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He's happy these days

Henry Winkler battled early dyslexia and some post-Fonzie doldrums to create an evergreen career as a director, actor and author.

November 25, 2005|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

Believers in karma might say that Henry Winkler's midlife rewards are a payback for emerging from a difficult childhood as a very nice person. At 60, he has a key role in "Out of Practice," the sly new CBS sitcom that's been one of the few freshman shows to break the top 20; he also co-authors a series of critically acclaimed comic novels for schoolkids based on his experiences growing up.

As painful as his early years were, Winkler can't help but mine humor from his past and find a way for his sad back-story to benefit others. " 'Hilarious' must be a fourth-grade word, because I get lots of letters from kids who tell me, 'Your books are hilarious,' " he says.

Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1950s, Winkler, the only son of Holocaust survivors, was a Weeble of a boy, constantly knocked down by academics. He'd spring back up only to be KO'd again. "Learning disability" wasn't yet part of the lexicon, but he just didn't see things the way other kids did. He did excel as the class clown, but an A-plus sense of humor never boosted anyone's grade-point average.

"School was this immovable object," he recalls. "I was told I wasn't living up to my potential, that I was stupid. My parents, being short Germans, were convinced I was merely lazy. So I was grounded for most of my life. I did not see the moon during my junior year. When you are in the bottom of the class, you're constantly feeling less-than. You're always working overtime to achieve some sort of normalcy or cool factor, which I had none of."

Fortunately for Winkler, and for the more than a million children who follow the adventures of his literary alter-ego, fourth-grader Hank Zipzer, the heart has a long memory. Even playing the thoroughly cool and commanding Fonzie on "Happy Days" for 11 years couldn't expunge the early beatings Winkler's self-esteem had taken. He poured his frustration at confusing his left and his right, at not being able to decipher a diagram or transfer his thoughts onto paper into the Hank Zipzer books. But first, he had to learn why things that seemed so easy for his friends were so vexing for him. And to do that, he had to become a parent.

Winkler had thought about being a father when he was still a kid. After being berated and belittled by his parents, he would lie in bed at night and think, "I must remember this: never to repeat these people." He hasn't. He and wife Stacey, a child welfare advocate, have three children. Their 22-year-old son Max, a senior at USC, and 25-year-old daughter Zoe, a teacher, live at the family home in Brentwood, which says something about their affection for their parents. At 34, Winkler's stepson, Jed, is the manager for singer Morrissey and lives on his own.

It was Jed, in fact, who led Winkler to understand his learning difficulty. When the child was in third grade, he was found to be dyslexic. Listening to the experts describe Jed's condition, Winkler, then 31, said, "That's me." It was less of a lightbulb moment than one might think. "Everything was illuminated, but nothing was changed," Winkler says. "At least then I knew there was a reason why I was having such difficulties. First you go through a tremendous amount of anger. Because all those arguments, all that disappointment, all that punishment and grounding was for nought."

Coping mechanisms

In retrospect, the struggle wasn't completely worthless. "Dyslexia taught me kindness," he says. "I know what it feels like to be treated like you're not up to snuff."

Before he'd ever heard the word "dyslexia," Winkler developed ways of coping with his confounding brain. He was admitted to the Yale School of Drama on the basis of an audition and, after graduating, paid the rent by doing commercials. "Reading cold was, like, out of the question," he says, "I improvised everything. They'd say, 'You aren't reading the words,' and I'd say, 'I'm just giving you the essence.' I was really good at getting commercials."

Out of such experiences came the messages Winkler wants his books to impart: "There's more than one way to Rome. There is more than one way to solve a problem. Ultimately, just because you learn differently doesn't mean there isn't some kind of greatness in you."

Hence, Hank Zipzer, described on the cover of each of the nine novels published as "the world's greatest underachiever." (Get it? Hank is the best at something.) He was conceived in 2003 after Alan Berger, who had been Winkler's agent at ICM, suggested that he write books for children about being dyslexic. Berger introduced Winkler to Lin Oliver, a cofounder of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

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