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Happy Days? Henry Winkler interview

He became a household name for his portrayal of TV's “the Fonz”, yet his early life was blighted by learning difficulties. Henry Winkler talks to Peter Sutcliffe


To a jaded 1970s audience, the hit TV sitcom Happy Days was a revelation. This lively and colourful slice of '50s middle America captured the imagination of a British public tired of strikes and three-day weeks. We were nostalgic for a simpler age, and we watched it in our millions. For all the efforts of a fine ensemble cast, there was only ever one real reason why we tuned in: a certain Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, known simply as “the Fonz”. All Brylcreem, leather and swaggering hips, he would strut into Al's Diner, an adoring girl on each arm, to utter what must surely be the shortest catchphrase in television history: “heeeey”. It was just a single syllable, but for a generation of pre-pubescents on both sides of the Atlantic it was the very quintessence of cool.

Such is Happy Days' enduring popularity that today there is even a “bronze Fonz” in the character's “home town” of Milwaukee. Resplendent in blue jeans, white T-shirt and brown leather jacket, a life-size statue greets visitors to the city's down-town River-walk with a broad smile and that familiar double thumbs-up. The path to iconic status was not an easy one for “Fonzie's” creator, actor Henry Winkler. As a child, he struggled continually at school, the casualty of undiagnosed dyslexia and an education system that did not understand his problems. Today he makes no secret of the pain and anguish of those childhood years as he embraces his latest role as a campaigner for SEN awareness. In lecture theatres, school assembly halls and, seemingly, all over our TV screens he is ever-ready to talk frankly and openly about the boy his parents referred to as a “dumb dog”.

When I caught up with Winkler, he was preparing for the Downing Street launch of My Way!, a government backed initiative organised by children's newspaper First News, for which he is Campaign Ambassador. The campaign aims to highlight the fact that children learn in different ways, and to improve attitudes towards children with SEN, so I started off by asking Winkler about his own learning difficulties. What exactly did he struggle with at school? “You name it, I struggled with it. I was in the bottom three per cent academically,” he says. “At the time that I was growing up, people had no idea that there were such things as learning difficulties. So I was called stupid and crazy, and accused of not living up to my potential. If people say that enough, you start to believe that you are stupid. “I always thought, oh I can't do that, oh I would never be able to figure that out, oh I'm stupid. I wish I could know that, but I don't. You carry around this dented self image all the time.

“You spend a third of your time trying to figure school out, you spend a third of your time trying to figure out why you can't figure it out at all, and you spend a third of your time trying to cover your shame and humiliation. No matter what anybody says to a child with dyslexia, that child has already said that to himself or herself.”

As in so many cases, Winkler believes his own difficulties with learning were often misinterpreted as problem behaviour. “The child whose legs shake because they can't keep still, the child who squirms in their chair, the child whose eye muscles are weak, the child who can't concentrate, the child who can't decipher what is being explained no matter what the subject is on the board, they're not joking around; they're not trying to be disciplinary problems. Every child wants to do well, and inside they know that they're trying and it's not working. So they feel badly about themselves.”

Unsurprisingly, humour was a constant weapon in the young Winkler's battle to survive school, but he also adopted specific learning strategies to try and keep up with his peers. “I learned through listening”, he says. “I couldn't read very well and maths was just out of the question. When I bought something, I paid with paper money. If I bought a slice of pizza, I would give the guy $5. I had no idea how much change I was supposed to get back; I just trusted that the man behind the counter was going to be honest.”

Despite such problems, Winkler graduated and enjoyed a happier time at University in Boston, before heading off to drama school at Yale University. I suggest to Winkler that drama school was an unusual choice for someone who had such problems with reading. How did he cope, for example, with the constant requirement to read and learn his lines? “I had to work harder than anybody else”, he says. “In college, I did a show called Peer Gynt, and there are monologues that go on for four pages. I was living my dream and my nightmare at the exact same moment.”

Winkler only came to put a name to his own learning difficulties much later in life, when his wife's son from a previous marriage, Jed, was diagnosed with dyslexia. “Jed was very verbal, very funny, very clever and his homework was atrocious”, says Winkler. “We had him tested and I heard everything that the education service said to him and I went, oh my God, that's me. I have something with a name; I'm not just a dumb dog.”

Winkler has two other children with his wife, Stacey, and both have endured their own problems with learning. “My third child, Max, never sat in his chair when he was doing his homework”, says Winkler. “He stood at his desk or he would lie on his bed and listen to music. In the beginning, I said to him everything that was said to me: 'you can't listen to the radio when you're doing your homework'. And then I finally realised, he is trying as hard as he can. Maybe I should just shut up. And it dawned on me that maybe the radio was a tool. Maybe it was blocking the rest of the world out so he could concentrate. Maybe it was the background noise that enabled him to focus.

“For my daughter, school was a nightmare. She was the last one in her class to learn to read. Fortunately, though, her teacher took the time with her”. This same daughter is now a pre-school teacher, and Winkler has no doubt that her own experiences have made her into a better teacher. “One day, I was driving along a street in LA and somebody next to me at a red light wound his window down and said 'Hey, are you Zoe Winkler's father?'
And I said 'yeah'.
And he said, 'my kid bounds out of the house in the morning to get to school, and it's because of your daughter.' And this is a girl who cried her way and failed her way through high school.”

