Henry Winkler, the man who shot to fame in the 1970s as the star of the TV series Happy Days, has been enjoying especially happy times lately.
His acting career, put on hold for several years while he produced and directed shows, has recently blossomed again: He plays the music teacher in the new Kevin James movie Here Comes the Boom (opening Oct. 12), a quirky father in USA Network's Royal Pains and a bumbling attorney in the Netflix show Arrested Development. He's also just published his 23rd novel for children and on Nov. 14 he opens on Broadway in a new comedy called The Performers.
While Winkler was becoming a household name as "The Fonz" on Happy Days, he watched his mother suffer a debilitating stroke. We caught up with the energetic 67-year-old on a recent visit to Washington, D.C., where he was advocating for stroke patients.
Q. Your own mother had a stroke and you were a caregiver for her?
A. I was a caregiver when I could. I was in Hollywood, and my mom lived in New York. My sister was there, so I was a co-caregiver, and then we had someone eventually live in because it became really difficult.
Q. The coordinating-care-at-a-distance caregiver is very difficult.
A. The most difficult part is giving support from a distance. I would fly into New York and spend time with her, and I watched the will to live drip out of her.
Q. I understand she was afflicted with upper limb spasticity — which some people call a stroke arm.
A. Yes, that's exactly right. Usually, the patient has come home; they're no longer under the doctor's care. The therapy is winding down. And all of a sudden, they are taken over by their muscles. And it is uncomfortable. It is more than that — it is painful. Sometimes the fingernails grow into the palm, because they cannot open their hands. They cannot wash their hands. And then there is the psychological component. The person just feels out of whack with the rest of society. People look at them strangely.
Q. Are there treatments?
A. I am the spokesperson for the last three years for the Open Arms Campaign, www.openarms.com, and there is a new tool in the doctor's toolbox, which is this therapeutic use of Botox. [The Food and Drug Administration approved Botox for use with upper limb spasticity in 2010.] I have traveled across the country merely to give people information that [this treatment] exists. A lot of times the meetings that I have at hospitals with the stroke doctors and the patients turn out to be revival meetings, because the patient wants to say how their life has changed. It is so inspiring and touching.
Q. How long does it take for patients to see results?
A. It is pretty quick. They start to see it as soon as the first treatment. They need the injections every four to five weeks.
Q. You're an avid fly fisherman. You have to have open arms and lots of dexterity when you're on the river.
A. It is completely Zen. You cannot fly fish and just reel the fish in. You have to be completely in tune with what is feeding on the river. You have to be in tune with the rate of the water. You have to be in tune with the fish once the fish is on the line. I always say that it's like a washing machine for the brain. You are drained of anything that worries you while you are on, in or near the river.
Q. Was your mother ever able to go fly fishing?
A. No, my mother played canasta. She never picked up a rod in her life, but she was mean with a deck. Whoa! She had her friends. They had lunch first. Of course, that all went away when she had her stroke, which was very sad.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about what else you're working on?
A. We just shot a two-hour Royal Pains movie coming in January. I just shot my work on Arrested Development coming next spring on Netflix. Children's Hospital, which is the absurdist comedy on the cartoon network at 12 at night on Thursdays, just won an Emmy for best short-form [live-action]. Then, of course, we have our newest novel for children, Ghost Buddy, Mind if I Read Your Mind. We've written now 23 novels for children. This one is based on that the very person that you might be making fun of might be the very person that can help you. I have a new movie coming out with Kevin James and Salma Hayek called Here Comes the Boom, which is a family movie. You take your 9-year-old and grandma. And everybody will cheer.
Q. How was working with Salma Hayek on Here Comes the Boom?
A. She is game for anything. She is articulate. She is so smart. This little girl is powerful, I mean in the true sense of the word. Funny, and a great mom. Her daughter came to visit, all the time.
Q. You've reinvented yourself as an actor. Do you have some advice for people over 50 who want to reinvent themselves?
A. It is so easy to second-guess yourself. It is so easy to say: "Well, they don't want me. Well, it's too late in the game." The actual fact is that might be true, but it is not true everywhere. You are mercury and you make yourself small enough to fit in that opening when it presents itself. If that were not true, I would not be sitting here now. I was told I would never achieve. [Winkler has dyslexia, and his series of children's books — cowritten with Lin Oliver — features a dyslexic hero, Hank Zipper.]
You don't know what greatness you have inside you until you get off the mat and try, which is the theme of my life, the theme of the books we write and the theme of the movie we just did.
A. I think the center of a relationship is not the heart, it's not the head. It is the ear. It doesn't matter how you mean it. It matters how it lands. Listening is a lost art and listening is the beginning and the end of a relationship. And good abs and a nice tush is not bad. [Laughing] Nah. I have abs, but you need an X-ray to find them. They're way deep down, but they're there.
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