Known to the world as “The Fonz,” the character he played for a decade on TV’s “Happy Days,” Henry Winkler fulfilled a childhood dream by becoming an actor. He won two Golden Globe Awards, received three Emmy nominations and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Fonzie’s leather jacket hangs in the Smithsonian.
But Winkler wasn’t in it just for the glory. As a child growing up in New York City, he found schoolwork so difficult, he couldn’t imagine being able to do anything but act.
Today, not only is Winkler, 69, a successful actor, director, producer and author, he’s also a humanitarian who has won numerous awards for his work with charitable organizations, particularly those that help children. It’s in this role that he’ll be coming to Tucson on April 14, where he’ll share his story at Jewish Family & Children’s Services’ 2015 Celebration of Caring dinner at the Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa.
“My learning challenges made it so difficult to negotiate my growing up,” Winkler told the AJP in a phone interview, “I had this innate burning to see if I could make another child’s journey easier.”
Since becoming a star, he’s helped found the Children’s Action Network and worked with United Friends of the Children, the Cerebral Palsy Telethon, Toys for Tots, the Special Olympics and other organizations. He’s always been good at working with kids, he says, explaining that as a high school student in Manhattan, he worked part-time at the Yorkville Youth Center, and his favorite summer job during college was as a camp counselor at Blue Mountain Camps in East Stroudsburg, Pa.
Winkler received his B.A. from Emerson College in Boston (which awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 1978) and an M.A. from the Yale School of Drama. It wasn’t until he was 31 and his stepson was tested for learning disabilities that Winkler was diagnosed with dyslexia.
In 2003, he began a series of children’s novels with a writing partner, Lin Oliver, titled “Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever,” inspired by his own struggles. The books have been bestsellers, spawning a second bestselling series that features Hank at a younger age, “Here’s Hank,” as well as a BBC TV series that’s a hit in Great Britain and beyond, including South America, Spain, Germany and Italy. In the series, Winkler plays one of his teachers, Mr. Rock, who spoke one sentence to him: “Winkler, if you ever get out of high school, you’re going to be great.” The TV series couldn’t be made in the United States, where Winkler was told, “We love these books, they are so inventive … could you make Hank a little less dyslexic?”
In 2011, Queen Elizabeth II awarded Winkler an Honorary Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his service to children with special education needs. He’s received a United Nations Peace Prize and the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Artes et Lettres, the French government’s highest honor. He’s been honored by B’nai B’rith, and he and his wife, Stacey, won Women in Film’s Norma Zarkey Humanitarian Award for their devotion to “improvement of the human condition.”
Whether he’s speaking to kids or adults, Winkler’s message is the same: “All things are possible.” He tells audiences worldwide that he’s an actor, writer, director and producer, a husband and father, “and I’m in the bottom three percent academically in America.”
“Math was hard, English was hard, history was hard. I was great at going home,” he jokes when he talks to school groups. “And those kids sit up like I pulled a lever.” Then he tells them that no matter how difficult school may be for them, “it has nothing to do with how brilliant you really are. And you will meet your destiny and you will fly like an eagle. And you will never use geometry again.”
Adults also respond to his message, saying, “I can’t believe it, you’re me,” or telling him of a loved one who has struggled to learn. “And it opens up such a lively discussion” in the Q&A sessions after his talks. “It’s just a very emotional moment for people,” he says, “to know that they’re not alone and that all things are possible.”
Winkler’s parents, Ilse and Harry Winkler, were German Jews who survived the Holocaust, emigrating in 1939. The actor says he’s never really thought about whether his impulse to help others is connected to his upbringing. “Maybe it’s in the DNA, maybe it’s just the way you’re taught in Hebrew school. Maybe it is what you see in your home, that there is a bigger world out there that needs what you know,” he conjectures.
In honor of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Holocaust survivors from our community have been invited to the Celebration of Caring event as guests of JFCS, says Michael Blimes, vice president for philanthropy, marketing and communications. The centerpieces will feature copies of a new book, “To Tell Our Stories: Holocaust Survivors of Southern Arizona,” compiled by JFCS.
The event will be held Tuesday, April 14 at the Westin La Paloma, 3800 E. Sunrise Drive. A VIP reception will begin at 5:30 p.m. The general reception and registration will begin at 6 p.m., with dinner at 7 p.m. Tickets for the VIP reception are $125. Tickets for the dinner are also $125. For tickets and sponsorship information, go to jfcstucson.org or call Patty Varela at 795-0300 ext. 2238.