Henry Winkler at KUOW Public Radio, Jan. 29, 2019.
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Henry Winkler at KUOW Public Radio, Jan. 29, 2019.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Brie Ripley

Henry Winkler (aka the Fonz) with this story from his childhood

Prepare to tear up while listening to this interview with Henry Winkler – no, seriously.

Along with co-author Lin Oliver, the actor has written a series of books about a dyslexic kid named Hank Zipzer.

There are 29 books in the "Here's Hank" series. The latest and very last in the series is titled, "Everybody IS Somebody."

Winkler, who’s dyslexic, just like Hank, said he didn’t read a book himself until he was 31 and already playing Arthur Fonzarelli in Happy Days. He spoke alongside Oliver about creating the series and what Winkler's life is like these days.

Henry Winkler + Hank Zipzer

Interview highlights have been lightly edited for clarity

What dyslexia was like Winkler

Winkler: I was only called "stupid." My parents were very short Germans and they called me "dumb dog."

So they were very supportive people [sarcastically said], and growing up until about 10 minutes ago, I thought I was stupid. It took a long, long time for me to dismantle myself from that.

You never outgrow your dyslexia, you never outgrow the challenge. You learn to negotiate it.

I'll tell you how it changed me. When I found out at 31 that I actually had something with a name — dyslexia my wife and I changed the way we looked at the children and their homework and we said, "As long as you have tried as hard as you can, whatever you bring home is fine."

One now has just finished his third film as a director. Our daughter, severely dyslexic, is an amazing teacher, and our oldest son is in business. So we have to teach our children how they learn, not what we think they should learn.

Choosing acting when you have dyslexia

Winkler: The thought of being an actor burned a hole right through me when I was growing up and it never dawned on me about the reading part — it only dawned on me about taking people on a journey in a way that I could.

Winkler and Oliver's collaborative process

Oliver: I was actually the opposite of dyslexic. I was a super-reader, so we make a great combination because we're both creative. And Henry's dyslexia and my super reading — neither one of those gets in the way of our creative process. We are really complementary to each other.

Winkler: Lin sits at the computer and I talk; Lin types. Lin has an idea! Lin types, I wait. Then she reads it back to me and we argue over every word.

On the humor woven throughout the "Here's Hank" series

Winkler: If it's not funny then it doesn't go in the book. Lin and I wrote comedies first. They happened to be about a little boy who, like one out of five kids, is challenged.

Oliver: We both came from the television — in Henry's case performance and in my case writing. So I'm used to writing in a room with others and it's a collaborative process. So had I been a novelist writing in a garret alone this might not have worked.

Why is the Fonz so beloved?

Winkler: I actually think the reason that the Fonz lives on the way he does is because he was emotional. His loyalty to his friends mattered. His need for family mattered. So underneath everything, all of the patina of being tough and cool and distant and remote, was this need to connect. I think that's relatable.

On crying in films

Winkler: That is also my job. Honestly, there are things that you think about. We just did an episode in the second season of Barry where I am moved beyond, and I used a playlist of 26 songs on my iPod that I had in my ear until they said action, and the music took me to another emotional place.

The title of the final "Here's Hank" book is "Everybody IS Somebody"

Winkler: All I wanted was to be somebody. I was failing all over the place. I always say my life started at 27 when I got the Fonz and I was on TV. And I would lie in bed, and I would dream that I was going to be somebody, that I was not just a failure.

Lin and I decided that that would be an amazing closing episode for Hank Zipzer.

Produced for the web by Brie Ripley