Believers in karma might say that Henry Winkler’s midlife rewards are a payback for emerging from a difficult childhood as a very nice person. At 60, he has a key role in “Out of Practice,” the sly new CBS sitcom that’s been one of the few freshman shows to break the top 20; he also co-authors a series of critically acclaimed comic novels for schoolkids based on his experiences growing up.
As painful as his early years were, Winkler can’t help but mine humor from his past and find a way for his sad back-story to benefit others. “ ‘Hilarious’ must be a fourth-grade word, because I get lots of letters from kids who tell me, ‘Your books are hilarious,’ ” he says.
Growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1950s, Winkler, the only son of Holocaust survivors, was a Weeble of a boy, constantly knocked down by academics. He’d spring back up only to be KO’d again. “Learning disability” wasn’t yet part of the lexicon, but he just didn’t see things the way other kids did. He did excel as the class clown, but an A-plus sense of humor never boosted anyone’s grade-point average.
“School was this immovable object,” he recalls. “I was told I wasn’t living up to my potential, that I was stupid. My parents, being short Germans, were convinced I was merely lazy. So I was grounded for most of my life. I did not see the moon during my junior year. When you are in the bottom of the class, you’re constantly feeling less-than. You’re always working overtime to achieve some sort of normalcy or cool factor, which I had none of.”
Fortunately for Winkler, and for the more than a million children who follow the adventures of his literary alter-ego, fourth-grader Hank Zipzer, the heart has a long memory. Even playing the thoroughly cool and commanding Fonzie on “Happy Days” for 11 years couldn’t expunge the early beatings Winkler’s self-esteem had taken. He poured his frustration at confusing his left and his right, at not being able to decipher a diagram or transfer his thoughts onto paper into the Hank Zipzer books. But first, he had to learn why things that seemed so easy for his friends were so vexing for him. And to do that, he had to become a parent.
Winkler had thought about being a father when he was still a kid. After being berated and belittled by his parents, he would lie in bed at night and think, “I must remember this: never to repeat these people.” He hasn’t. He and wife Stacey, a child welfare advocate, have three children. Their 22-year-old son Max, a senior at USC, and 25-year-old daughter Zoe, a teacher, live at the family home in Brentwood, which says something about their affection for their parents. At 34, Winkler’s stepson, Jed, is the manager for singer Morrissey and lives on his own.
It was Jed, in fact, who led Winkler to understand his learning difficulty. When the child was in third grade, he was found to be dyslexic. Listening to the experts describe Jed’s condition, Winkler, then 31, said, “That’s me.” It was less of a lightbulb moment than one might think. “Everything was illuminated, but nothing was changed,” Winkler says. “At least then I knew there was a reason why I was having such difficulties. First you go through a tremendous amount of anger. Because all those arguments, all that disappointment, all that punishment and grounding was for nought.”
In retrospect, the struggle wasn’t completely worthless. “Dyslexia taught me kindness,” he says. “I know what it feels like to be treated like you’re not up to snuff.”
Before he’d ever heard the word “dyslexia,” Winkler developed ways of coping with his confounding brain. He was admitted to the Yale School of Drama on the basis of an audition and, after graduating, paid the rent by doing commercials. “Reading cold was, like, out of the question,” he says, “I improvised everything. They’d say, ‘You aren’t reading the words,’ and I’d say, ‘I’m just giving you the essence.’ I was really good at getting commercials.”
Out of such experiences came the messages Winkler wants his books to impart: “There’s more than one way to Rome. There is more than one way to solve a problem. Ultimately, just because you learn differently doesn’t mean there isn’t some kind of greatness in you.”
Hence, Hank Zipzer, described on the cover of each of the nine novels published as “the world’s greatest underachiever.” (Get it? Hank is the best at something.) He was conceived in 2003 after Alan Berger, who had been Winkler’s agent at ICM, suggested that he write books for children about being dyslexic. Berger introduced Winkler to Lin Oliver, a cofounder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Oliver’s organization does not cherish most celebrity authors. “I get offers to collaborate every day from celebrities, [but] Henry is a very special person. He has a long history of working with kids. What attracted me was his commitment to communicating honestly about something that’s a tremendous issue for him. He’s in touch with the frustration and shame that courses through you when you’re young and are different.”
