Super fly guy

The Fonz was known for womanising and fighting. But Henry Winkler likes nothing better than a spot of fly fishing by a Yorkshire river

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If you were strolling by the River Wharfe this summer you may have seen an unlikely sight: The Fonz fly fishing at Bolton Abbey. That might surprise all those 1970s Happy Days fans because actor Henry Winkler, aka Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, with his slicked back hair, wearing a leather jacket in Al’s Diner, was the coolest human being on the planet. For a whole generation, the goings-on of the Fonz, Richie Cunningham, Joanie and Potsie, et al was must-see TV. The Fonz’s trademark of thumbs up with a long “heeeyyy” was copied by teenagers everywhere as the epitome of New York savvy.

So the idea of Mr Cool sublimely sitting by the river at Bolton Abbey in West Yorkshire is something of a surprise.

“I love Yorkshire and there are some great places to fish,” says Winkler, an avid fly fisherman, when we meet in Dewsbury.

Hang on? Dewsbury? Winkler, now aged 70, is the prolific co-writer of the enormously successful Hank Zipzer children’s books, turned into a top rated CBBC children’s series and currently in filming for a 90-minute Christmas special episode. The action in the books shifts to the UK for the TV series and a disused school in Dewsbury acts as the backdrop for the stories of Hank, the world’s greatest underachiever. Each summer, Winkler bases himself in West Yorkshire for a few weeks filming, fly fishing and eating scones.

His parents’ answer was to call him stupid and insist he studied more

The character of Hank is based on Winkler’s own experiences. Everyone says Hank will never achieve anything – apart from one teacher, Mr Rock, played by Winkler himself. “I didn’t know I had any sort of learning challenge,” says Winkler, now silver haired but still with an edge of New York cool. “I was told I was stupid. In those days nothing had a name. There are lots of teachers now that train to teach students with issues. It’s still a stigma though.”

He discovered he was dyslexic when his stepson Jed was diagnosed with the condition as a child. “I was 31 – it was a lightbulb moment when I figured out I’d got something with a name. Then I went through an anger period. I resented it.”

His schooldays in New York had been utter misery. He wasn’t an unwilling student but he just couldn’t grasp the work because he couldn’t read properly. His German-Jewish parents who escaped Nazi Germany in 1939 believed education was the way forward. They couldn’t understand why the young Henry wasn’t an A student. Their answer was to call him stupid and insist on him working at his studies more.

The underlying resentment clearly runs deep and, even at 70 and with his parents long gone, there is an edge of bitterness when Winkler says: “I now have softened a lot. I don’t know now whether I just don’t have the time or energy. I don’t think it’s that I’ve grown up, I don’t spend as much time thinking about how much I dislike them. I made it a really conscious choice to be a different type of parent. I heard my parents’ voices flying out of my mouth when I was talking to my children when they were younger, I stopped. That’s not the way I want to sound. I stopped. It’s ingrained in you. You don’t even know until it’s on the tip of your tongue.”

Despite his educational shortcomings, Winkler managed to graduate high school and become an actor, even completing a master of fine arts degree from the Yale School of Drama. But getting an acting job was another matter, since reading lines is a key part of the audition process. He found ways to cope, though.

Happy Days
Henry Winkler in his role as Fonz with the Happy Days cast

“You learn to negotiate with your learning challenge. I improvised. I never read anything the way that it was written in my entire life. I would read it. I could instantly memorise a lot of it and then what I didn’t know, I made up, threw caution to the wind and did with conviction. And sometimes I made them laugh and sometimes I got hired.”

In 1974 he was cast in the life-changing role of Arthur Fonzarelli, originally a bit part character to Ron Howard’s Richie Cunningham, who was perceived as the main lead. Within a few episodes though, it became clear to Happy Days creator Garry Marshall that the Fonz was big.

Winkler struggled to learn the scripts that were sometimes rewritten twice in the week. “We’d rehearse Monday to Friday, have dinner, then broadcast live on Friday night, rewriting all the time. If you do it week in and week out, it becomes easier. I was great at memorisation but I just wasn’t good at being able to read. Tracking the word across the page was really difficult.”

After 10 years Happy Days ended but Winkler went on to have a full career as both actor and director. He was a big hit playing Captain Hook in pantomime in the UK five times in seven years – something he loved doing, even though it was tough work. “It was one of the great diets of my life – I lost three or four notches on my belt. But it was so much fun. It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done. It was great, the sets were great.”

He and his wife Stacey have been married for 38 years and, including stepson Jed, have three children. All three had some learning challenge. “Zoe had dyslexia. Since she was seven she wanted to teach. I used to find her in her bedroom pretending to teach class. She was the last in her class to read. Now she is an unbelievable, popular teacher. Max just finished directing his second movie and Jed is a producer,” he says with pride.

Henry Winkler filming Hank Zipser. He plays the teacher Mr Rock, the one person to see potential in Hank Zipser (played by Nick James, standing)

Winkler is also a grandfather four times over and proudly shows a photo on his phone of one of his grandsons, Ace, being read to from a Hank Zipzer book. “Can you imagine how I feel? Can you imagine the pride that I felt that my grandson is being read a book that I wrote?”

He began writing the books in 2003 with top children’s author Lin Oliver. They are about to start the thirty-second novel, which this time will be published in a new font that makes the books more accessible to dyslexic children. He tours schools both here and the US, reading from the books and encouraging children with learning difficulties. In 2011 he was awarded an honorary OBE for his services to children’s literacy.

Summing up his life he says: “I had a dream of being an actor since I was seven. People told me I’d never make it, I’d never achieve. Not only have I had the greatest time, my jacket is in a museum [the Smithsonian in Washington], and I have a Hollywood Star of Fame. I dreamt of it – I never imagined it would be reality.

“I never dreamt I would write one novel, let alone 32, and to be on TV in the top three children’s shows – it’s all truly amazing.”

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