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The Winklers: Stark Reality in the Shadow of His Stardom

April 08, 1985|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Henry and Stacey Winkler live in two worlds.

In one, they are the beneficiaries of his stardom--great house set amid a profusion of flowers, several superb automobiles in the driveway, original art on the walls, loads of help in attendance. They can literally make the world go away if they want.

In the other, they appear to be deliberately taking reality lessons. They are confronted almost daily with the problems of neglected, ill or abused children that no amount of Hollywood magic can make disappear. On the grittier side of life, they've been learning about the limits of their success.

Toluca Lake Home

That was the impression that emerged one recent morning when they sat down for an interview in their two-story Toluca Lake home--an unremittingly cheerful place where floral-print furniture and huge vases of flowers stand ready to smother any hint of gloom. It was the first interview they have given jointly and her first ever.

In a wide-ranging discussion over bagels and coffee at the kitchen breakfast table, they talked about their private lives, the volunteer work that takes up a big chunk of their time and their motivations for operating what amounts to a private social welfare bureau out of their home.

To hear them tell it, the Winklers are one of L.A.'s dull couples. They "hardly ever" go out during the week, even though both are actively involved in fund-raising for the Music Center and are part of the in crowd of Los Angeles society.

During the day he's working on one of his film projects, including a television adventure pilot, and she's shepherding the kids around.

Occasional Movie

They spend most evenings and weekends with their children, going to an occasional movie by themselves or with friends.

This bland routine, they said, is their way of pursuing normality, of keeping the treacherous attractions of the fast lane at a safe distance from themselves and their children, Zoe, 4, Max, 20 months, and Jed, a son from Stacey's previous marriage, 13.

However, this description glosses over their largely unpublicized roles in a variety of causes where, it seems, there is plenty of drama and action.

For instance, Henry Winkler has been involved for several years with the Starlight Foundation--the group that tries to make the last wishes of terminally ill children come true. In that capacity, he slips into his role as the belligerent-voiced Fonz from television's "Happy Days" and picks up the phone.

"I call children all over the country and I follow them up," he said. "There was one little girl, before she died her blood was getting too thick to go through her veins and I would call all the time, spot-check her, because she wouldn't take her oxygen. I just said, 'You want to be my girlfriend, you take your oxygen or I'll come down there and punch you in the face.' "

After a moment, he added, "What is interesting is that it was easier to do before I was a parent. I could do it and be much lighter about it when I wasn't a parent. Now I have to take breaks. I used to go from one ward to the other and get down and get funky with these kids. Now I have to literally go and take a break and get composed."

Over the years, Winkler, 39, has been or is involved with causes ranging from the Epilepsy Foundation to the Toys-for-Tots campaign. A tape about child abuse called "Strong Kids, Safe Kids" he made last fall has sold 60,000 copies, with his portion of the earnings going to children's charities.

Since their marriage in 1978, the Winklers have worked as a team and individually on their various interests. The couple said their strongest joint commitment is to United Friends of the Children, a private support group for MacLaren Children's Center, the controversial shelter operated by the new Los Angeles County Department of Children's Services.

Operated Own Firm

But Stacey Winkler, they both said, is the one who devotes the most time to projects involving MacLaren and the department. She operated her own public relations firm at one time and has evidently put this background to use as one of the members of the Commission for Children's Services, an advisorygroup of private citizens to the department.

Stacey Winkler, 37, said she and a group of her friends from United Friends fought for a long time to have the new department created.

"We felt strongly that there should be a separate department for children, that children were not being looked after properly and that it was very important that they be represented independently of this huge, massive, bureaucratic DPSS (Department of Public Social Services)," she said.

But trying to persuade county government that a new department was necessary became an exercise in frustration and a graduate course in the intricate art of public policy-making.

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