The character-driven Hank Zipzer books aren’t stories about a problem; Hank is a resourceful, funny and optimistic boy who happens to have an undiagnosed learning disability. Hank and Henry, who are both inventive and verbal, demonstrate that dyslexia does not hamper creativity. The series has been so popular -- among the 1 in 5 American children who have learning challenges as well as with kids who don’t -- that the publisher’s original commitment for four books has been expanded to 16.
The ninth novel, “My Secret Life as a Ping-Pong Wizard,” was published recently, and Winkler and Oliver are working on a pilot script for a Nickelodeon series based on the books.
“The building Hank lives in is the building I lived in,” Winkler says. “The school is my school. The humor is exaggerated, but when Hank says, ‘I love my brain, I hate my brain,’ that is the truth.”
At the heart of the books is Hank’s tenacity, another quality he and Winkler share. The actor who played Arthur Fonzarelli was determined not to be a one-trick pony. “After ‘Happy Days’ was a hard time,” he says. “I had eaten through brick to get where I was, and then the brick dissolved.” When acting offers didn’t come, he reinvented himself as a director and producer. By Winkler’s estimate, he has produced or co-executive produced 19 years’ worth of television, including “MacGyver,” which aired from 1985 to 1992. “Longevity in this business isn’t an accident,” he says. “When you see longevity, it is because that human being has worked hard and relentlessly.”
Despite the variety of jobs Winkler has had, including a stint on Broadway five years ago in a Neil Simon play, fans always ask him how the Fonz is, as if the high school heartthrob had finally graduated and matured in some parallel universe. “We built an addition onto our house,” Winkler says, deadpan. “He’s retired there, and he has a season pass to ‘Out of Practice’ on his TiVo, which I thought was really loyal of him.”
Perhaps Winkler had to let memories of the Fonz fade, to begin looking more like the sort of man who could be the bumbling lawyer in “Arrested Development,” before he could enjoy acting as much as he has lately. He completed roles in two movies this year -- “Click,” Adam Sandler’s homage to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “The Kid & I,” opening next week, in which he plays the agent of Tom Arnold’s character.
Stewart Barnes, “Out of Practice’s” newly divorced patriarch of a family of lovably neurotic doctors, was written with Winkler in mind. Co-creator Christopher Lloyd says, “A lot of what Henry projects in real life is what shines through in the character -- a genuineness and a dearness. He’s just such a nice man. Stewart is someone it’s impossible to stay mad at, who’s a little puppy-like. He takes life as it comes to him, which I think Henry does.”
The perks and the pitfalls
Stewart is in a relationship with his warm-hearted receptionist, whose surgically enhanced chest is the handiwork of his oldest son, a plastic surgeon. Dad knows he’s in danger of being the punch line of a midlife-crisis joke, but he’s so busy smiling he doesn’t care. Winkler’s ability to play Stewart without leering makes the character’s ex-wife’s twinges of regret all the more poignant.
Television actors are fond of describing the casts they work with as family. When Winkler does so, the cliche rings true. He says he’s crazy about Stockard Channing, who plays his ex-wife, and he takes his fictional sons out to lunch. (Pink’s is a favorite destination.) “One of the last great conversations we had was about how when you get on television, people start treating you differently,” he says.
Winkler can warn his television offspring about “frenemies” and about the perils of believing their own good press. “You watch a show on television that’s funny, and all of a sudden it becomes a critical success,” he says. “And it becomes a ratings success. Then the people on the show become the royalty of Hollywood and you see it start seeping into them. They carry themselves with a sense of grandeur. Then you know it’s the end. It’s over. Because the simplicity or humanity has been replaced by a sense of entitlement. You see it and you think, ‘Whoops! You bought it. You think you’re important. Whooops. It’s coming through.’ ”
Fonzie, taking it easy in Winkler’s guest house, has seen it all.