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Henry Winkler reflects on life with dyslexia and his journey of self-discovery


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: And tonight's weekend spotlight actor Henry Winkler.

John Yang (voice-over): Popularity of his happy days character, the Fonz exploded in the 1970s. Winkler worried he'd be a flash in the pan, a one hit wonder, almost 50 years later, he hasn't stopped working.

Henry Winkler: Football for this team.

John Yang (voice-over): Movies like The Waterboy featured roles in Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, and most recently, Barry, for which he won his first Primetime Emmy and scores of children's books.

Now he's written a new memoir called being Henry the Fonz and Beyond. He talks about handling sudden fame in his 20s, his difficult relationship with his parents, his dyslexia, and his journey of self discovery.

Recently, I sat down with him to talk about it on a Washington rooftop overlooking the White House.

John Yang: What's your favorite character that you played?

Henry Winkler: The honest truth is, there are some things I did that I did, because I needed a paycheck. But for the most part, I don't have a favorite. I am so happy that I get to do what I dreamt of doing when I was in bed on 78th and Broadway in New York.

John Yang: For an actor what makes a roll good? What is it you're writing?

Henry Winkler: Writing.

John Yang: Writing?

Henry Winkler: If it isn't on the page, it isn't on the stage, the written word makes or breaks the project.

John Yang: You are excelling in a profession that depends on the written word.

Henry Winkler: Yes.

John Yang: You have dyslexia.

Henry Winkler: Yes. Destiny is very strange, because I've chosen a profession that is so unbelievably difficult, not only to survive in, but to participate in for me, when we were doing Happy Days or any table read, which is the whole cast all of the producers, the directors, everybody on the crew listening, for the first time to the script. I couldn't read off the page. And it was embarrassing. It was humiliating. I covered it with humor.

John Yang: How did you develop that over the years that it worked out for you that you were able to overcome that?

Henry Winkler: I literally read one word at a time. And then I would increase the speed. I would always ask for the script beforehand, work on it, know it, almost memorize it. So then when I read it, I could read it with a flow.

John Yang (voice-over): It wasn't until Winkler was 31. And at the height of his happy days fame that he realized he had dyslexia, a realization that came when his young stepson was diagnosed with it.

John Yang: You weren't thing you were incredibly angry.

Henry Winkler: I was because I was humiliated. I was constantly browbeaten. I was punished, grounded for most of my life. Then the next stage was all right, so I have this thing. Now I have to learn to negotiate it because it doesn't go away. It is the wiring in your brain.

And then I thought to myself, you know, maybe I would not be sitting in this chair, if I did not have the challenge to constantly work through that made my tenacity, like steel.

John Yang: I was going to ask about that because you tell the story of writing a paper at Emerson, when you didn't read the book, obviously, but could you --

Henry Winkler: But I couldn't read.

John Yang: Couldn't read the book. Yeah.

Henry Winkler: It was on Durkheim, the anthropologist and I read the table of contents, and the little paragraph under each title. And I literally willed myself to know what I sought the man Emile Durkheim was thinking.

John Yang: And you got to B minus.

Henry Winkler: I did, I got to B minus. I was amazed that I got close enough for the professor to think I knew what I was talking about. I never told him but holy mackerel, so I don't. I don't know if he's watching. But hey, what are you going to do now?

John Yang: Take the degree back.

Henry Winkler: Yeah, really?

John Yang: You talked about that gave you the tenacity because he had to work through it. Do you think you also develop other skills?

Henry Winkler: I don't know if I develop the skill. But what I learned, I learned through listening. Now that came in really handy as an actor, a generous scene partner, not only listens to you, but listens actively. So that all of a sudden, your relationship in the scene becomes very organic, off of what you are saying, not now it's my turn to talk or I don't need to listen to you. I know what I'm going to do, no matter what you do. That's a killer.

John Yang (voice-over): In 2003, Winkler published his first children's book about Hank Zipzer, a young boy with dyslexia growing up in New York City. He's gone on to write 17 more.

Henry Winkler: I remember what it was like to be eight. I remember what it was like to fail. So I was able to bring that reality. And then kids write, and they say, how did you know me so well?

John Yang: What advice do you have for young people who are going through the frustrations you went through?

Henry Winkler: Remember that there is greatness inside you? And that your job is to dig it out, and give it to the world as a gift. School might be hard, but it has nothing to do with how brilliant you are.

John Yang (voice-over): Winkler's parents who were Jewish, had fled Germany in 1939 for New York City where he grew up. It was he says, a very unhappy childhood.

Henry Winkler: I appreciate my parents. They came from another country, learn another language, lost everything that they had, started new. I had a pretty good life. What I don't accept, what I don't get over, you have a child, they are not an extension of you. They are an individual. And you've got to see them as that. And then you see they're having a problem. How do I make that problem better?

If you just diminish that child, because they are embarrassing you, not good. They would punish me all the time for being lazy. I couldn't watch TV, they went out. And I had to turn off the television. I had to judge it and turn it off in time. Because when those people came home, they put their hand on top of the TV. And if it was warm, I was grounded in another six weeks.

John Yang: As you say in the book, not everyone can have nurturing parents.

Henry Winkler: Right.

John Yang: Who will give unconditional love.

Henry Winkler: Right.

John Yang: What do you say to another child as someone who's going through that experience?

Henry Winkler: I'll tell you exactly. I saw my life as a stainless steel cylinder with no handholds, no foothold, and all I had to do was get to the top lip, pull myself up and be in the sun. And I kept sliding back down, sliding back down.

I eventually figured out how much pressure it was going to take for me to get to that lip and pull myself up. I tell each child, you are powerful. And no matter what is happening, you keep your eye on the prize of your imagination. You keep your eye on what it is you want without ambivalence without doubt.

John Yang (voice-over): Even at the peak of his popularity, Winkler says he always reminded himself that fame can fade.

Henry Winkler: When people would come up to me and they said, Oh my God, you walk on water, I would set you can't be talking to me. I understand that that stardom, you're floating on cotton balls, but it's going to rain. And those cotton balls are going to get very soggy, and they are not going to support anything. So I was very careful not to take anything for granted.

Let me tell you that I lived most of my life, being who I thought I should be. And I am now starting to become who I am. You know, when you have like a cup of coffee, you pour cream in it, and it swirl and it fills the entire cup. My thoughts never got to swirl. Recently, they're starting to seep down and swirl.

John Yang: Henry Winkler, thank you very much.

Henry Winkler: What a pleasure.

John Yang: I enjoyed it.

Henry Winkler: What a lovely conversation.

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