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Henry Winkler’s 6 Lessons of Reinvention

‘The old Henry got me here, but the new Henry is more fun!’ says the former Fonz, on a career roll at 77

spinner image henry winkler and his best dog friends maisie and sadie
Fonz and friends: Henry Winkler bonds with Maisie, left, and Sadie.
Shayan Asgharnia

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.

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“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.

spinner image the book cover for henry winkler's being henry the fonz and beyond
Andrew Eccles

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.

Video: Henry Winkler Escaped ‘Fonzie’ by Reinventing Himself

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.’

“When we got to the theater, I told her we should sit in the back. She didn’t understand, so we sat in the middle of the theater. And the entire theater came over and said hello. And Stacey said, ‘Oh!’ ”

Throughout the run of Happy Days, Fonzie was promoted and merchandised mercilessly, enough so it would be easy to write him off now as a lunch box caricature. The show eventually ended — though it was seven years after Fonzie literally jumped a shark while waterskiing — the source of the catchphrase that describes the point where TV shows (and other stuff) pass their moment of cultural relevance.

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Winkler remains proud and protective of the legacy of Arthur Fonzarelli. Still, there was a cost to having played the popular television icon.

“I never resented the Fonz. He put a roof over my head,” Winkler says. “But after Happy Days, I struggled with being locked out of opportunity.”

spinner image actor and writer henry winkler standing under a birch tree
Photo by Shayan Asgharnia

Lesson 2: Learn to do whatever you set your sights on

In the years that followed, Winkler could not get cast in movies, so strong was the association with Fonzie. He refers to it as a kind of personal walk in the desert. “I knew it was necessary to figure out something else because I was completely stymied,” he says. “I couldn’t just sit there. I had a family, and I am a doer.”

Winkler went to work. In 1984, his lawyer said he would start up a production company for him. “I told him, ‘I’m an actor. I can’t do that other thing,’ ” Winkler recalls. “But it turns out you can even learn what you can’t do, then you get good at it.”

So Winkler produced, and he excelled at it. In 1985, he won a Daytime Emmy for a children’s after-school special. His company put together MacGyver, the popular and weirdly inventive show about a secret agent, which Winkler executive produced for seven years.

During that time, Winkler also directed two films with big stars: Memories of Me, with Billy Crystal, and Cop and a Half, with Burt Reynolds.

But acting roles, his first love, had dried up.

Lesson 3: Always say thank you

The end of Winkler’s first walk in the desert began in 1994, when Saturday Night Live cast member Adam Sandler dropped Winkler back into pop-culture relevance by name-checking Arthur Fonzarelli in his wildly successful “The Chanukah Song.” Winkler followed up by calling Sandler to thank him for the mention, sparking an unlikely but immediate and lasting friendship.

“Adam Sandler is shy. Adam Sandler probably has ADD. Adam Sandler does not dress well,” Winkler states flatly. “And Adam Sandler is brilliant — and loyal.” Sandler ended up casting Winkler as Coach Klein in his hit comedy The Waterboy (1998). Since then, Sandler has put Winkler in several of his films, including Click, in which he played Sandler’s father.

Winkler narrows his eyes, in an expression that should really be his alone, and riffs on the source of his connection with Sandler.

“Loyalty was a founding rock on which I built the Fonz. He really took care of those boys — Richie, Potsie, Ralph — no matter what he said to their faces.” And again, for just a second, the Fonz lives. Then Winkler tilts his head and is back. He’s loyal too. “I just saw Adam in New York City two weeks ago, taking his daughter to drama camp. Great family man.”

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spinner image left the book cover for heres hank a book series featuring a dyslexic hero right author henry winkler
Penguin Workshop; Shayan Asgharnia

Lesson 4: If you can’t act, write!

Around the year 2000, when Winkler again wasn’t getting roles in television or film, he took a chance on a new kind of work. “A friend suggested, ‘Hey, write children’s books.’ At first, I said, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t read. I can’t spell. How am I going to write a book?’ But I was introduced to the writer Lin Oliver, and we created a process together.”

Together, Winkler and Oliver developed the character Hank Zipzer, who made his debut in 2003. Just like the young Winkler, he is a boy struggling with dyslexia. He’s funny, capable and popular — just terrible in school.

Twenty-eight books later, the Zipzer series is a fixture in the children’s book market here and in the U.K., where it was made into a TV series, with Winkler playing Zipzer’s favorite teacher. Winkler even promoted dyslexia awareness in the U.K., and for that, in 2011, Queen Elizabeth named him an Honorary Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

What Exactly Is Dyslexia?

