Henry Winkler talks ‘Happy Days,’ hard work, Hank Zipzer


Courtesy of Oakland University

Award-winning actor, author, director and producer Henry Winkler will visit Oakland University on Feb. 13 to share humorous anecdotes and inspirational life lessons about overcoming adversity throughout his life and career.

To many, Henry Winkler is better known as The Fonz from “Happy Days,” Barry Zuckerkorn from “Arrested Development” and Dr. Saperstein from “Parks and Recreation.” He has received Golden Globe and Emmy awards, and his likeness is preserved in a life-sized bronze statue of Fonzie in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Winker is also the author of the Hank Zipzer children’s book series, which tells the story of a young boy with dyslexia and is inspired by Winker’s own experiences.

He will be visiting Oakland University to speak to a sold-out crowd at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 13 in the Oakland Center Banquet Rooms. Doors open at 6 p.m.

On Feb. 9, Winkler called in from Los Angeles to chat with The Oakland Post’s editor-in-chief, Paige Brockway, and WXOU’s news director, Erin Ben-Moche. Listen to the full interview on WXOU.org.

Question: You have had an incredible career as an actor, writer, producer and even a director. You’ve kind of done it all. But what has inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

Answer: You know what, that’s a very good question. I don’t know . . . I never know how it jumped into my mind or into my heart that I had to do this. But if I was born to do something, I was born to try to be an actor. So acting is first. But the proudest thing that I have done — outside of my children and my grandchildren — are the books that I’ve written for kids.

Q: Could you describe your journey to being diagnosed with dyslexia as an adult?

A: My whole life, until I was 31, I just thought that I was limited, I was stupid. But I never let it stop me from pursuing my dream. And then when I got married to Stacey, she had a son, Jed, who came into my life when he was 4. And he couldn’t write. He was very verbal, but he couldn’t get it on paper when he had to do a report. We had him tested, and everything that they said about Jed ultimately was true about me. So I realized, at that moment, I too must have a learning challenge. And that was the first time that I ever came in contact with the concept.

Q: And then, not only did you learn about it, but you kind of turned it into a strength. What really drove you to writing the Hank Zipzer series?

A: The writing was an accident. I never thought that I would be a writer . . . or that I would be a writer of books that are translated in a lot of different languages, or that I would be a spokesperson for dyslexia. It never dawned on me. And it all happened because I had time on my hands, and somebody suggested, “Why don’t you write a book about your learning challenge for kids?”

Q: And that has turned into a television series, as well. What has been your involvement with that project, and are you happy with the result?

A: It is a television series in England because I could not sell it here in America. No station would do it. One station said, “Oh, we think that Hank Zipzer is very funny. He’s got a great sense of humor. Can we make a show, and he won’t be dyslexic?” I said, “Well, that’s the point of the books.” So we didn’t do it, didn’t do it, and then finally it became quite successful on the BBC. And what I found was, will is a major force . . . will is the component that moves you from talking about something to actually accomplishing it.

Q: What was one of the most valuable lessons you learned? What would you tell theater students who are prepping to graduate and start their careers?

A: Certainly what I would say is . . . you know, they say, “Oh my god, being an actor is so hard. And you have to be a waiter, and you have to sell clothing in a boutique, and you can’t find a job.” I just took my pick and my shovel to work every day, and I mined the system. You cannot wait for someone to give you a job. You have to go out, put your ear to the ground, find that job. Like those pigs find truffles. You’ve got to keep digging around, and then all of a sudden, you come up with the treasure.

I did plays for free, I did commercials. I did anything and everything that I could do without hurting my soul. And every single thing I did led me and made me better for the next job.

Q: I watched “Happy Days” every single day when I came home from school. You were the reason that I got a library card because you said it was cool — Fonzie said it was cool.

A: Isn’t that amazing? One line in a show. I said to Richie, “Hey, look at this. You can get a library card.” And library card registration went up 500 percent in the next two weeks. You’re one of the reasons why.

Q: How did playing The Fonz affect your life, and was the transition out of Fonzie difficult for you?

A: That’s a good question . . . let’s see what The Fonz does. He gave me a worldwide recognition, gave me a job in the very arena that I dreamt about. He was fun to play. I loved the people that I acted with. He put a roof on my head. He put my children through school. He created good will. He gave me the key to the door — now, once I walked through that door, I had to create it — but he gave me the key to the door to my future.

Q: With all of those good things being said, to a lot of people, you are just synonymous with The Fonz. Have you ever resented this or wished that you were identified with one of your other characters?

A: You know what? No. I never resented it because I don’t know that I would be here on the phone with you. I don’t know that I would be invited to speak at your school if I did not start with The Fonz. There are kids who only know me as an author, and who say to me, “Oh my gosh, I laughed so hard my funny bone fell out of my body.” There are people who know me from “The Waterboy.” There are people who know me from “Scream,” “Arrested Development” . . . They’re all like little pockets of the parts of my career. People stop and talk about those specific projects that I’ve done.

Last summer, I did a show called “Better Late Than Never” [with] Bill Shatner; Terry Bradshaw, the football player; George Foreman, the heavyweight champion of the world. We all went to Asia, and we had five cameras, six cities, no script. And the show was so successful that there’s a whole pocket of people that only talk to me about that.

So, that’s a long-winded way of saying, no, I cherish The Fonz.

Q: Between your supporting roles on “Parks and Recreation” and “Arrested Development,” what was your most memorable experience?

A: I was going to do only one week on “Arrested Development,” and I stayed three years. And I must say that Mitch Hurwitz, who ran that show, is a genius. Adam Sandler is a genius, and now, rest his soul, Garry Marshall. And now I’m going to do a show for HBO, and we start shooting in March, with Bill Hader. And let me tell you, he is a force to reckon with.

Q: So, you’ve worked with all these amazing, talented actors, producers, directors. What’s something that you took away from working with all of them?

A: That you don’t create something that you think other people want you to do. You create your imagination. God forbid, if it fails, whatever the project is, and you have stayed true to yourself, when you go down, you go down in your own flames.

Q: You mentioned Garry Marshall. You worked with him for a really long time.

A: I really did. And he was a really good friend of mine — like my brother, like my family — until he passed away. And he was just a miracle. You know, he was allergic to 134 things, and he was brilliant at solving a problem, at creating a funny thing. He was also amazingly generous of spirit.

Q: After everything you’ve done, you’ve had a very good career. Not everyone can break away from their iconic role, and you seem to do that very well. But after everything you’re going to do, and that you’ve done, what has been your favorite part of this journey?

A: I love my job, so I still get excited. When I was younger and I saw movie trucks on the streets of New York . . . there was a movie being made, and you could see all the camera trucks and all the crew was standing around — my heart would start racing like I thought it was going to jump out of my body. And I still have that same excitement.

I love that I’m able to go fly-fishing for trout. And one of my dreams on my bucket list, aside from my children and my grandchildren meeting their destiny, being able to live in a world that’s not blown up to bits here . . . is to win a Tony Award on Broadway. That is one of my dreams . . . I’ve always fantasized about playing a mute. I want to see if I can tell the whole story without using any words. It’s an amazing thing.