Henry Winkler’s name is synonymous with ’70s icon “The Fonz,” his too-cool-for-school character from the sit-com “Happy Days.” But his career actually touches three generations through his acting, and now, as an author, his writing.
Those in their 30s and 40s know him for his work on “Arrested Development” as Barry Zuckerhorn, while those in their 20s remember him for his roles in Adam Sandler vehicles “The Waterboy,” “Click,” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.”
Now kids are finding it easy to fall in love with him as well. As the co-author of the bestselling series “Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever,” he has given adolescents a reason to enjoy reading- and their parents a reason to smile.
The “Hank Zipzer” series concludes with the release of the seventeenth book, “A Brand New Me,” in which Hank is getting ready to graduate from PS 87, once he passes his exams.
Will he be able to continue on with his friends, or will a life-altering audition at a performing arts middle school help him find his path?
The Hank Zipzer series has always been special for Winkler, because growing up with dyslexia, he always felt like a classic underachiever.
But with seventeen books under his belt and a lengthy career in television, film and theater, he’s proved that disabilities can be overcome.
In advance of an appearance at Book Revue on May 8th in Huntington, NY, Winkler spoke with The Improper about his stage fright, the conclusion of his hit “Hank Zipzer” series and his upcoming roles in the new season of USA’s “Royal Pains,” and the Cartoon Network’s “Children’s Hospital.”
TheImproper: You haven’t visited New York since you released book number fourteen in the “Hank Zipzer” series. How have you been doing since then?
Winkler: Holy mackerel, let me tell you, I have not grown an inch. I am still short.
IM: After sixteen books, why did you decide to make the seventeenth your last?
Winkler: That was kind of a decision from the publisher. The publisher said, ‘You know what, we think seventeen will be it.’ So then we [Winkler writes with co-author Lin Oliver] just took the twentieth story and made it the seventeenth.
IM: So you had it planned out all the way through twenty?
Winkler: I did, but here it is. It was very sad, because I cried twice while we were writing it. I really did. In the end he’s sitting on the bus that he’s practiced taking all summer long, and he’s watching his neighborhood pass by and fade out the back window, and looking at the new neighborhood where his school is coming into his view, it made me sad.
IM: In “Brand New Me,” Hank has reached a turning point of sorts, in which he is starting over at a new school. Can you describe an important turning point of your own?
Winkler: The most important turning point I think for any human being, especially for me, was coming to terms with ‘I am who I am.’ You know, the old Popeye phrase. When I saw all those cartoons I had no idea what he was talking about. Except I now know that, that really is the key. They key is I’m not stupid, I’m not lazy, I’m not what other people think. I am this very wonderful person who can accomplish in my own way.
IM: You’ve accomplished so much without compromising yourself. You should be very proud.
Winkler: Well, I’ll tell you, mainly I am fueled by fear.
IM: Fear of what?
Winkler: Never being in a book called “Whatever Happened to?” or “Where Are They Now?”
IM: I’m looking forward to when you write a book about yourself.
Winkler: You know, my son suggested that, and I literally, absolutely, no kidding, can’t even imagine me doing that!
IM: Why not?
Winkler: I have no idea what to say! I’m not kidding!
IM: Have you read other memoirs?
Winkler:No, I haven’t.
IM: Marlee Matlin spoke so highly of you when she wrote her own memoir. Everyone who has crossed your path speaks so highly of you and adores you. You’re an acclaimed actor, writer, and speaker, you have a family, and the last time I spoke with you, you had said of Fonzie, ‘He is my alterego, and he is everything that I wanted to be; he seemed to be in control of something.’ Would you say that with all of your great achievements that you are finally the person that you want to be?
Winkler: No, but I know that I’m getting there now. I see that person in the distance, I swear to God. I just thought that the other day. As an actor, I’m getting to where I imagined I wanted to be when I was 24. But it’s got to be as a person, because I couldn’t get to where I want to be as an actor without growing as a person.
IM: What do you have left to do that would make you the person you want to be?
Winkler: God, that’s a good question. I’m not sure. I don’t have a set plan, I just have the thought of wanting to achieve. You know, with Jack Nicholson, there is no line between his soul and his character. The human that he is fills the stuff he does. Does that make sense? That’s where I want to be. You know who else does that? Anthony Hopkins. I don’t know how to describe it. He’s complete. Oh, and Sean Connery. These people are limitless.
IM: Hank Zipzer is such a fantastic role model for kids. In which ways is his life similar and different from your own?
Winkler: His dad is like both of my parents. They just didn’t get it. They thought that if I kept working hard enough, my schoolwork was eventually going to come into my brain. My own sister Beatrice is also dyslexic. Hank’s sister is not.
