The American pop culture icon who made a name for himself as The Fonz on the 1970s hit TV show Happy Days brought humor and insight to Palm Beach Gardens on Thursday.
Henry Winkler, the actor who played Arthur Fonzarelli, spoke about his time on the show, his success in entertainment since then and how he’s used his late-in-life dyslexia diagnosis to encourage others who struggle during a lecture at La Posada, a senior living community near The Gardens Mall.
Winkler said he was in the bottom 3 percent academically and “made mistake after mistake” when learning his lines for “Happy Days.” When he was a child, his German father called him “dummer hund” — dumb dog — and tried to convince him to sell lumber.
But a 7-year-old Winkler already had his mind made up.
“All I knew is, if people were born to do something, I was born to be an actor,” he said.
He floundered through school, during which time his teachers and parents thought he was “lazy.” He repeated geometry and earned acceptance into only two colleges. An audition got him into the Yale School of Drama, where he completed a Master of Fine Arts.
In the face of adversity, he held onto his 11th grade teacher’s reassurance that he was “going to be OK” like “Leonardo DiCaprio held onto that piece of wood” after getting off the Titanic, he said.
“Everyone here is powerful,” he said. “I finally realized we have to teach our children how they learn, now what we think they should learn.”
It wasn’t until after Winkler married his wife, Stacey, that he realized his learning disability had a name. His stepson, Jed, was in third grade when he wrote three smudgy sentences and erased a hole in his paper for a report on the Hopi Indians.
The couple had Jed tested and got the dyslexia diagnosis. He and Stacey vowed to be a different kind of parents.
“School does not define our children. Grades do not define our children,” he said. “They need us to lift them up.”
Children know what they’re good at; their parents’ job is to help them realize their potential, Winkler said.
He was told he’d never make it in Hollywood, but his big break came five days after landing in California. Winkler had four lines during an episode on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and was almost out of money when he landed the role on Happy Days.
For the earliest episodes, he wore a gray or white windbreaker rather than his signature leather jacket because ABC feared Fonzie would be associated with crime, Winkler said.
The leather jacket, now in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, prevailed when show creator Garry Marshall said Fonzie needed to wear it in case he “falls off his motorcycle.”
Winkler did keep a piece of wood from outside the entrance to Arnold’s Diner on which he’d write the date and milestones such as “Max Winkler was born today,” or “Ron Howard had a red-headed daughter today.”
During a lull in his acting career, he began his Hank Zipzer series of children’s books about a funny young boy with a learning disability. The character has also become the star of a BBC series.
Winkler had the Gardens audience in stitches as he read from the newly-released Hank Zipzer book, “Always Watch Out for the Flying Potato Salad.” The series for children in the first, second and third grades uses a font that makes it easier to follow the words across the page.
“The comedy is exaggerated, but the emotion is real,” Winkler said. “Our books are laughter first. That is the way into a reluctant reader.”
His recent acting roles include Barry Zuckerhorn on “Arrested Development,” Dr. Saperstein on “Parks and Recreation” and Eddie Lawson on “Royal Pains.” NBC renewed “Better Late Than Never,” the reality show in which he co-stars, for another season.