“The struggle, the humiliation, the frustration is like living with a 3,000-pound weight on your shoulders,” is how Henry Winkler describes his lifelong battle with dyslexia. He’s hardly alone: Up to 1 in 5 Americans have this learning disability, among them California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Nobel Prize–winning biologist Carol Greider and actor Whoopi Goldberg.

Dyslexia is caused by biological differences in the brain that make it difficult to map speech sounds to letters or sequences of letters, so it’s hard to recognize written words. In the 1950s, dyslexia wasn’t widely recognized as a condition, and many people with it grew up being labeled either “stupid, unmotivated or oppositional,” explains Rebecca Resnik, a psychologist in Bethesda, Maryland. “Older adults may still carry that shame.”

Actors, of course, have to read. Winkler says he has developed a process — a “negotiation” — for dealing with a script, which gives him a way to absorb the words and sentences on his own terms: “I put it down and walk around and look at it. You negotiate it. You think. You figure out exactly how to do it.”

Dyslexia runs in families; if one parent has it, there’s a 40 to 60 percent chance a child will be born with it too. If you suspect you may have undiagnosed dyslexia, a specialist can test you and set up a treatment plan if it’s needed. (Find a specialist in your area through the International Dyslexia Association’s provider directory, at

New technologies can also help: Audiobooks are easy to get, and many publications offer audio versions as well. Pen-size reading devices can scan text and read it aloud. In addition, text-to-speech software lets you convert a digital device’s text so it’s read aloud.

Lesson 5: Find your best self

Eventually, good roles started to crop up. In 2003, Winkler started playing Barry Zuckerkorn, a hilariously incompetent lawyer, on the cult TV series Arrested Development.

Around that time, however, ­Stacey learned she had breast cancer. Her health crisis unearthed a crisis for Winkler too. As he tells it, at the moment when he should have been most present for his love, he withdrew.

“I went to her chemotherapy infusions, but my support consisted of falling asleep in the chair,” he admits. “I was not there. I’m not proud of that.”

In the years that followed, Winkler decided to explore what had happened to him. He committed to undergoing therapy as a means of exploring the traumas of his childhood: the demands of his old-world parents and the feeling that he was stupid. “I had covered that up with a Chernobyl-like layer of cement and let it sit,” he says. “I’ve spent years digging in, jackhammering that cement into small pieces.”

Lesson 6: Stay at the table

His return to acting picked up speed. Over the past two decades, Winkler has appeared in more than 100 television shows and movies. He even snagged a Daytime Emmy in 2005 for his work voicing a part in a children’s show.

None of which meant as much to Winkler as the break he caught in 2016 when he was cast as the obtuse, arrogant (yet still likable) acting coach Gene Cousineau in HBO’s Barry. At the mention of the show, Winkler rolls his eyes back, shakes his head and declares, “Barry is a miracle.”

Winkler, who had never won a Primetime Emmy despite several nominations, was awarded one after Barry’s first season. In his acceptance speech, he said, “If you stay at the table long enough, the chips come to you.”

He still revels in the accolade. “Actors sometimes say, ‘I don’t really care about the winning,’ ” Winkler says. “ ‘I have my Emmy or my whatever, and it’s a doorstop in the bathroom.’ They’re lying!”

As we wind down, the house remains abuzz with dogs and small children, and Winkler is entranced. Standing there, hands in pockets, he’s asked what further advice he’d give to readers. “Don’t think about what you don’t have,” he says. “Embrace and enjoy what’s in front of you.”

And what’s next for him? Is he still keen on work?

“I have my work and writing,” he says. “When will the switch flip? When will the dial turn me down?” He shrugs. “I still have the energy.” He smiles at the thought of work before he turns back to what’s in front of him, the people and the life he loves.

Vision: His Father-in-Law’s Cause

Henry Winkler is also keen to help those Americans, almost all of them over the age of 50, who suffer from age-related macular degeneration, or AMD. His interest stems from hanging out with his father-in-law, who contracted the disease and basically became unable to function at work or home as his vision rapidly deteriorated.

“I watched his eyesight get worse and worse, to the point where he couldn’t read his correspondence,” Winkler recalls. “He couldn’t travel. He couldn’t even work in his dental practice anymore.”

At that point, he explains, his father-in-law’s macular degeneration, left untreated, could have turned into geographic atrophy (GA), which is irreversible vision loss. Winkler is getting the word out, especially to older Americans, to immediately contact an eye doctor if there is any change to their vision, and to not wait for the worst to occur — near blindness, like that of his father-in-law.

As a spokesperson for Apellis, the manufacturer of a promising treatment for the conditions, he refers people to, which highlights the symptoms and causes of the diseases. “You can’t wait,” he sums up.

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