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  1999-01-29 - Henry Winkler overcomes dyslexia



Henry Winkler

Actor recalls his 
Happy Days and sad ones

San Diego Jewish Press-Heritage, Jan. 29, 1999

By Donald H. Harrison

San Diego (special) -- Given the facts that 710 San Diego Jewish men paid to hear actor Henry Winkler, that his character's black leather jacket is on permanent display at the Smithsonian, and that he is remembered the world over as "the Fonz," one might be surprised that Winkler says while he was growing up "my self-image was down around my ankles."
He suffered back then from undiagnosed dyslexia and was a poor student in school, he told attendees of United Jewish Federation's annual Men's Event on Tuesday, Jan. 19, at the Hyatt Regency in La Jolla. "I was told that I was stupid; I was lazy, that I was not living up to my potential."

Although he occasionally spoke bitterly about his parents' seeming disapproval, Winkler also paid tribute to the perseverence and faith demonstrated by them and by other members of his family in fleeing nazi Germany just before the Holocaust. 

Before Winkler's father left Germany, "his mother gave him some jewelry and said 'please don't lose this; this is the family. This has been handed down from generation to generation,'" Winkler related. "And he went out and he bought a box of chocolates and he melted the chocolate down and he hardened the chocolate around each piece of  jewelry. He put  the box under his arm, and at 

Actor Henry Winkler is flanked by UJF staff 
members Susan Lapidus, left, and Meg Goldstein
each checkpoint when he was stopped and was asked 'Are you taking anything valuable out of Germany?' he said 'no, check through my bags; I have nothing. We have nothing.' And all the while he had the box of chocolates."

Some of the jewelry had to be sold to pay for the family's lumber business in New York, Winkler said, but "when I was bar mitzvahed, I was given my great-grandfather's watch that came out of Germany encased in chocolate. It was my most wonderful gift and it tied me to people I had never met before and to a life and culture that I had only learned about."

Another relative, perhaps emulating the sage Yohanan Ben Zakkai who lived at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, "came out, secretly, in a coffin," Winkler said,"and at her feet she had a spider plant. ...A cutting of that spider plant was given to all of the family and all of the friends. 

"I grew up in New York with that cutting regenerating itself all over the window sills of our apartment, and then when I moved to California...I took a cutting and started one of my own in my first house in California when I started on Happy Days, " the television series on which he played the character Arthur Fonzarelli, a very cool high school drop out who secretly wanted an

For Winkler, his aunt Anna's spider plant became a symbol "of survival and determination."
"That coffin carried not just one life but in a sense a deathless expression of the life of Judaism itself," Winkler said. "If you will it, is not a dream," he quoted Zionist Theodor Herzl.

Winkler said he learned he had dyslexia when he made a film strip for children with learning disabiliities. "I thought 'this is great, I should help these kids, they like the character, and it is a mitzvah that I should do the film script.' And I read the script and I realized that I am not helping these kids; I am one of these kids."

Winkler both runs from and embraces his identification as "the Fonz." It has been 15 years since the last episode of the television series was filmed, and since then he has produced and appeared in other movies and television shows and would like to be recognized for his more recent work.
Yet, some of the memories of his career as "The Fonz" will never fade for Winkler, particularly those poignant ones illustrating how much good a television actor in a hit series really can do.

In one episode of Happy Days, he recalled, "I said ... 'Look at this, Richie, you can get a library card. They're for free. You can go down there, take a book out. You can meet chicks there.' Registration for library cards in America went up 500 percent..."

Another time, he served as honorary chair of a special arts festival for learning- and physically- challenged students in Los Angeles. "All of a sudden a little girl said 'Fonzi!' I turned around. Her mother is shaking. Her mother is crying. We calmed her mother down. We said, 'what is the matter?' She said, 'you don't understand, my daughter is autistic; she just spoke the first
word in her whole life. She is seven years old.' Unbelievable. The next year, she had added 100 words to her vocabulary and she wanted me to hug her sister because I had hugged her the year before."

And, he recalled, he was about to refuse a request for an autograph from someone in the crowd at President Bill Clinton's inauguration until he realized who was asking. "It was Terry Anderson,"  who had been "one of the hostages in Beirut. He said 'when I was watching you through the bars, while the guards were watching Happy Days, you kept us going.'"