Henry Winkler is a multifaceted American performer renowned for his talents in acting, comedy, writing, producing, and directing. He was Born on October 30, 1945.
He gained fame as “Fonzie” in the T.V. series Happy Days and has established himself as a character actor on both stage and screen.
Winkler has received numerous awards, including two Golden Globe Awards, three Emmy Awards, and two Critics Choice Awards.
Henry Winkler’s educational path took him through theater studies at Emerson College and the Yale School of Drama.
He further refined his craft through experience at the Yale Repertory Theater, ultimately kickstarting his career with a modest role on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Winkler’s breakthrough came with his iconic portrayal of “Fonzie” on Happy Days. He also contributed to developing the A.B.C. series MacGyver and directed films like Cop and a Half (1993) and Memories of Me (1988).
Winkler’s filmography includes roles in Heroes (1977), Night Shift (1982), The Waterboy (1998), Scream (1996), The French Dispatch (2021), Holes (2003) and Black Adam (2022).
He enjoyed a television comeback with humorous characters in Arrested Development, Royal Pains, Barry, and Parks and Recreation, for which he won a Primetime Emmy Award.
He was a part of the main cast in the reality series Better Late Than Never (2016–2018). Drawing from his struggles with dyslexia, Winkler co-wrote the Hank Zipzer children’s book series, adapted into a B.B.C. series.
Additionally, he penned three memoirs: Being Henry: The Fonz . and I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River (2011), Beyond (2023), and The Other Side of Henry Winkler: My Story (1976).
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Henry Winkler’s Family History
Winkler’s parents were German Jews in Nazi Germany. In 1939, his father took his wife on a business trip to the United States. Uncle Helmut was supposed to join but was delayed and later died in the Holocaust.
Winkler’s father didn’t reveal their permanent departure to his mother to ensure her safety. They settled in New York City, where his father reestablished his company, dealing in wood.
Henry Winkler’s Early Life and Education
Henry Franklin Winkler was born in Manhattan on October 30, 1945. His middle name pays tribute to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the “H” in his first name is for Uncle Helmut.
He has an older sister, Beatrice, and is related to actor Richard Belzer. Winkler’s upbringing was rooted in Conservative Judaism, even though his family didn’t strictly follow kosher rules.
During summers, the family spent time at Lake Mahopac, New York, and as a teenager, Winkler taught water skiing at Blue Mountain camps. Winkler’s father wanted him to join the family wood business, but Henry’s heart was set on Hollywood.
He’d respond to his father’s frustrations by noting that escaping the Nazis was a pretty good reason for their move to the United States.
Henry Winkler’s Difficulties in School
Henry Winkler began his education at P.S. 87 and later attended the McBurney School in Manhattan. Despite being outgoing and the class comedian, he struggled with schoolwork and lived in constant anxiety.
His parents, demanding excellence, were frustrated with his poor grades, often punishing him. This time was excruciating for Winkler, affecting his self-esteem.
He couldn’t retain words despite complex study and spelled them perfectly at home but forgot them during tests. His poor academics made it hard to participate in theater, and he was grounded for most of his high school years.
He appeared in two theatrical productions in the eighth and eleventh grades. Although he graduated in 1963, he missed his graduation due to failing geometry several times and received his diploma by mail after passing the course.
Henry Winkler in Emerson College
Winkler applied to 28 colleges but got into only two, including Emerson College in Boston. He pursued a major in theater with a minor in child psychology as a fallback option.
Winkler was also part of the Alpha Pi Theta fraternity and took on the lead role in Emerson’s rendition of Peer Gynt. Despite struggling initially, he managed to graduate in 1967.
In 1978, Emerson College honored him with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters (DHL) degree.
Henry Winkler in Yale School of Drama
In his senior year at Emerson, Winkler auditioned for the Yale School of Drama. Despite his undiagnosed dyslexia causing a hiccup during his audition, he was admitted to the M.F.A. program in 1967.
At Yale, he appeared in several productions, including They Told Me That You Came This Way, Any Day Now, The Bacchae, and more.
During summers, he and his Yale peers ran the New Haven Free Theater. Winkler credited his time at Yale as pivotal to his future success, using various techniques he learned in his acting career.
Out of his original group of 25 actors at Yale, he was one of the 11 who graduated with an M.F.A. in 1970. In 1996, he returned to Yale as the Senior Class Day Speaker for graduating seniors.
