CHICAGO, Aug. 1 — As a kid, Henry Winkler's “suitcase of self" was filled with an alphabet soup of negative sentences and pages of low self-esteem. That began to change, though, when Winkler, the son of German Holocaust survivors, was accepted to Yale's Drama School in 1967. That year, he began writing a new “script."
Eventually, negativity was replaced with the inspirational mantra: “If you will it, it is not a dream," (In Hebrew, Im tirzou, ein zo aggadah. These words, spoken by the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzel, express his fervent belief in the need for a Jewish state).
Like the leather jacket that transformed greaser god, the Fonz, on the ABC sitcom “Happy Days" into an American pop icon, the inspiration contained in Herzl's words spawned Winkler's own transformation. The 7-year-old boy who dreamed of being an actor became the coolest Jew on television. But the road to stardom was littered with struggles.
“You take your suitcase of self wherever you go-your psychology, your humor, your anger. I used to think that if I could just get around that next corner, I'll have it made. Then you realize, once you get around that next corner, that it's you, that nothing has changed," Winkler told a packed banquet hall at the Bryn Mawr Country Club during a JUF Country Club Day event.
During Winkler's 27 years in television and film, he has turned many corners-as an actor, director and producer. That success was built on overcoming a poor self-image, and academic struggles linked to dyslexia, which was never diagnosed.
Winkler took time out of a busy schedule that included wrapping up a nine-month run on Broadway as Albert in Neil Simon's “The Dinner Party" to share Happy Days' memories and thoughts on parenting, children's causes, and contemporary challenges for Jews with club members. His own personal odyssey from academic underachiever to Yale drama grad and TV star is a story all by itself.
On the math section of the SATs, Winkler's score placed him in the bottom 3 percent nationwide. With a numbers-oriented college admissions system, that score didn't exactly add up to success. Meetings with the school headmaster, his parents, and, later, a psychiatrist didn't solve his problem with computation; it was dismissed as “lack of focus," not dyslexia.
After high school, he struggled with geometry for four years and then applied to 24 colleges. He got into two, one of which was Emerson College in Boston, and nearly flunked out his first year.
Senior year was the moment of truth. He was typing a sociology paper when he got the call from Yale Drama School. “I yelled out the window, 'I got into Yale.' I then ran down to the student union and told everyone I saw that I got into Yale. I went back to my apartment and it cost me $54 because I locked myself out."
But the initial excitement turned to semi-panic at orientation that fall. When the dean of students told the class of 1978, “Look to your left, look to your right, one of you won't be here next year," Winkler was sure the dean was talking about him. “I went home and packed," he said.
But Winkler made it. He was one of three graduates asked to join the Yale Repertory Theatre. While most company members had aspirations to work on Broadway, Winkler pursued his dream of the big screen. Toothpaste commercials generated enough income for a one-month stay in California. On his birthday, Oct. 30, in 1973, he got another call that would change his life and ours. He was offered the role of Arthur Fonzarelli on “Happy Days."
During the 10 years he played the Fonz, he averaged about 50,000 pieces of fan mail a week. The other perk was hundreds of Hebrew schools planted trees in Israel on behalf of their favorite TV character. “By now, I must have a forest somewhere," he quips.
Winkler credits faith in Judaism with providing the strength and determination to pursue his dreams-even in the face of parental disapproval. His father, who owner a lumber business, saw mills in his future; he saw a world of acting. Despite the pain and abandonment he experienced as a result of his decision, he has nothing but admiration for his parents. “They were not just tenacious, not just survivors. There was another side to them," he said. “I learned that by listening to their stories."
His father smuggled the family jewels hidden in chocolate out of Germany in 1939. “He bought a box of chocolates, melted the chocolate around each piece and put them back in the box," he said. With the family heirlooms secured in a box under his arm, he passed checkpoint after checkpoint declaring that he was not carrying any valuables.
On Winkler's bar mitzvah day in October 1958, he received a watch that once belonged to his great-grandfather, which his father had transported out of Nazi Germany, encased in chocolate. “[That gift] allowed me to become close to people I never met and a time I never knew."
Since “Happy Days" went off the air in 1984 and into syndication, Winkler has been busy directing and producing films. He directed the comedy “Memories of Me," with Billy Crystal in the lead role, and a two-part PBS series about kids coping with their parents' divorce.
Of his diverse film roles, Winkler says, “They're like children. I can't have favorites." He recently starred as a dysfunctional football coach opposite Adam Sandler in the comedy, “The Waterboy" and appeared on an episode of the ABC drama “The Practice."
But parenting wins hands-down as the hardest role Winkler has ever had to play. He and his wife, Stacy, whom he refers to affectionately as a “powerful redhead," have raised Jed, 30, Stacy's son by a previous marriage, Zoe Emily, 20, and Max, 18.
“You have to be a life guide, teacher, student, historian, chef, Darth Vader, a psychologist, and a bank," he joked. “But it does keep you young and on your toes.” JTA END