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Lunch with Henry Winkler: dyslexia, the leather jacket and ‘jumping the shark’

Henry Winkler and I at West Egg Cafe today. CREDIT: Jeffrey Stepakoff

Henry Winkler and I at West Egg Cafe today. CREDIT: Jeffrey Stepakoff

By RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com, originally filed Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Henry Winkler, best known as Arthur Fonzarelli on “Happy Days” from 1974 to 1984, has a reputation in Hollywood as one of the nicest guys in town.

He proved that with me today at West Egg Cafe before his appearance tonight at Decatur Library to promote his latest children’s book “Here’s Hank” with co-author Lin Oliver. He was sweet, engaged and not at all tired of talking about the Fonz after all these years. And he is deeply proud that his 32 Hank Zipzer books have sold 5 million copies world wide over 14 years. (Details here.)

My interview with Winkler in 2010.

We discussed a wide-ranging number of topics, including his dyslexia, his famous Fonz leather jacket and his upcoming NBC show featuring Jeff Dye, Terry Bradshaw, George Foreman and William Shatner.

On his Hank Zipzer book series becoming a BBC children’s show: “We couldn’t sell it in America. We were told here that they wanted Hank to be a little less dyslexic. They didn’t think American kids could relate to a dyslexic hero… They embraced us in England. The entire show is British except me. I play a teacher supportive of Hank… The show could translate in the United States. They have the same sense of humor. A little boy gets in trouble and works his way out of it. We only had to change a few words like underwear is trousers and cookies are biscuits.” [The character is loosely based on Winkler himself, who has dyslexia that wasn’t diagnosed until he was 31 years old.]

The message of the books [from Lin]: “Our kid happens to be dyslexic. Every kid has something they’re ashamed of. You’re too short or too tall. You have acne or bad teeth. You’re not good at school. You have a limp. You’re an ethnic minority. They all feel a need to overcome. The message: be yourself. Take pleasure in being unique. Find a way to get what you want.”

How the books happened in 2002: “My acting career was in a bit of a lull. People couldn’t get past the fact I was the Fonz. I had to fight that a lot. The lesson I learned was tenacity will get you where you want… My agent’s company was imploding at the time. As he was taking pictures off the wall, he told me I should do children’s books and discuss my dyslexia. He hooked me up with Lin Oliver [a former TV writer herself.]”

On the special font used for the books: “It’s called Dyslexie. A father in Holland designed it to make it easier for people like me to read.”

What does Winkler read: “I love Daniel Silva thrillers. I’ve read all 12 of his novels. I own all my books. Reading them is such an accomplishment for me. I like to see them on my shelf.”

Overcoming dyslexia: “You have to learn to negotiate, not overcome. My mission on earth is telling every child they are not defined by how they do in school, that no matter how they learn, it has nothing to do with how brilliant they can be.”

On how his Yale drama training helped him play the Fonz: “Everything I learned, I used on the show. This Polish director had taught us in school how to move in slow motion. So when Mork from Ork [Robin Williams] came to ‘Happy Days,’ I used that training. When he ‘zapped’ me, I went into slow motion!”

How Winkler built the Fonz: “When they started, I had six lines. As time went along, they built my character with my imagination, my instinct, my suggestions. You have to prove yourself.”

How his original green windbreaker became a leather jacket: “ABC didn’t want me in a leather jacket because they thought that would associate me with crime. [Creator] Gary Marshall said the Fonz needed a leather jacket to ride a motorcycle. Otherwise, he could hurt himself. ABC said he could only wear a leather jacket with his bike. So Gary told the writers to never write a scene with the Fonz without a bike nearby. Eventually, ABC got over it.”

What happened to the leather jackets? “The first one was stolen after the first season. After that, they made five. The Smithsonian has one. Gary has one. I have one. The one without lining, the jacket I water skied in, I’m not sure where that one went. I’m not sure what happened to the fifth one either.”

Waterskiing idea was not his: “I was once a counselor in summer camp and I did a lot of water skiing. My father would always tell Gary Marshall about it. So they wrote it in. I just went with the flow.”

How that water skiing episode engendered the phrase “jump the shark,” meaning a show that peaked: “Jon Hein, who is now on Howard Stern, invented that term from his dorm room in Michigan. He got a book out of it, even a board game! I talked to him about it on Sirius radio.”

On playing former New York City mayor Ed Koch in a Donald Trump “Funny or Dye” film: “I will tell you I was so nervous. They spent 2 and a half hours getting me in makeup. Then Johnny Depp entered fully Trump-ized. He turned out to be a warm, inclusive peer. We had a great time doing that scene.”

With “Children’s Hospital” on Adult Swim and “Royal Pains” on USA Network ending, Winkler is now working on an HBO pilot with Bill Hader and an NBC reality show “Better Late Than Never” featuring him and four other colorful personalities traveling to Asia together: “We traveled to six Asian cities last year. We had the best time. It was amazing! We sampled cow vagina. I didn’t know what I was eating until they told me!”

BOOK Q&A and SIGNING

Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

7 p.m. Wednesday

Free

Georgia Center for the Book
at DeKalb County Public Library

215 Sycamore Street
Decatur, Georgia 30030
(404) 370-3070 x 2285

Details here.

Winkler will only sign copies of “Here’s Hank” and other Hank Zipzer books. He will not sign any memorabilia.

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