When it comes to the coolest television characters of all time, you’d be hard pushed not to mention Fonzie from Happy Days. With his iconic leather jacket and trademark hairstyle, The Fonz was the ultimate in relaxed, effortless cool. However, the man playing him is very different in real life. Indeed, actor Henry Winkler has faced ups and downs over the course of his career, and for decades he had been plagued by low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. In recent years, though, Winkler has divulged exactly what it was that troubled him for so long – and it’s something that affects many others…
Born on October 30, 1945, Henry Winkler is the son of two Jewish parents who had fled from Nazi Germany shortly before the start of World War II. So Winkler was brought up with the values of Conservative Judaism – but religion was never a priority for him.
Acting, on the other hand, was almost always one of his passions. Yes, while some performers gravitate to acting in later life, others seemingly have it in their blood. And Winkler – a New York native – falls into the latter camp, as he hoped to become an actor from a young age.
By the age of 14, then, Winkler had made up his mind to pursue his ambition of becoming an actor. And despite receiving lackluster grades, Winkler got accepted into the Yale University Drama School on the strength of his audition.
“My parents didn’t want me to be an actor for one millisecond,” he told The Telegraph in 2013. “They were short Germans who wanted me to take over the family importing and exporting business. But I was determined to follow my gut.” Luckily, it was a bet that would eventually pay off.
While at Yale, Winkler would spend day and night rehearsing and performing plays – leaving little time for anything else. Following his time at college, though, the young actor got fired while still rehearsing for a performance. He didn’t let it hold him back, however.
Indeed, in 1973 things moved up a notch for Winkler. That’s because he secured a part on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as well as on The Bob Newhart Show and Rhoda. Nothing, however, could prepare him for the project that would come the following year…
In 1974 Winkler landed the part of Arthur Fonzarelli – Fonzie – on the sitcom Happy Days. Little did he know it at the time, but the show would have an enormous impact on popular culture. And despite the part initially being a supporting role, Winkler’s portrayal of the character proved to be so popular with audiences that he ended up becoming the main attraction.
As of 2018, Fonzie is still commonly cited as one of the most popular characters to have ever appeared on a television show. Taking all of this into account, it’s incredible to think how long it’s been since The Fonz first strutted his stuff on screens.
Speaking to Biography about what the iconic character would be doing today, Winkler said, “I think he would own a Mr. Goodwrench, a chain of stores. He was a pretty ambitious fellow, and he was really good at what he did. He’d be doing all right for himself and taking care of the people he loves.”
Since Happy Days came to an end in 1984, Winkler has appeared on shows such as The Practice and Arrested Development and in movies such as Scream and Little Nicky. However, life hasn’t always been kind to Winkler. Indeed, from his earliest years, he fought a silent, internal battle.
In fact, Winkler suffered from dyslexia – though this would go undiagnosed until he was an adult. He told the Daily Mail in 2008, “It’s not just the fact that you can’t read or you find studying difficult. There are so many ways dyslexia can affect you. For some, it means you don’t always understand what’s being said to you. Numbers get transposed, so instead of 13 you read 31.”
The effects of Winkler’s dyslexia even manifested themselves on the set of Happy Days. Despite Fonzie being a biker, Winkler was completely unable to ride a motorcycle. Indeed, dyslexia can not only limit reading ability, but it can also affect hand-eye coordination as well.
“One of the effects [of my dyslexia] was being unable to make my brain understand how to coordinate the clutch, throttle and brake on a motorcycle,” he told the Daily Mail. “There was just no way I could figure it out, so I never got to ride that cool Harley-Davidson.”
Because of Winkler’s dyslexia, many people assumed that he was stupid or lazy when he was a child. What’s more, he was mercilessly bullied – and not just by his contemporaries but by teachers as well. Perhaps most shocking, though, was the treatment that he received from his own parents.
Indeed, his father – who spoke eleven languages – called him a “dumb dog.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this treatment – dealt out at school and at home – had a deep and lasting effect on Winkler.
Yet it wasn’t until his stepson Jed was tested for the condition that Winkler realized that he was dyslexic himself. Then 31, Winkler could finally put a name to the problem that had plagued him for his entire life.
“My first reaction wasn’t relief. It was anger towards all those people who had yelled at me for being stupid,” he told the Mirror in 2013. “My parents never apologized even though they took the credit when I became a success. But by then it was too late. I just didn’t care.”
Since that time, Winkler has made it his mission to raise awareness for sufferers of dyslexia. In 2011, in fact, he received an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II for his tireless work in helping children with learning difficulties. It hasn’t been easy, though.
“As a parent, I felt incredibly guilty that I’d passed on this defect to my children and that I couldn’t take the pain of it away,” he told the Daily Mail in 2008. “But being dyslexic isn’t something to be embarrassed about. It doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your dreams. It might take longer and be more of a slog, but it is possible.”
Indeed, Winkler is now a successful author as well as being one of the world’s most beloved TV stars. Furthermore, in 2018 he picked up a Primetime Emmy nomination for his role in HBO comedy Barry. So let’s hope some of that Happy Days magic can continue to work for him!