Henry Franklin Winkler, 64, son of Jewish holocaust survivors, is best known for his role as the ultra-cool Fonzie in the "Happy Days” series of the 1970s and ’80s. He went on to various roles in TV, theater and film and to serve as a director. Lesser known is his interest in education (master’s degree of fine arts from Yale) and the challenge that shaped him most: dyslexia. He co-authored a series of children’s books about a fourth-grader with dyslexia, "Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever,” and speaks out often about the learning challenge. He will be the keynote speaker at a benefit dinner Thursday in Oklahoma City for the Payne Education Center, which trains teachers to remediate dyslexia.
Q. What was it like growing up with dyslexia?
It’s frustrating. It is sad, because you’re watching everybody else get stuff with ease. You keep wondering, "Why, no matter how hard I study, can’t I get this?” Like a poisonous worm, it eats away at the child’s self-image.
My parents were very strict, very short Germans (who) at that time didn’t understand there was such a concept as a learning challenge. We were constantly at odds all the time. I was grounded for most of my high school career. They were convinced if I stayed in my room Friday and Saturday night, if I was forced to do my homework, I would get it. (To them) it was just that I was being lazy. I could have studied geometry for the next 67 years and I wouldn’t get it.
Q. How was your dyslexia discovered?
When I was 31, and my stepson, Jed, was in the third grade, we took him to visit the Hopi Nation in Arizona. He couldn’t write a report. He could verbally tell us about the trip. When he wrote, it was smudgy. He erased a hole in the paper. We had him tested (for dyslexia). Everything they said to him, I went, "Oh my gosh, that sounds like me!” For the first time, I understood I wasn’t stupid.
Q. Your diagnosis came after you were a success?
I got the Fonz (role) when I was 28. I was still having trouble with reading, with math. I was tormented by the embarrassment of not being able to read the script out loud in front of the cast. Reading was majorly important in the profession I chose, and it was as difficult as climbing Mount Everest with no clothes.
Q. How did you cope?
You learn to work with it. You can negotiate your learning challenges. You can learn to incorporate them. If you want something, you work a little harder than the average guy. A lot of times you hide it.