Watch CBS News

'All I Want To Do Is Be Somebody': Henry Winkler On Lifelong Struggle With Dyslexia

BOSTON (CBS) - Most of us know him as The Fonz. Or Barry Zuckerkorn. Or, much more recently, Gene Cousineau.

But Henry Winkler says his proudest professional achievement is as a writer of children's books. And he's unveiling the 29th in his "Hank Zipzer" series, co-authored with Lin Oliver, about a second-grade boy with dyslexia.

Winkler, now 73, was in Boston on Thursday to promote the book, "Here's Hank: Everybody is Somebody," and sat down with WBZ's Paula Ebben and Liam Martin to discuss his own, lifelong struggle with dyslexia. He didn't discover he had it until he was 31, at the height of his fame as the Fonz.

"Our oldest son, Jed, couldn't write a report," Winkler said. "We had him tested, and everything they said about Jed was true about me, and I went, 'I'm not stupid. I have something with a name.'"

Henry Winkler
Henry Winkler (WBZ-TV)

"My family, teachers, everyone had said, 'You're never going to achieve. You're lazy, you're stupid,' and you believe that. If you tell a child young enough and often enough that they're being a moron or, 'You should act your age,' or 'You should know that by now,' or, 'Why are you not getting that? I just explained it to you,' they're going to remember that forever."

It was that experience that inspired Winkler to write the "Hank Zipzer" series.

"I would lie in my bed and New York City when I was a kid and I thought, 'I'm not achieving in anything. All I want to do is be somebody,'" Winkler said.

With that in mind, Winkler and Oliver decided to end this latest and final installment of the series with Hank understanding that he has potential -- when he gets his picture on the bulletin board in the school hallway.

"You're special, Hank," the main character's mother tells him on the final page of the book. "Hank Zipzer, some day, you're going to be somebody."

Winkler said he wants kids like he was to know they can achieve.

"If school is difficult, if it is difficult to learn, it has nothing to do with how brilliant you are," he said. "We just learn differently, but we can do things that can change the world. I took geometry for four years, same course. And not one person in 60 years has ever said the word 'hypotenuse' to me."

Winkler's career in TV and film, meantime, has spanned more than 40 years. He started at Emerson College in Boston before studying theater at Yale.

At age 27, he landed the role of the lifetime, Arthur Fonzarelli, in "Happy Days."

He described one of the first days on the set.

"Ron Howard was 18. And I didn't like a joke, and I hit the script and said, 'I can't do this.' And Ron, 18 years old, put his arm around me, walked me to the back of the sound stage and said, 'You know, those writers are working as hard as they possibly can. I wouldn't hit my script.' And I said, 'Ron, I will never hit my script as long as I live.'"

The show was an instant hit and lasted 10 years -- turning Winkler into an international celebrity of the highest order. At the height of the show, he was receiving 50,000 letters a week from fans.

When "Happy Days" ended, Winkler says he struggled to find work as an actor, so he turned to producing, earning 43 credits, including for giant hits "MacGyver" and "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch."

More recently, he has done hit turns as Barry Zuckerkorn in "Arrested Development" and just won his first Emmy for his role as Gene Cousineau in the HBO series "Barry."

"I'm walking up the stairs to get the award, and I see the two stars who are giving me the award are the stars of 'The Crown,'" he told us. "Stacey, my wife, and I watch 'The Crown.' I started talking to them about their season. And then I realized, 'Hey, you have a speech to give.' I turned around, I had 27 seconds left."

But Winkler says, even with the awards and the fame, writing the Zipzer series makes him proudest.

"I never thought that I would be able to write a book in my whole life, let alone 34. When I first saw the book, the very first time in 2003, with my name on it, I started to smell it, I rubbed it on my body. I couldn't believe there was a book with my name on it."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.