Growing up and even into adulthood, the star of TV’s “Happy Days” believed he was “stupid.”
Despite graduating from Emerson College and the esteemed Yale School of Drama, actor Henry Winkler believed the learning challenges he faced were because of stupidity or laziness.
Winkler told NewtownPANow.com in an interview as part of the book tour for “Here’s Hank: You Can’t Drink a Meatball Through a Straw” Tuesday afternoon that his challenges reading and spelling correctly were not due to intelligence but undiagnosed dyslexia.
The dyslexia, which wouldn’t be diagnosed until his 30s, strained his relationship with his German immigrant parents. They thought he just wasn’t bright and pushed him to improve his grades in school.
Winkler said he would audition for roles and only be able to read and memorize a certain amount of the script so he improvised. When casting directors would tell him to read what was on the page, he would say his improvisation was him channeling the character he was vying to play. Sometimes it worked, other times it did not.
“I would memorize as much as I could and would improvise,” he said. “My mind was racing a mile a minute.”
While he stared on “Happy Days” as Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarell, a lovable high school dropout, he struggled with several issues related to reading his scripts. He also would have trouble playing softball with the cast and crew.
It wasn’t until he was in his 30s and his son was diagnosed with dyslexia that he realized the problems that plagued him for years were connected to dyslexia. He went to the doctor and was formally diagnosed.
“All that yelling and grounding,” he recalled, elaborating that he was mad at his parents at first when he learned his problems in school weren’t because he was lazy or stupid.
The challenges that followed him through the years have become the basis for the more than 30 books in the popular “Hank Zipzer ” and “Here’s Hank” childrens’ book series, which television producer and writer Lin Oliver pens with Winkler.
The books follow the story of Hank Zipzer, modeled after a young Winkler, as he navigates life while dealing with dyslexia. The character doesn’t let his diagnosis hold him back and finds resourceful ways to solve problems, something the popular actor had to do throughout his life.
“These are not self help books,” Winkler said. “Every kid has a challenge.”
Oliver said every child that reads one of the Hank Zipzer books can relate. The books are meant to speak to every youngster and touch them.
“There’s a different road to success for every kid,” Oliver said.
Winkler said kids have to get through school “because it’s the law.” He stated that being smart isn’t just measured by grades in school, a lesson he knows from first-hand experience.
Winkler, known also for his roles on “Arrested Development” and “The Waterboy,” said he was introduced to Oliver years ago after an agent suggest he write a book about his experiences with dyslexia. He scoffed at the idea and eventually met Oliver in the early 2000s. The two hit it off and began crafting Hank Zipzer and hashed out stories.
To write the New York Times best selling series, Winkler and Oliver meet in her Los Angeles office and work on a story. The idea usually comes while Oliver is driving and Winkler can often come up with a personal experience from growing up that helps fill out the plot. The duo compared their writing process as similar to that of how a TV show episode is created, a process they were both comfortable with.
The authors took time Tuesday afternoon to speak with students at Sol Feinstone Elementary School in Upper Makefield. They spoke of their lives, Winkler’s dyslexia, the writing process and encouraged kids to reach for the stars, no matter what was holding them back.
The students giggled as Winkler and Oliver talked about their dogs and meetings to craft the Hank Zipzer stories, which have been turned into a popular TV show in England. After the duo were done presenting, students were given the chance to ask questions of Winkler and Oliver.
Winkler and Oliver spoke Tuesday evening at the Newtown Theatre about the Hank Zipzer series as part of an event hosted by the Newtown Bookshop.
Winkler’s advice to kids with dyslexia: “You work like a bandit to get what you want.”