Childhood & Early Years
Henry Franklin Winkler was born on 30 October 1945 in New York City, USA, into a German-Jewish emigrant family. His parents migrated to the USA in 1939, just before the Second World War, carrying their only asset, the family jewels, under their arms in a box of chocolate.
His father, Harry Irving Winkler, was the president of a lumber import-export company. He knew 11 languages and was excellent in mental mathematics. His mother, Ilse Anna Marie née Hadra, was a homemaker. He has a sister named Beatrice.
Winkler, who suffered from undetected dyslexia, had a very troubled childhood. He hated school and books terrified him. Although he tried hard, he never succeeded at getting good grades, due to which most teachers were very unsympathetic to him.
His intelligent and bright parents had no idea about things like learning disabilities. Therefore, they too did not understand him. They thought he was lazy and scolded him for not living up to his potential. They used to make him sit at his desk for hours and often call him a ‘stupid dog’ (Dumm Hund).
Winkler was also beaten on a regular basis, not only for his bad grades; but also for his childish ways. Once he put his ear down to a bowl of cereal to hear it “snap, crackle and pop”, which made his mother insane with rage. Eventually, he started thinking that he was actually stupid.
Life was very difficult for him even socially, as he constantly needed to hide the fact that simple reading, writing, spelling and math were not up his alley. When he went shopping, he found it hard to count the change that he got. Therefore, he always returned home without counting.
Only one teacher, after whom he later created the character of Mr. Rock, spoke encouraging words to him. The teacher told young Henry that he would be all right when he left school. Winkler later said, “Those words meant everything to me.”
He later enrolled in McBurney School, where he was chosen to play the title role in the school production of ‘Billy Budd’. It gave the eighth grader Winkler a new direction, and he decided to become an actor when he grew up.
He could not graduate with his class because of his difficulties in geometry; but he did so in 1963, after attending a summer school. Thereafter, he got admission in Emerson College, where he was a member of Alpha Pi Theta Fraternity.
In 1967, he earned his BA degree from Emerson College. His family now expected him to join his father’s business, but Winkler decided to pursue his dream instead and auditioned for a seat in the Yale School of Drama.
Although his grades were poor, he got admission at Yale due to his excellent audition. Here, he devoted himself to acting, often performing in one drama at night and rehearsing for another in the day time. Eventually in 1970, he earned his Masters of Fine Arts from Yale.
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Henry Winkler returned to New York after graduating from Yale School of Drama in 1970. He began to perform at Manhattan Theatre Club for free, supporting himself only by doing commercials. In 1972, he made his television debut as an intern in the NBC soap opera, ‘Another World’.
In 1973, he debuted in films, playing Mannie in ‘Crazy Joe’ and Butchey Weinstein in 'The Lords of Flatbush' (both released in 1974). Also in 1973, he moved to Los Angeles, possibly with a recommendation letter from Tom Miller, the producer of 'The Lords of Flatbush'.
Within two weeks of reaching Los Angeles, he got the part of Steve Waldman in the ‘Diner Party’ episode of CBS’s ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’. However, he began to feel homesick and decided to return to his city very soon.
Before packing his bag, Winkler decided to give his last audition. It was for the role of a biker, Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, in the television sitcom, ‘Happy Days’. Although its creator Gary Marshal had envisaged a hunky Italian for the role, he snapped up Winkler after he saw his audition.
'Happy Days’ debuted on January 15, 1974. Initially, Winkler had a small side role in it; but as his popularity began to increase, his role was expanded and Fonzie became one of the main characters. He remained with the sitcom until its end in 1984.
In 1974, apart from ‘Happy Days’, Winkler appeared in three more television series; as Miles Lascoe in 'The Bob Newhart Show', as Howard Gordon in 'Rhoda' and in an un-credited role in ‘Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers’. He also played the role of an auditioning actor in ‘Nightmare’, a TV movie.
In 1975, he appeared in another television movie, ‘Catherine’. From 1976 to 1979, he played Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli in ‘Laverne & Shirley,’ the first spinoff of ‘Happy Days.’.
In 1977, he returned to the big screen, appearing as Jack Dune in ‘Heroes’. In the same year, he tried his hand at production, becoming the executive producer as well as the narrator of the award winning documentary, ‘Who Are the DeBolts? And Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?’
From 1978 till 1982, Winkler regularly appeared as Fonzie in a number of spinoffs of ‘Happy Days’. They were ‘Mork and Mindy’ (1978), ‘Sesame Street’ (1980), ‘The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang’ (1980 – 1982), 'Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour' (1982) and ‘Joanie Loves Chachi’ (1982).