Henry Winkler’s Early Career
Upon finishing his M.F.A. in 1970, Henry Winkler was invited to join the Yale Repertory Theatre company, making him one of just three students chosen from his class of 11. He performed in various productions throughout the 1970-71 season.
In the fall of 1971, he was cast in the play Moonchildren but was fired three weeks into rehearsals. This setback made him doubt his acting career, and he returned to New York to audition for various roles, including plays, movies, and commercials.
Henry Winkler’s ability to secure commercial roles allowed him to support himself without waiting tables. He also performed with the Manhattan Theater Club.
His Broadway debut was in the play “42 Seconds from Broadway” in 1973, but it had a short run. Despite his anxiety with cold readings during auditions, he used improvisation to secure roles.
In 1973, his agent urged him to explore opportunities in California despite Winkler’s initial reluctance. He decided to give Hollywood a one-month try after earning enough money from commercials. He and co-star Perry King traveled to Los Angeles on September 18, 1973. After a few auditions, Winkler secured a small part on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in Season 4, Episode 10, titled “The Dinner Party.”
Happy Days and Stardom
In his second week in Los Angeles, Winkler tried out for the character “Fonzie” in the T.V. series Happy Days. Although he was an unknown actor and not the first choice for the role, he was asked to return for a second audition in costume.
In character with a new voice, Winkler delivered his lines and left the room, leading to his offer for the role on his birthday. He joined the show in January 1974 and remained with it until it ended in July 1984.
Originally, “The Fonz” was intended as a minor character, but Winkler added his unique interpretation to the role. He made a personal deal never to comb his hair, chew gum, or keep cigarettes in his sleeve, which became defining aspects of the character.
The leather jacket was also a point of contention with network executives, who eventually allowed it to be worn only in scenes with his motorcycle.
By the middle of the second season, “The Fonz” began to emerge as a breakout character, and by the third season, he became the lead of the series.
Ron Howard, who portrayed Richie, was supportive of this shift. Winkler’s portrayal of “The Fonz” turned him into a T.V. icon, but he acknowledged that the character differed from his personality.
In his words, “The Fonz” was his alter ego, embodying qualities he aspired to have, such as confidence and leadership, distinct from his authentic self.
Henry Winkler’s Dyslexia
While working on Happy Days, Winkler discovered he had dyslexia when his stepson Jed received the same diagnosis.
Previously, he struggled with reading and memorization without understanding why. To compensate, he developed coping strategies, like memorizing scripts as quickly as possible before acting.
However, these techniques couldn’t help him during Monday morning table reads on Happy Days. Before his dyslexia diagnosis, he frequently stumbled over lines, which could be frustrating for the cast and crew.
During his time on the show, Winkler also took on various film and television roles. In film, he appeared in Heroes (1977), The One and Only (1978), and Night Shift (1982), earning Golden Globe nominations for his performances.
On the small screen, he took on the roles of executive producer and host for the documentary Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids?” (1978) and “Who Are the DeBolts? And earning the documentary a Primetime Emmy Award nomination.
He also produced the A.B.C. Afterschool Special “Run, Don’t Walk” (1981) and directed an episode of the Happy Days spin-off, Joanie Loves Chachi.
Additionally, he starred in An American Christmas Carol (1979) and co-hosted the Music for UNICEF Concert (1979). He made a special appearance as “Fonzie” on Sesame Street to promote the letter “A.”
Post Happy Days
After the conclusion of Happy Days in 1984, Winkler struggled with typecasting and found it challenging to secure acting roles until 1991. People recognized him primarily as “The Fonz,” making it difficult for him to break away from that character.
During this period, he faced uncertainty and frustration, but he approached life with tenacity and gratitude, determined to keep moving forward.
To create opportunities, he established Fair Dinkum Productions, a production company, and affiliated projects in the late 1970s, inspired by the Australian phrase “fair dinkum,” connoting directness, honesty, and authenticity.
He partnered with Paramount Pictures in setting up the company and inked a feature film and development agreement in 1987.
In 1984, Winkler assumed the role of director and executive producer for the C.B.S. Schoolbreak Special titled “All the Kids Do It.”
This production earned a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Special and was nominated for Outstanding Directing in Children’s Programming in 1985.
