at
$3 million) starring a very funny boy named Hank
Zipzer who, as it turns out, also has dyslexia.

“I just thought I would try something I had not done
before,” Winkler says. “I knew what it was like to grow
up with a learning challenge and [I told] Lin Oliver, my
partner, ‘It’s really important that it’s not a woe-is-me
story; it’s really important to make the kids laugh.’ So
Hank is very funny and he just happens to have a learning challenge,
and the kids who don’t have a learning challenge go, ‘Oh
my gosh, now I know what’s wrong with Bill next to me.’ And the
kids who do have a learning challenge say, ‘How did you know
me so well?’ ”

Winkler is also gratified that he is helping kids actually want
to read. “Parents who read the books say, ‘My child never read a
book before; now he’s read five.’ ”

Winkler admits his success has been hard-won; he started out
as a struggling actor with zero confidence and limited skill. He
had no idea if he was any good—but he had to try. “It is like fate
up against your back, pushing you in a direction,” he says. “Fate’s
hands are on your back and they are guiding you to whatever you
are supposed to be. I had this powerful desire to be an actor, but I
didn’t know how to get there. All I knew is that I wanted it.”

At first, he says “sheer energy” is about all he had. “I hadn’t
kicked in with the skill yet. No matter how much of an outgoing
personality I had, no matter how many times I won a dance
contest, if you don’t have the underlying confidence, then it is
like something that eats away at what you are trying to do. It
completely eats away at the foundation.”

Still, he went to audition after audition. “And I would never get
the job in the beginning,” he says. “I guess the key is, no matter
how many times you fall over, you dust yourself off and you
keep moving.”

That tenacity paid off when Winkler was chosen to play Arthur
Fonzarelli in 1973, opposite Ron Howard on Happy Days. He
soon became the sitcom’s most enduring character, and won two
Golden Globe best actor awards for the inimitable Fonz.

But acting roles didn’t come so easily after Happy Days, he
says. “I was being typecast. I was so well known as a character
people would say, ‘He’s really good, but…’ ” Winkler says that’s
when he started producing (“out of desperation”), venturing into
uncharted territory, a pattern that has informed his career
from the start.

“Don’t get typecast in your own life,” he says. “You
cannot assume that somebody can define you. You cannot
assume that the other person is right. No matter how they
say it to you, no matter with how much force they say, ‘Oh
my god, you’ll never make it; oh my god, you’re not bright;
you could never do this’—that’s one person. I can’t tell you
how many people told me I would never be an actor.”

Since then, Winkler’s work as an actor has been extensive,
from roles in television series like MacGyver, Law
and Order, South Park
and Arrested Development to
countless movies and plays. But that’s only part of the
story; he is also a prodigious producer and director.

His list of credits is lengthy, but the dyslexia persists. “You do
not overcome dyslexia,” he says. “You learn to negotiate it.” These
days, he says it helps to be hyper-organized, to read scripts very
slowly, and to tap into the notion of possibility.

“The moment you think about trying something new, you can
either say—like I did the first time someone mentioned writing
books to me—‘I’m sorry, I can’t do that; it’s out of the question,
forget it.’ You just dismiss it through your lack of confidence and
your lack of imagination. The next time the suggestion was made
to me, I was in a different place in my mind and my feelings and I
just said ‘OK.’ And then you put one foot in front of the other and
you wind up at your destination.”

This attitude is at the root of Winkler’s success, both personally
and professionally: the ability to keep going, regardless of the
obstacles in front of him. This is how he discovered his own talent
and his own role as an inspiration for others.

“What I say when I speak publicly is that
everyone in the room has greatness in them,”
he says. “It’s just that so many of us are willing
to second-guess ourselves and say, ‘No, that
couldn’t possibly be the truth.’ And children
have a wonderful gift. They have to figure out
what that gift is, dig it out and give it to the
world—and it could be anything.”

Winkler’s own life reflects that ability. He
likes to refer to a quote by Theodor Herzl, the
founder of Zionism, who once said, “If you
will it, it is no dream.”

“That has become the cornerstone
of my life,” Winkler says.