STUDIO CITY, Calif. — Fonzie’s leather jacket may be in the Smithsonian, but the man who created him is still scaling the treadmill. In fact, Henry Winkler is beginning a new challenge to match the multitudes behind him.
Winkler is costarring on USA’s “Royal Pains” as the slightly shady father to Hank Lawson and his goof-off brother. “It seems I borrowed money from my younger son, and I never paid him back and caused him great financial difficulties, so when I show up my son is not happy,” says Winkler, in the office of his writing partner.
Even at this point Winkler admits he still gets nervous when a part is in the offing. When he met with the executive producers of “Royal Pains” for a get-acquainted breakfast, Winkler says he ordered pancakes.
“And I’m taking the syrup and pouring it all over my pancakes and chatting. I actually poured cream all over my pancakes. I thought, ‘OK, they make pancakes with buttermilk, why not half-and-half? So I’m just eating it as if it was something I do.”
Much of his life, Winkler has pretended to be more confident than he is. He suffered from dyslexia since he was a kid, and still does. “My brain doesn’t compute. The words kind of float on the page,” he says, holding his hands above the table and passing them over the surface. “I see words that aren’t there and can’t see words that are there. So I read very slowly, and that makes it hard to read a script.”
He strained all through school, convinced he was a dunderhead, an attitude that was supported by his parents who were tough on him. But if anyone is a self-made man, it’s Winkler. He earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama and, after the adored “Happy Days” ended, he became a top TV executive with productions like “MacGyver,” the films “The Sure Thing” and “Young Sherlock Holmes,” the TV movie “A Family Again” and several programs for young people.
He’s more astonished than anyone by the fact that he is also an author. He and his co-author, Lin Oliver, are working on their second series about young Hank Zipzer, the world’s greatest underachiever, all gleaned from Winkler’s own experiences as a dyslexic boy.
He says he talks to children all across the world. “I tell them you have to figure out your gift and how you learn, at what rate you learn. If you’re a slow learner it has nothing to do with how brilliant you are because you don’t know what you’ll be able to create. I go all over the world I say, ‘I’m a husband and a father. We have two dogs. I have three children. I’m an actor, director, producer and I write. I’m in the bottom 3 percent academically in America. So you cannot tell me that you cannot achieve.”’
Beloved because of his swagger, his motorcycle and thumbs-up gesture, Winkler’s Fonzie became a national icon during “Happy Days” 10-year run. And for Winkler it was a life-changing tsunami.
“I went from not dating the girl I wanted to date to having my choice,” he says. “My life just exploded everywhere. And look at the people I worked with: Ron Howard, Marion Ross — one of the great women of our time — Garry Marshall is the mentor.
“That I made a living, that I was able to provide for my family, that I met the people I’ve been able to meet, that I’ve traveled where I’ve traveled and been honored the way I’ve been honored, it’s just unbelievable.”
Winkler, 64, has been married 32 years to wife Stacey. Asked the secret to a successful marriage, he says, “I’ve thought about this a long, long time. It doesn’t have to do with the heart. It has to do with hearing, listening to what the other person is saying. The same goes for your children. Listen to what they say.”
Winkler, who inherited his older son when he married Stacey, says, “Being a parent is the most difficult job on the planet. Brain surgery? Nothing. They made me stop, focus, listen. I wanted to be so attuned to what was going on because I did not want them to feel the sense of disconnect that I had in my life. My parents came from a different place and different time. But they never listened. They never heard or embraced my dreams until I got myself on television. Then all of a sudden they became the co-producers of Henry Winkler” (he says with a Yiddish accent).
Things are still tough for any actor in Hollywood, thinks Winkler. “Now it doesn’t matter what you’ve done — what matters is what you’ve done recently. It not only bothers me for me but for people I know who are unbelievably talented who have to struggle for the next thing and it shouldn’t be like that.” I think it’s a very idiosyncratic point of view. Fred Zinnemann, a great director, went in for an interview. And they said, ‘Tell me about your career.’ And he said, ‘You first.’ ”