He directed television sitcom episodes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His directorial debut in theatrical releases came with “Memories of Me” (1988), starring Billy Crystal, and he directed “Cop and a Half” (1993), produced by Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment and starring Burt Reynolds.
Winkler executive produced “The Sure Thing” (1985) and was also an executive producer for the original MacGyver T.V. series, which won the Genesis Award for Best T.V. Drama in 1991, and “Dead Man’s Gun,” which received the Bronze Wrangler in 1998.
He held executive production roles in several series like “Sightings” and “So Weird.” In 2002, he collaborated with Michael Levitt to refresh “The Hollywood Squares” for its fifth season, leading to a Daytime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Game Show in 2003.
Henry Winkler in Acting roles
In the early 1990s, Winkler returned to acting. He starred in the 1991 T.V. film “Absolute Strangers” and the short-lived 1994 series “Monty” with David Schwimmer.
He also appeared in the 1994 T.V. film “One Christmas” alongside Katharine Hepburn in her final role and Swoosie Kurtz. In 1996, he was uncredited in Wes Craven’s film “Scream” as high school principal Arthur Himbry.
The producers were initially concerned about his association with The Fonz but later asked him to promote the film due to a positive audience response.
In 2000, Winkler secured a Primetime Emmy nomination as Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his portrayal of Dr. Henry Olson in three episodes of “The Practice.” He also portrayed Stanley Yelnats III in “Holes” (2003).
Henry Winkler’s work with Adam Sandler
In the 1990s, Winkler began collaborating with Adam Sandler after Sandler featured Fonzie in his Saturday Night Live skit, “The Chanukah Song” (1994). Touched by this gesture, Winkler thanked Sandler, and their interaction blossomed into a friendship.
This friendship led to Winkler playing the role of Coach Klein in Sandler’s 1998 film “The Waterboy” and portraying Sandler’s father in “Click” (2006).
He also made cameo appearances in other Sandler films, including “Little Nicky” (2000), “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan” (2008), and “Sandy Wexler” (2017).
Henry Winkler’s work with John Ritter
Winkler had a close working relationship with his longtime friend, actor John Ritter. They first met in 1978 at A.B.C.’s 25th-anniversary party, where Winkler was on “Happy Days,” Ritter portrayed Jack Tripper in “Three’s Company.”
Their collaborations included Winkler directing Ritter in the 1986 T.V. movie “A Smoky Mountain Christmas” with Dolly Parton and co-starring in the made-for-TV movie “The Only Way Out” in 1993.
In 1999, Neil Simon invited Winkler to a theatrical production, marking his return to the theater since 1973. Initially nervous about cold readings, Winkler asked for the script in advance to prepare and successfully participated in the reading.
Their collaboration continued with a stage version of the play “The Dinner Party,” which received positive reviews on Broadway.
In 2003, Winkler was set to make a guest appearance on Ritter’s show, “8 Simple Rules (for Dating My Teenage Daughter),” but tragically, during filming, Ritter fell ill, was rushed to the hospital, and passed away, resulting in the episode remaining incomplete and Winkler’s role being dropped.
In 2003, Mitch Hurwitz initially wanted Winkler to portray the inept lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn for one episode of “Arrested Development.”
However, Winkler’s stint extended to five years, and he returned for later seasons in 2013 and 2018. For his role as Barry Zuckerkorn, Winkler won a Gold Derby Award for Comedy Guest Actor in 2004.
In 2014, he received a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series as part of the cast.
“Arrested Development” is known for its “inside jokes.” In the 2013 reboot, Winkler’s son Max played “young Barry Zuckerkorn” in flashbacks in three episodes.
The show also featured references to “Happy Days.” For instance, Winkler’s character, Barry, mimics the iconic “no comb necessary” Fonzie pose in Season One, Episode 17.
Scott Baio’s introduction as a new lawyer, Bob Loblaw, in Season Three, Episode Three, included a playful nod to “Happy Days,” where he was brought in as Chachi to be a new teen idol, as Winkler’s character aged.
There were also references to Fonzie’s famous water-skiing stunt, known as “jumping the shark,” inspired by Winkler’s experiences as a teenage water skiing instructor.
Henry Winkler’s Books
Henry Winkler’s journey as an author commenced with the Hank Zipzer series, a collection of children’s books co-authored with Lin Oliver.
