Happy days after hard knocks

By John Nathan, January 9, 2014
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Many over-40s will recall that their teenage Saturday evenings could only begin in earnest when the peppy theme tune to American sitcom Happy Days started up. The plots never mattered much. It was the characters that counted. Most of them belonged to the square Cunningham family with their cuddly patriarch Howard and their improbably well-behaved teenage son Richie. But most important was the cool, street-wise Italian stallion and family friend, mechanic Arthur Fonzarelli, aka The Fonz.

It was the kind of show you got ready to go out to, rather than sat down to watch. It was as cosy as one of Howard’s cardigans, yet thanks to the charisma of Henry Winkler as Fonzie, it had street-cred, too. And, for Jewish teenagers, there was something wonderfully satisfying in the realisation that the coolest dude since James Dean was, in fact, a Jew. Then, years after the show ended in 1984, something else emerged about Winkler. For most of his life, and without realising it, the actor had suffered from dyslexia, and the crushingly low self-esteem that can accompany the condition.

There was poignant irony in the fact that the hero of Happy Days — a drop-out whose wisdom and education came from the school of hard knocks — had more in common with the character than anyone knew.

“Yes, that’s right,” says Winkler as he prepares for one of his final matinee performances as Captain Hook in Peter Pan at Richmond Theatre. “But the other thing is that people ask me all the time: ‘Are you cool?’ And I finally figured out that there is no such thing as cool. There is only authenticity.”

This is an interesting answer even if it doesn’t exactly match the question. Winkler is courteous and candid, if a tad evangelical about the life lessons he has learned over his 68 years. If they appear in his conversation as a series of non sequiturs, that is probably because he has a message to get across — about how “will and determination will separate the quality of your life from nothingness”. This may sound a bit woolly. But when you consider that the dyslexic Winkler learned the scripts to Happy Days by doggedly reading them “over and over again, verrrry slooowly” — and that, at the time, dyslexia was a largely unknown condition — you can appreciate how determination and will play a key part in his life. And this is one of the lessons on which he has spent so much energy getting it across to children, many of them British.

Britain has added unexpected new dimensions to the actor’s CV in recent times. In addition to panto, which Winkler has been starring in for several years, there is the forthcoming UK debut of the musical version of Happy Days, for which he is a creative consultant. Also upcoming is a CBBC TV show based on his children’s books, which were co-written with Lin Oliver in Los Angeles, where Winkler lives.

The books, titled Hank Zipzer — The World’s Greatest Underachiever, are based on Winkler’s experiences as a child with dyslexia. Highlighting the condition, and helping children to overcome it, is his mission. And when he says: “The most important question you could ask me is about the TV show,” the sense is of someone not motivated by self-publicity, but by a cause. He received an honorary OBE for raising awareness of dyslexia in British schools.

Is he still haunted by his own years at school, where he was written off as a no-hoper? “Not so much any more. But I would say that [it is only in the] last 15 years of my life that I started to break through the cemented impression of who I was supposed to be. The worst thing is how you feel about yourself as a child, because that dominates how you negotiate the world. I always thought everyone knew more than I did. It never dawned on me that I actually had good thoughts, good logic, originality and something to contribute.”

He recalls that, at his New York school, the only person not to condemn him was Mr Rock, his music teacher. “I tell this story to every classroom that I have walked into,” he says. “This man said one sentence to me. And I carry that one sentence in my heart to this day.”

And the sentence? “‘You’re going to be okay.’ The simplicity of that sentence is one thing. But the needing to hear it, to think ‘Oh my god, that’s a lifeboat and I’ve got to hold on by my fingernails… Because everyone else was saying: ‘Well, you’re not going to amount to much.’” When Winkler says “everyone”, he is not exaggerating. “I mean my German-Jewish parents, my teachers, my friends. I went to a school where I was set up to fail.”

Harry and Ilse Winkler arrived in New York from Germany in 1939 with a six-month visa. Harry built a business importing and exporting lumber that was made into sleepers for railroads, decking for ships and stocks for guns. The Winklers were Conservative Jews and founders of a synagogue in 66th Street, just off Central Park, where their son was barmitzvah.They lived in a 10-floor apartment block populated by many other Jewish refugees who the young Henry Winkler would address as “aunt” or “uncle”.

“None of my real relatives got out of Germany except my parents. So all of my ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ were the community that escaped and met up in New York. Aunt Erna escaped in a coffin with a spider plant at her feet. I grew up with that plant on my window-sill in New York because it kept regenerating. It’s now outside my kitchen window in California. My body lives in Los Angeles, my heart lives in New York and my soul lives in Montana, where I love to fly-fish for trout.”

There is no bitterness about the way he was treated when he was a child. Not even for his fourth-grade teacher, Miss Adolf. If Mr Rock was at the positive end of Winkler’s experience at school, Miss Adolf was “at the complete other end. She was the meanest teacher in the world,” he recalls. “[For her] there was no reason that I was doing so poorly other than I was lazy.” What was the worst thing about Miss Adolf? “She would see me as invisible.”

Miss Adolf is one of the characters in the CBBC series, in which Winkler plays Mr Rock. “The show is a comedy about trying to figure out how to live your life,” says Winkler with the fervour of man who has belatedly discovered how to live his own.

    Last updated: 12:33pm, January 9 2014