For 10 years during the mid-1970s and 1980s, Henry Winkler was the epitome of “cool” in the eyes of the millions of Americans who tuned in weekly to watch Happy Days. His character “The Fonz” — otherwise known as “Fonzie,” or by his given name, Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli — is among the most enduring in television history. The ladies were in love with him, and the guys pining over them wanted to be just like him — especially Richie Cunningham, played by Winkler’s future Arrested Development castmate, Ron Howard.
These days, Winkler embodies coolness very differently. Since 2003, the 72-year-old actor has co-authored the Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever children’s book series, a collection of pseudo-autobiographical stories about a smart kid with dyslexia loosely based on Winkler’s lifelong struggle with the reading disorder. With Lin Oliver, Winkler has written dozens of books which also serve as the basis for a British children’s television series. Commissioned by the CBBC in 2014, both the Hank Zipzer show and its recent Christmas special have garnered several BAFTA nominations and wins.
Speaking with Uproxx from New York, Winkler beams with pride about the work he and Oliver have accomplished and praises the Hank Zipzer showrunners. Even so, the man who introduced Fonzie to the world stops himself mid-sentence. He just can’t get over what an experience it’s all been, he tells me, especially with his work on Arrested Development‘s long-awaited fifth season. “Mitchell Hurwitz is a genius,” he exclaims. “I mean, it just flat-out is the truth. If you see a category in a book for geniuses in America, he’s going to be there.”
“Two years ago,” he continues, “we shot for Netflix and of course everybody was busy, so everybody had a different shooting schedule. I did scenes with light stands with an X in tape put on them. I would have a conversation with Jeffrey Tambor, then I would turn to my right and have a conversation with Jessica Walters, but both of them were light stands instead. This year, however, the entire family was in the same room. Oh my gosh, it was amazing!” His character, the bumbling lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn, isn’t nearly as cool as the Fonz or Mr. Rock, the music teacher he plays in Hank Zipzer. (“The only thing he knows about the law is how to spell it because it’s only three letters.”) Yet none of this phases the man made the Fonz cool.
During a 2008 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Winkler said, “The Fonz was everybody I wasn’t. He was everybody I wanted to be.” When the pair discussed Happy Days‘ “king of cool” yet again seven years later, his estimation of the character remained the same. “You’re still who you are when you take that jacket off,” Winkler told Winfrey. “I was never actually great. In high school, [I] never actually dated who I wanted to date.” However, when I ask him about the character of Hank Zipzer, whose struggles with dyslexia on the page were meant to mirror his own in real life, something clicks. If the Fonz was everything Winkler thought he wasn’t — a cool ladies man who was adored and respected by his peers — then Zipzer, it seemed, was a younger version of this character — albeit one who suffered from a reading disorder.
“I never thought of that, but that is true,” says Winkler. “Because as an actor, you start with the character. You start with what the writer says about the character, what the other characters in the script say about him, and then you add yourself into the mix. Because we’re all the same. So I guess I did that with the Fonz, too. Yeah. I think I also did it with Barry Zuckerkorn in Arrested Development.” Yet as cool as characters like the Fonz, Mr. Rock, and — according to the man himself — Barry Zuckerkorn are, Winkler believes none of it really matters unless we are able to convince others of their own inherent “coolness” as soon as possible. This is especially the case, says Winkler, for the young children he and Oliver’s Hank Zipzer books are made for.
“When I go into a school, the first thing I do — whether there are 100 or 500 children — is ask, ‘Anybody here know what they’re great at?’ Every hand goes up. Every child knows what they’re great at. Whether they are learning-challenged or not. Our job as adults is to make sure they meet their destiny, every single one of them.” Winkler is so adamant about this, in fact, that he regularly tours the country giving readings at elementary schools of all shapes and sizes. He’s been doing it since the first books were published, and the reactions to his (and Hank’s) positivity never ceases to amaze him. “In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a bellman — a young man just starting his career — came around the desk at the reading to shake my hand and say, ‘Hank Zipzer saved my life when I was in school.’ How cool is that?”
Very cool, especially for a formative actor, producer, and director whose agent’s initial pitch to do a children’s book series revolved around a “lull” in his career. “Honestly, I rejected the thought of writing out of hand the first time it came up,” recalls Winkler. “The second time, my agent actually said to me, ‘Hey, look. There’s a lull in your acting career. I would write books about your learning challenges for children. I’ll introduce you to my good friend, Lin Oliver.’ I was smart enough the second time to say, ‘I’ll try.'” 30 books, a television series, and a one-off seasonal special later, Winkler’s efforts to transform Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli’s coolness into something truer to himself, and more accessible to learning-challenged children not all that different from him when he was their age, have undoubtedly succeeded. Hey, even Barry Zuckerkorn seems cool now.
Hank Zipzer airs Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8:30pm ET on Universal Kids.