A tiny pink piano sits in the vestibule of Henry Winkler’s house in Los Angeles — a 2-foot-tall pink piano. Before we begin our talk, I reach down to plink the keys.
“This is a fun house,” I tell him.
“It’s alive!” Winkler agrees. The house is bright and loaded with detail. There’s not a somber piece of furniture in sight. The windowsills are littered with ceramic animals. Jolly little Buddhas take up spare shelf space. Outsize jars of candy beckon, and plates of cookies wait for children to happen by. In the sunroom, there’s a tent, a dog fence and an undersized table with six chairs set up for small children, topped with paper for drawing. And about a billion markers.
“There are no plastic covers on our sofas. This house is meant for the lives of all of the children to be as free and as fun-filled as possible,” Winkler says. “And you know, if there’s a spot here, a spot there, big deal. The laughter, the squeals, the running, the food throwing, the toy playing is worth a spot or two.”
Grandchildren (Winkler has six) burst in the front door unannounced. Winkler, 77, stops everything, greets each with a delicate kiss. Dogs lope through. Stacey, his wife of 45 years, patrols amid the chaos.
Bright-eyed and sprightly, Winkler moves from room to room as a cover shoot for AARP The Magazine goes down. He narrows his eyes when concentrating on a memory, leans forward and finishes anecdotes with a smile that invites you to join in. An attentive host, he asks questions, learns names and fairly jumps through wardrobe changes, cardigan to cardigan. “I like cable knits,” he tells me. “And cashmere.” He holds out an arm. “Feel,” he says. “Marvelous, right? Thom Browne. Too expensive. Too much. But still.” He tilts his head and shrugs, unintentionally flashing a little Fonz, the indelible character he played on the hit TV show Happy Days in the 1970s and ’80s.
What you don’t see in the house is the 2018 Primetime Emmy Winkler won for his depiction of an egocentric Hollywood acting teacher in the HBO hit Barry. Or any of the numerous awards he had previously won. This is not a museum of Winkler’s career but a living testament to who Winkler is now, and how he got here, having segued from discouraged schoolkid with a learning disability to Ivy League drama student, from leading man to unemployed character actor, from director and producer to best-selling coauthor of dozens of children’s books, and most recently into one of television’s beloved comeback kids.
Working from home today, Winkler is promoting his new book, Being Henry: The Fonz … and Beyond (available Oct. 31). It’s a quick-paced, unusually intimate narration of Winkler’s wild early success, his mid-career struggles, the deeply earned (and ongoing) personal growth that followed, and his triumphant return as a memorable character actor, including the lessons he learned on the way.
“The old Henry got me here, but the new Henry is more fun,” he says.
Lesson 1: Take the good with the bad
Winkler grew up, a child of German Jewish immigrants, in 1950s-era New York City. As a boy, he struggled with an undiagnosed case of dyslexia, the neurobiological learning disability characterized by difficulties decoding written language.
“I was so verbal, yet I couldn’t do anything in school. It drove my parents crazy. They embraced the conclusions of my teachers, which was ‘You’re not living up to your potential,’ which eventually became ‘You are lazy and stupid.’ ”
Winkler limped through high school and an undergraduate degree in theater at Emerson College. In 1973, after graduate work at the Yale School of Drama and a short run in New York theater, he moved to Los Angeles. Just weeks after arriving, he landed the initially small part of Arthur Fonzarelli — Fonzie — on the new sitcom Happy Days. Over the show’s 11 seasons, he became an international superstar.
“We have to talk about Happy Days,” I tell him, almost apologetically.
“It’s OK,” Winkler says quietly. He knows how much he owes the show. Fonzie had only six lines of dialogue in the pilot. Still, he immediately delighted audiences. The writers quickly shifted the emphasis of the show, giving Winkler more and more screen time, until Fonzie eventually became a focus. His explosive popularity never waned.
By way of example, Winkler describes his first date with his future wife, Stacey Weitzman, in 1976, after three seasons as Fonzie. Stacey wasn’t familiar with his character or the show. “She wanted to go to the movies,” he says. “And I told her that might be difficult. She wanted to know why. I said, ‘I don’t know how to describe it to you.’