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Apart from playing the role of Fonzie in ‘Happy Days’ and its spinoffs, Winkler continued to act in films. In 1978, he appeared as Andy Schmidt in ‘The One and Only’. Then he worked in ‘American Christmas Carol’ (TV movie, 1979) and ‘Night Shift’ (1982).
Henry Winkler teamed up with John Rich to open Winkler-Rich Productions in 1984, shortly after ‘Happy Days’ went off the air. They produced ‘MacGyver’, an action-adventure television series, which ran on ABC from September 1985 to April 1992. Also in 1985, they produced ‘Scandal Sheet’, a made-for-television film.
In 1986, they produced ‘Mr. Sunshine’, which ran for one season on ABC. In the same year, Winkler made his directorial debut with a made-for-television fantasy musical called, ‘A Smoky Mountain Christmas.’ He also did a cameo in it
In 1988, he directed his second film, ‘Memories of Me’. It got mixed review and was not a box office success. During this period, he paid more attention to direction and production than acting.
In 1991, he returned to acting, starring in the TV movie, ‘Absolute Stranger’. It was followed by another TV movie, ‘The Only Way Out’ (1993). Also in 1993, he directed his third and last film, a family cop comedy called, ‘Cop and a Half’.
In 1994, Winkler appeared as Monty Richardson in all 13 episodes of ‘Monty’ and as Dad in the TV movie, ‘One Christmas’. In 1996, he returned to the big screen, playing important roles in films like ‘Scream’, ‘Ground Control’, ‘The Waterboy’, ‘P.U.N.K.S.’ and ‘Dill Scallion’.
In 1997, he returned to production with the TV series, ‘Dead Man’s Gun’, which ran from March 1997 to March 1999 on Showtime. In 1999, he coproduced ‘So Weird’, a television series aired on Disney Channel, also appearing as Fergus McGarrity in one of its episode.
Henry Winkler’s agent Alan Berger advised him in 1998 to write children’s books; a proposal Winkler refused to consider. But when in 2003, Berger once again made the same suggestion to Winkler, he agreed to co-write with Lin Oliver.
His first book, ‘Niagara Falls, Or Does It?’ was released in 2003. It turned out to be the first book of the famous 'Hank Zipzer: The World's Greatest Underachiever' series. In total, he has written 18 Hank Zipzer books, whose protagonist Hank Zipzer is a dyslexic child, studying in fourth grade.
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Apart from writing, Winkler continued to act, appearing in 21 films till 2017; his last film being 'All I Want for Christmas Is You', in which he voiced for the character of Grandpa Bill. In 2016, he appeared as Ed Koch in 'Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal: The Movie'.
Equally active on television, he began 2000s with his roles in the TV series, ‘The Practice’ and ‘Battery Pack’. From 2003 to 2005, he voiced for Norville the Bird in 18 episodes of 'Clifford's Puppy Days’. In 2006, he debuted in pantomime, appearing as Captain Hook in ‘Peter Pan’ at London’s New Wimbledon Theatre.
From 2003 till 2018, Winkler appeared as Barry Zuckerkorn in 30 episodes of ‘Arrested Development’. He starred as Sy Mittleman in 54 episodes of ‘Children’s Hospital’ from 2010 to 2016. ‘LEGO Hero Factory’ and ‘Royal Pains’ are two of his other important TV roles of this period.
From 2014 to 2016, he appeared as Mr. Rock in 25 episodes of ‘Hank Zipzer’, a British production based on his book series of the same name.
He is currently starring in a dark comedy series called, ‘Barry’, in which he plays Gene Cousinea, one of six main characters. Premiered on March 25, 2018 on HBO, the show has completed its first season, and the contract has been renewed for the second.
Hernry Winkler’s stepson Jed also suffered from learning difficulties. After trying hard at home and saying everything that his parents had told him in his childhood, Winkler finally took Jed to the doctor, where the child was diagnosed with dyslexia.
When Jed was diagnosed with dyslexia, Winkler had a light bulb moment, realizing at the age of 31 that he was not stupid, but was dyslexic. Until then, he had not read a single book; but now that he understood his condition, he started reading.
Although his parents were able to make out of Germany just in time, his grandparents could not and perished in the concentration camp. Having a tense relationship with his own parents, Winkler regretted not having grandparents all his life.