In recent years, Winkler's experiences have driven him to try to promote a deeper understanding of SEN, and he has lent his support to a number of highprofile educational causes. He is a patron of the Teaching Awards and has even had an award named in his honour (the winner of the inaugural Henry Winkler Teaching Award for Special Needs will be announced on 31 October 2010).

Through his various campaigning roles, Winkler is a frequent visitor to UK schools, and he is clearly an admirer of good teaching practice. “In Belfast”, he says, “I visited a pre-school class where they identify children who already show signs of behavioural problems, sequencing problems or just general school problems. And they work with these kids at age four. I met a child, now in Year 5, who had gone through this program and is thriving.”

We have clearly hit upon a favourite subject of Winkler's and, as he talks about inspirational teachers, he is unashamedly effusive. “I have met teachers who truly understand the child who learns differently, and I really wish I'd known them when I was growing up. The first UK school I ever visited was Howard Primary School in Croydon, and I walked into the classroom of Jackie De Saulles. I watched a child go up to her and say 'Mrs De Saulles, I can't do this'. And Jackie just turned around and said: 'yet'. That's all she said, one word: 'yet'. And so the child thought Oh! OK. I'm going to figure it out; I just can't do it now.”

Winkler is also quick to point out the sometimes extraordinary pressures that teachers work under. “The teacher has to deal with overcrowding”, he says. “The teacher has to figure out how to manage the child who is so bright and gets bored if they don't get attention, as well as the kid who can't keep up, who falls through the cracks if they don't get attention. So, the teacher is confronted with an almost Herculean task. But everybody has a greatness in them and it's a teacher's job to figure out what their gift is and give it to the world.”

Away from acting and campaigning, Winkler has carved out a parallel career as the co-author of a series of children's books: Hank Zipzer, the world's greatest underachiever. Modelled firmly on Winkler's own younger self, Hank is a young boy with dyslexia growing up in New York City.

So just how, I ask, did a famous dyslexic come to start writing books? “The first time the suggestion was made, I thought, I can't do that, I can't write a book. Two years later the same guy said to me: 'Why don't you write books for kids who have dyslexia'. He introduced me to Lin Oliver, we had lunch and we started writing.... It's not ghost written, we intertwine and write things together and we've written seventeen novels that way. “In one of the books, Hank has the very same argument that I had with my father when I was eleven. It keeps shooting out of me word for word as if it happened yesterday....but with the books it's not all woe is me; this kid is funny. Yes, he's got a problem, but he'll work it out.”

And what of Winkler's super-cool alterego? I had expected some reluctance to talk about the show that forever defined his public persona, but as we discuss Happy Days, there is a real warmth in his voice. “I always say my life changed at 28 when I got the part of Fonz”, he says. However, while Winkler clearly feels he shared a lot with “The Fonzie”, there are some key ways in which the two differed. Not only does the creator of Milwaukee's most famous mechanic insist he knows nothing about cars, he also claims that, despite spending much of his time on the show astride a vintage Harley Davidson, he never could learn
how to ride a motorbike. “They let me ride the Harley once”, he says. “I had to go about seven feet and I crashed it into the sound truck. That was the last time they let me do that. I sat on it pretty well though; I looked pretty cool, didn't I?”

Sensing that this may be a rhetorical question, I move on to an even more delicate matter: the amorous adventures of young Mr Winkler. “I did not do well with women when I was in high school because I was always so insecure”, he says. ”As I suggest that things must have changed pretty rapidly once he was playing one of TV's hottest sex symbols, he is suitably circumspect. “Then I had a different problem. I had to figure out if people liked me just because I was on television. Sometimes I'd come to the realisation, this girl doesn't care about me at all; she just cares that I'm on TV. Then you have to start figuring out how you tell the difference in order to pick your life partner. Eventually, you realise that you know. If you're quiet and you listen, you just know.”

Winkler still clearly has a great deal of fondness for Happy Days and the friendships he made on the show. “The people were fantastic,” he says. “In the last Hank Zipzer book, which comes out in April, Hank finally leaves elementary school and goes to middle school, and Gary Marshall [the Executive Producer of Happy Days] is one of the teachers at the school that helps him.” It's a fitting tribute to the man Winkler describes as his “guru and “don”, and his admiration for Marshall is palpable. “I learnt so much from him. He was one of the geniuses in my life, so I made him a character in the last book.”

Throughout our conversation, Winkler's energy and optimism never waver. There is a benign, yet zealous, certainty behind all he says, which may, at times, sit a little uncomfortably with audiences this far removed from his Hollywood home. Yet maybe it is this very strangeness that allows him to stand up and say what he does to teachers, politicians and children alike. Filtered through a curious mix of innocence and practised showmanship, he has the outsider's ability to simply tell it as he sees it.

“As long as people think it's OK that I say what I'm saying, I'll keep saying it,” he concludes. And there is little doubt that Winkler's fundamental message of hope and possibility is one that many of our children with SEN, and their parents, have long waited to hear.

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