Henry Winkler’s road to success was far from easy.
He struggled in school which resulted in harsh punishment from his parents, and after awhile the putdowns and name-calling, something he vowed he would never do to his own children, affected his confidence.
It wouldn’t be until decades later that he would learn there was a reason he struggled, and knowing how much it set him back he wanted to use his diagnosis to inspire others, especially children.
While Winkler is an accomplished actor, it did not come easy to him. In fact, he had to work extremely hard for all of his accomplishments.
And it all began when he was a child.
From the start Winkler had high expectations placed on him, especially when it came to education.
“My parents were very, very, very, very, very short Jews from Germany,” Winkler told The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. “They believed in education. They thought I was lazy. I was called lazy. I was called stupid. I was told I was not living up to my potential.”
But Winkler did not believe his parents. He felt he was trying as hard as he could.
‘I don’t want to be stupid.’
Despite trying nearly every trick in the book, Winkler found it extremely difficult to succeed in school, which not only resulted in punishment from his parents, but kept him from participating in school dances or plays.
“I was grounded for most of my high school career. They thought if I stayed at my desk for 6 weeks at a time, I was going to get it and they were just going to put an end to the silliness of my laziness. That was going to be that.”
Despite his struggles in high school, Winkler went on to graduate with an MFA from Yale University.
However, he once again ran into some issues after graduation. Reading scripts proved to be quite difficult.
“You learn to negotiate with your learning challenge. I improvised. I never read anything the way that it was written in my entire life.”
“I could instantly memorize a lot of it and then what I didn’t know, I made up and threw caution to the wind and did it with conviction and sometimes I made them laugh and sometimes I got hired,” he said.
Although he eventually was cast as Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli in Happy Days, he admitted he struggled during table reads.
“When we did Happy Days, I embarrassed myself for 10 years reading around that table with the producers, the other actors, the director, all of the department heads. On Monday morning, we read the scripts. I stumbled over every word. I was completely embarrassed. Memorizing, if it’s written well, my brain is then able to suck it up like a vacuum cleaner.”
It wasn’t until his stepson began struggling in school and was tested for a learning disability that Winkler considered he too might have dyslexia.
“I went, ‘Oh my goodness. I have something with a name.’ That was when I first got it.”
Winkler was 31 years old at the time.
“I didn’t read a book until I was 31 years old when I was diagnosed with dyslexia. Books terrified me. They made me nervous,” he said.
After learning his struggles with reading were due to a learning disability, Winkler became angry.
“I got very angry. Because all of the arguments in my house with the short Germans who were my parents were for naught. All of the grounding was for naught.”
But then he used his diagnosis to inspire others, especially children, and he did it by writing a children’s series featuring a boy named Hank, an elementary school student with dyslexia.
The series has connected with many as Winkler said he often receives letters from children.
“Every child who writes me a letter about Hank Zipzer, I write back. In every letter I include, ‘your learning challenge will not stop you from meeting your dream. Only you will stop yourself from meeting your dream.’”
While he still struggles with his learning challenge, Winkler has gone on to achieve much success. In addition to winning numerous awards for his Hollywood career, he has written several books, and it was just recently announced his memoir would be released in 2024.
Even though he has accomplished so much, he said, “Outside of my family, my proudest moment, no matter what I have achieved, are the books.”