BANFF — Growing up with dyslexia was painful for actor/author Henry Winkler, whose big break came playing “the Fonz” — or the ultra-cool Arthur Fonzarelli — on the megahit Happy Days, which enjoyed a lengthy run beginning in the 1970s.
“The most painful experience I think was from (age) six to 31 to be specific,” said Winkler, 68, attending the Banff World Media Festival where he is receiving the Award of Excellence.
“I had no sense of self. I had no confidence. I played a character the Fonz — he is who I wanted to be, not who I was,” he added.
“And then slowly but surely I now understand a sense of self might be one of the most important ingredients of being alive.”
It wasn’t until he was 31 that Winkler discovered he was dyslexic.
At a period when his career was in a “lull” his agent suggested he pen a series of books along with Lin Oliver about a fourth-grade boy, Hank Zipzer, who is also dyslexic.
“I believed I was stupid. I believed there was no way I was going to write a book. Hank — short for Henry — and Zipzer was a woman that lived on the fourth floor of my building in New York City that I thought was a zippy name,” he said with a smile.
“Now we are 26 novels in of something I never thought I could do.”
Winkler stars as a teacher in the British CBBC series Hank Zipzer, which has just been renewed for a second season.
He said he didn’t initially write the books as a form of therapy.
“I didn’t know it was therapeutic. I now get to talk to kids in school all over the world and it is one of the greatest things I’ve ever gotten to do in my professional life. It is life affirming.”
Winkler could fill a book with the number of parts he has played over the years including a recurring role on USA Network’s Royal Pains, as Hank and Evan’s ne’er-do-well father Eddie and as incompetent lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn in the cult comedy Arrested Development.
He has fond memories Happy Days — which aired from 1974-84 — and its cast, which included future film director and producer Ron Howard as Richie Cunningham.
“Ron Howard is like a younger brother,” he said.
“When we started to do Happy Days we were doing it in front of a live audience. We were just waiting for a scene to rehearse and he said ‘What do you think? I really want to be a director.’ At 18 I got a vibration off this young man and said, ‘Ron, if you want to be a brain surgeon I will be your first patient.”’