Henry Winkler's dyslexic hero gives kids with learning difficulties the last laugh

Learn how actor Henry Winkler transformed his own unhappy experiences with dyslexia into stories of resilience and hope.

By Henry Winkler

To his great surprise, veteran actor Henry Winkler has carved out a new career for himself as a children's author.  Having struggled - and suffered - throughout his school years with unidentified dyslexia, it's still hard for him to imagine his name even appearing in the same sentence with the words "author" or "book."  But, Winkler and his co-author, Lin Oliver, have completed nine novels in their series, Hank Zipzer: The World's Greatest Underachiever, which recounts the hilarious adventures of a resourceful, wisecracking fourth-grader - who also happens to have dyslexia. 

Winkler, who recently turned 60, graduated from the Yale University School of Drama and has achieved a successful 30-year career as an actor, director, and producer.  Although he's received many honors for his work, he's probably still best known and loved for his role as the definitively cool Arthur "The Fonz" Fonzarelli in the 1974-84 television comedy series Happy Days, co-starring well-known director Ron Howard. 

Winkler felt anything but cool during his own childhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the 1950s and 60s.  "When I was growing up," he recalls, "no one knew what learning challenges were.  So, I was called 'stupid,' 'lazy,' and 'not living up to my potential' - because I was very verbal, and I guess I had a sense of humor."  As a result, Winkler often felt that the person he was inside was invisible to others. "Inside you feel one way, and people are telling you that you are another way," he says, "and I couldn't reconcile that."

He does remember one successful moment as a student: Winning a dance contest at a private school for boys he attended in New York.  "That did give me a sense of belonging," he recalls. "But I wanted to be an actor, and I wasn't even able to do some of the school plays because my grades were so low I wasn't allowed to participate in extracurricular activities."

Winkler has clear memories of one adult in his life who saw and encouraged the intelligent, creative boy who occupied the same body as the floundering student: "Mr. Rock, who was my music teacher, believed that I would achieve something; but everyone else told me I wouldn't achieve anything," Winkler remembers.  Asked what qualities made Mr. Rock different from other grownups in his life, Winkler replies:  "He was an adult who was quiet enough to see the actual human being in front of him, and not who he expected the person to be. Children have multiple layers; they are what they show you on the outside, and the depth of their greatness is on the inside."

Unlike the young Winkler, Hank Zipzer has several adults in his life who believe he'll succeed somehow, in spite of school.  For example, in contrast to Winkler's strict and demanding real-life parents, Hank Zipzer's mom and dad, though often baffled by his behavior, do appreciate and try to connect with him. The scene below from Day of the Iguana, shows Hank's dad at his most sympathetic.  Father and son are playing Scrabble®, and his dad finally really gets that Hank cannot see the spelling error he's made on the game board.  Hank is the narrator.

…That's what I'd been telling them ever since the subject of spelling first came up.  I can't do it.  I try and try, but my brain just won't picture the words.  I know my letters but they won't go into words.  Or at least words that anyone would recognize.

"I'm sorry, Dad," I said.  "I guess I'm a real loser in Scrabble."

My father was quiet for a long time.  I didn't know if he was mad or sad or surprised or all of those things….

"I could try again, Dad," I said.  "I'll concentrate really hard this time."

My dad smiled at me.

"How about chess, Hank?" he said.  "I really feel like a game of chess."

"Wow, so do I!" I said.

I am a whiz at chess.

Winkler and his wife, Stacey, who is a child welfare advocate, are parents to three adult children.  All of them have learning difficulties; and they're all college graduates pursuing careers that interest them.  In fact, it was when his stepson was identified with learning disabilities that Winkler, at age 31, finally understood what he'd been grappling with all his life.  "We had him tested in third grade, and everything they said about him, I said, 'Oh, my God, that's me!'" he recalls.

Based on his experiences as a child, as a parent, and as a supporter of various initiatives to benefit children, Winkler has developed a strong sense of what kids need to be successful.  One of the essentials is friends.  Hank Zipzer has two loyal friends who take his learning problems matter-of-factly, and often rely on his strengths.  This was not the case for Winkler, who remembers being very socially awkward.  "I was not able in any way to be successful socially," he says.  "I mean, I had a nice personality, I had a girlfriend.  But I didn't know quite how to be with that girl in a social situation where I was not roaming around talking to every other human being in the place, leaving her standing by herself. 

"Also, something Hank has that doesn't come from his friends is resilience," Winkler adds.  "He figures out, 'Okay, I've gotten myself into hot water, but there's more than one way to solve a problem.'  He uses his imagination and his spirit."  When Winkler talks to kids of all ages during book signings and other public appearances, he urges them to build their resilience.  "I always say you have to think of yourself as one of those toys [weighted] with sand in the bottom," he says.  "You punch it and it goes over, but it comes right back up again.

"Because it's so easy just not to come back up again," he adds, remembering how discouraged he sometimes became. But Winkler was fortunate enough to have an internal source of direction and drive.  "What's amazing is that I was really lucky," he says.  "I had a vision from the age of seven of what I wanted to do.  I have no idea where it came from; all I know is that I wanted to be an actor.  I had no idea how I was going to achieve it, but I knew I needed to do it."

Asked what advice he'd give parents about helping kids with learning difficulties pursue their dreams, Winkler says:  "Adults' job on the earth - apart from curing cancer or figuring out the next new bicycle - is to give children a sense of self.  Otherwise, that child will never be able to meet their potential."  His second piece of advice flows naturally from the first:  "It's really, really important," he says, "not to define yourself by the way your child succeeds - or doesn't.  If you look closely at them and listen carefully, [you'll find] there's lots to celebrate about them besides [their] geometry [grades]."

His message to kids?  "When I sign autographs for children I write: 'You have greatness within you.'  When I speak to them, I say: 'It's your job to figure out what your gift is-to dig down deep inside yourself, get it, and give it to the world."