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With the kids

'The Fonz' connects with kids

August 21, 2003|Carolyn Patricia Scott | Times Staff Writer

He might have gained fortune as a fixture on 1970s and '80s television and secured a place as a pop culture icon with his portrayal of Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, but Henry Winkler doesn't think of his own childhood as "Happy Days."

"In school, I was an underachiever," the 57-year-old actor, producer and director recalls. "Nobody ever knew why. I didn't know why. Until my stepson was diagnosed with dyslexia -- I listened to them describe his symptoms and said, 'Oh my God, that's me!' "

Winkler's experiences serve as the foundation for the fictional Hank Zipzer -- the well-meaning but trouble-prone fourth-grader whose misadventures Winkler and co-author Lin Oliver chronicle in a series of four children's books titled: "Hank Zipzer: The Mostly True Confessions of the World's Best Underachiever."

"Someone suggested to me that I write a children's book having to do with my dyslexia," Winkler says. "And that was it."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 23, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Henry Winkler photo credit -- The photograph of Henry Winkler that accompanied a story in Thursday's Calendar Weekend about his books for children should have been credited to Mark Sullivan/WireImage.com, not to Grosset & Dunlap.

He connected with Oliver, a maker of family movies and co-founder of the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators.

"My background is as a children's writer and children's film producer, and Henry lived that character Hank. When you put that together, our skills are really complementary," Oliver says. "We develop the stories together, collaborate and send drafts back and forth to one another."

"Lin sat at the computer; I usually walked holes in her rug as we worked in her office," Winkler says.

It wasn't long before the pair turned out the first installment, "Niagara Falls or Does It?"

Another, "I Got a 'D' in Salami," followed, and the next two -- "Day of the Iguana" and "Zippety Zinger" -- are due to be released before the end of the year.

"Hank is a funny story to normal readers," Winkler says. "For the kid with a challenge -- learning, physical or any other kind of disability -- they don't feel alone."

One parent wrote to Winkler, "I was reading to my first-grader and all of a sudden, he jumped up and said: 'Hey, mom! I've got learning challenges too.' Then he sat down and waited for me to continue reading."

That kind of response is what keeps Winkler committed to the series. "When I was a kid, grown people would say things that really affected my self-perception," he says. "That was very painful -- when teachers, students, parents ridicule you, and it has an insidious effect on you."

Oliver, a former schoolteacher, can relate to Henry and Hank's issues. "This is a kid that everyone knows. Every child in America is him, or sits next to him." Oliver says. "He's not a psychopath. He's lovable -- this kid is really fun, really smart and not lazy -- he just wasn't getting it."

Even during the ratings highs and fame of "Happy Days," the actor struggled with the undiagnosed disability.

"The worst moment for me was sitting around the table reading the script with the cast," Winkler recalls. "Fortunately, I have the ability to improvise, and I'm able to memorize the script quickly." Once Winkler had the script committed to memory, he could relax.

His childhood experiences, as well as his professional endeavors, keep Winkler going. "I really love doing what I'm able to do," he says. "I'm grateful every day."

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Henry Winkler signing

What: Winkler will discuss and sign "I Got a 'D' in Salami," the latest book in the "Hank Zipzer: The Mostly True Confessions of the World's Best Underachiever" series

Where: Borders Books, 1360 Westwood Blvd., Westwood

When: Sept. 14, 1:30 p.m.

Info: (310) 475-3444

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