IM: There is a character in the book named Garry Marshall. Is that a nod to the Garry Marshall?
Winkler: Yes, and I love Garry Marshall, who was my mentor, the executive producer of Happy Days, and the director of all those great films. I’ve learned so much from him.
IM: What did he teach you?
Winkler: I learned how to be an executive producer. I learned how to be respectful on the set. I learned how to run a set. I mean, he’s just one of the three or four most brilliant people I’ve worked with. He’s filled with humanity.
IM: Which of the letters you have received from kids have stuck out to you the most?
Winkler: My favorite letter is from a little boy in Missouri who said, “I laughed so hard my funny bone fell out of my body.” Isn’t that a great compliment? We also just got a letter saying, “Excuse me, did you mean to make me laugh? Because you certainly did.” The theme of the letter year after year is always the same. “How did you know me so well?” and “I laughed so hard.” Parents write, “Oh my gosh, you cannot imagine, the greatest thing happened to me today. I walked by my child’s bedroom, they were laughing, and they were reading your books.” What a feeling for a parent when you think your child is never going to read.
IM: Hank has trouble when he has to do a cold reading. You have said that you would turn to jelly when you would stand up in front of people to talk or act.
Winkler: It’s true, reading out loud.
IM: Now you go to these book signing events, and read entire portions of the book in front of rooms full of people!
Winkler: Yes, but remember, I’ve written it. I go over it and over it and over it on the plane. I started reading book twenty two weeks ago. It scares me as I’m thinking about it with you now. I’ve read the third chapter of the second book in most of my speeches, because it just is so Hank. He studies his spelling words, he knows them, he gets up in front of the class, and he has no idea where they have gone.
IM: Was cold reading difficult for you when you would go on auditions?
Winkler: So difficult it was like climbing Mount Everest with no clothes on. As a matter of fact, I actually said that, and then I used it. Hank says it somewhere in one of the novels.
IM: Now that the “Hank Zipzer” series is complete, it would be such a shame if you were to stop writing altogether.
Winkler: We’re talking about a new series, we’re talking about different ideas, but the child will not necessarily be dyslexic. It would be another series for kids.
IM: What advice would you give to Hank as he ventures into this next journey?
Winkler: This too shall pass, there’s greatness inside you, and your job is to figure out what your gift is. The other advice I’d give to him, I give to every child I meet. It’s that no matter how you learn, no matter at what rate you learn, it has nothing to do with how brilliant you are.
IM: When you were a kid, did you have any incredibly embarrassing moments when you were in the public school system?
Winkler: Oh my god! Being called on, no matter what the subject, I had no idea what the answer was. It was horrible. Hor-ri-ble. They made fun of me. Then I went to a private school. They were all going to great schools, and I was applying to PS 28.
IM: Whatever happened to kids going to public schools?
Winkler: Unfortunately, in this country we talk education, we don’t actually support it very well. You talk to the teacher alone, having to teach the fastest kid in the class and the slowest kid in the class the same amount of material at the same rate is almost impossible, and Herculean, at best. Then, of course, there is the prejudice between the intellect and the vocational.
The kid who is vocational, who is good with his hands, who is a mechanic, who is a plasterer, who is a mason, why isn’t that person celebrated in the same way as the kid who is good in science who might become a physician? That makes me crazy. The fact of the matter is that the scientist is going to have to live somewhere, and is certainly not building their own house! You need that child. In the morning there’s no wall, so when you go home at night, there’s a room that didn’t exist in the morning.
IM: What is going on with all of this talk about an “Arrested Development” film?
Winkler: It’s not happening at the moment, it’s being written, but it’s in the distance.
IM: In honor of Hank’s lists, can you list a few interesting facts about yourself?
1. On June 3rd I’m going to premiere in a show that I watched last year as a fan, and this year I’m on it. It’s called “Royal Pains,” on USA. I’m the wayward father. I’m very excited.
2. In August, I’m on a TV show called Children’s Hospital that will be the first live action television show on the Cartoon Network in its history. I play the Chief Executive of a hospital. Megan Mullally plays the chief doctor. She is extraordinarily funny. And I am forbidden from saying it’s wacky, I have to say that it is deconstructionist comedy. Don’t ask me what that is. I just want to tell you that it’s shockingly funny.
3. I’m going fly fishing in August. That’s my favorite thing to do. I go with my wife Stacy. My children are not big fly fisher people. My oldest son said, “I have just figured out, I need concrete beneath my feet.”
4. In November we had our first grandchild. It’s a little girl who is spectacular. She is the first person at five months in our family who actually speaks Portuguese. Nobody else in the whole family speaks in Portuguese; I don’t know where she learned it. (laughs) She’s just unbelievably bright.
Learn more about Henry and Hank at HankZipzer.