He made his name as the effortlessly cool, self-assured Arthur Fonzarelli, so it is a surprise to discover that Henry Winkler never felt that confident in real life. Instead, the American-Jewish actor, who is most famous for his leather-clad role as the Fonz in the sitcom Happy Days, grew up feeling stupid and unhappy. Even his barmitzvah — memorable day though it was — did not go exactly as he would have wished.
“I had to learn my Torah portion in transliteration,” says Winkler, who is now aged 64, and grey-haired. “There was no way my brain could read or decipher Hebrew. I couldn’t read English, let alone my heritage’s ancient language. I memorised it after months of study and as the cantor used the yad pointing to each word of my portion, I pretended to read as I sang.”
Winkler’s problem was dyslexia, but this remained undiagnosed until he was 30. Unaware of his condition, his German-Jewish parents (from whom, he says, he gets his surprisingly short stature, around 5ft 5in) were disappointed by his failures at school in Manhattan.
“I was always told I was lazy and stupid,” he says sadly. “My parents called me a dumme hund, a dumb dog. They had escaped Nazi Germany and didn’t know about learning challenges. Then I went to a private school which was difficult in itself. If you’re not in the top tier, then you’re the butt of jokes and I was told I wasn’t fulfilling my potential. It was difficult all the way through.”
Winkler used humour to deflect the jokes and become the class clown. He also says he was good at dancing and acting. But all too often he was not allowed to perform because his grades were not good enough.
“What rescued me was having a dream and not letting the dream go,” he says. “I’ve always been tenacious and when I got into Yale to do a Masters degree in drama, I told my parents: ‘The dumb dog got into Yale’.” That determination and hard work is something he sees on a larger level in his religion — and he takes great pleasure in his Jewish identity.
“I’m very proud of being Jewish,” he says. “I love how tenacious our people are. For over 5,000 years people have tried to eradicate the state of Israel and the state of mind of Jews and we are still here contributing in every way to societies all over the globe.”
Henry’s big break was in Happy Days, but he found it very hard to learn his lines (and still does). “I had to do it slowly, going over and over and over it,” he says. “I’d read one word at a time, so that I’d start to hear it, rather than be overwhelmed. Reading is not easy for me now. I also can’t spell and I can’t learn languages.”
Now Winkler is keen that other children do not suffer as he did. Having recently finished a stint in pantomime in Liverpool, he has just helped to launch a campaign with the children’s newspaper, First News. The campaign, called “My Way!” is intended to raise awareness of learning difficulties at school.
Winkler was delighted to get involved not only because of his own experiences, but also because he is the co-author of 17 children’s fiction books about a boy called Hank Zipzer. Hank, also known as “the World’s Greatest Underachiever”, finds school as difficult as Winkler did.
“Hank says that going to school is like climbing Mount Everest with no clothes on, and it was like that for me,” he says. “But it doesn’t need to be like that now. Things need to change.
“Every child has greatness in him. We need to help them dig it out and give it to the world. Children learn in different ways and that’s a very important lesson in itself.”
Winkler will not say if his hero, Hank, is Jewish (despite the name), explaining: “Hank is every boy (and every girl). He embodies every child with a glowing spirit filled with resourcefulness.”
But he adds that he is very proud of writing the books. “If you’d told me that I was going to write one book, let alone 17, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I get thousands and thousands of letters from children who’ve read Hank. It’s very rewarding.”
Now Winkler is keen for society — and education — to change, and feels that altering attitudes is just the start. “A society really only functions well when all the citizens are at the top of their potential so how dare we think that the intellect is more powerful than the vocational?” he asks, raising his voice.
“The intellect has to live in a house they can’t build, but which the vocational can plaster, or paint, or wire or plumb.
“There is still such prejudice and I do find that depressing.”
Winkler will be returning to Britain in the summer to continue the campaign and introduce his books to more children. In the meantime, he is off to New York to meet his first grandchild, Indya Belle.
“She was born nine weeks ago,” he says with a warm smile. “While I was in Liverpool, doing pantomime, my wife was in New York, being grandma. I saw the baby for one day before I left, but I go back tomorrow and I can’t wait.”