These books follow the escapades of a dyslexic child, emphasizing the message that academic challenges don’t correlate with intelligence.
In the early 2000s, during a lull in his acting career, Winkler’s manager, Alan Berger, suggested writing children’s books based on Winkler’s childhood struggles before his dyslexia diagnosis.
Initially skeptical and considered “insane,” Winkler eventually warmed to the concept when Berger proposed a co-writing arrangement with an experienced author.
Winkler was introduced to Lin Oliver, and their partnership was forged over a lunch meeting. Winkler’s recollections of his challenging childhood experiences resonated with Oliver, who saw in him an articulate and accomplished individual who had endured childhood hardships due to school difficulties.
Together, they created the character of Hank Zipzer: intelligent, funny, resourceful, popular, yet grappling with academic challenges.
This collaboration created the 17-volume Hank Zipzer series, published from 2003 to 2010. Drawing from their shared television background, Winkler and Oliver’s creative process involved brainstorming ideas and working through them collaboratively in person.
Winkler’s vocal exploration of ideas was complemented by Oliver’s writing skills, leading to robust debates over every word, often accompanied by humorous breaks for refreshments.
After completing the initial series, Winkler and Oliver embarked on the prequel series, “Here’s Hank” (2014-2019), delving into Hank’s life as a second-grader before his dyslexia diagnosis.
Notably, the “Here’s Hank” series introduced the “dyslexia” font, marking the first instance of this font being used in a book published in the United States.
Henry Winkler’s Television Series
Winkler and Oliver proceeded to create a television adaptation, also titled “Hank Zipzer,” which aired for three seasons from 2014 to 2016.
Interestingly, they encountered difficulties selling the show and books in the United States. Despite being recognized for its humor, it initially found its home on the children’s B.B.C. Channel (CBBC).
Following its success on the B.B.C., the series was later broadcast on the Universal Kids Channel in the United States.
In the T.V. adaptation, Nick James portrayed Hank, while Winkler took on the role of Mr. Rock, Hank’s music teacher, inspired by one of Winkler’s teachers at McBurney.
Winkler fondly remembers this teacher who believed in him during high school, telling him he would achieve greatness.
The collaboration also included creating a standalone television film 2016 titled “Hank Zipzer’s Christmas Catastrophe.” Nick James received the British Academy Children’s Award for Performer in 2016 for portraying Hank Zipzer.
Filmography and Accolades
Winkler reflects on his career, emphasizing that he has had the privilege of collaborating with five directing maestros throughout his life: Garry Marshall (during Happy Days), Adam Sandler, Mitch Hurwitz (for Arrested Development), Bill Hader and Alec Berg (in Barry).
His transition from portraying Fonzie on Happy Days led him to embrace character roles, with notable performances such as the high school principal Arthur Himbry in Scream, Barry Zuckerkorn in Arrested Development, Coach Klein in The Waterboy, Sy Mittleman in Children’s Hospital.
As well as Mr. Rock in the Hank Zipzer B.B.C. series, Dr. Saperstein in Parks and Recreation, Eddie R. Lawson in Royal Pains, Uncle Joe in The French Dispatch, Fritz in Monsters at Work, Al Pratt in Black Adam, and Gene Cousineau in Barry.
Winkler has also garnered accolades, including a Primetime Emmy, two Critics Choice Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, and two Daytime Emmys.
Henry Winkler’s Personal Life
Winkler and Stacey (formerly Weitzman; née Furstman) crossed paths in a Los Angeles clothing store in 1976 and tied the knot in 1978 at the same synagogue where he celebrated his bar mitzvah.
They are blessed with two children, Max and Zoe. Additionally, Jed Weitzman, Stacey’s son from her previous marriage to Howard Weitzman, is Winkler’s stepson.
In 2018, Winkler revisited Berlin, nearly 80 years after his parents had left Germany. This visit was documented in an episode titled “Berlin: How Do You Say Roots in German?” on Better Late Than Never. There, he shared his family’s story.
Winkler maintains a close bond with his former Happy Days cast members. In November 2021, he expressed his affection for them during an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, saying, “I loved the people.
My enduring friendships remain intact. Tomorrow, I have plans to take Marion Ross to lunch to celebrate her 93rd birthday.
Ron Howard feels like a younger brother to me, and I maintain a close connection with my fellow cast members, Anson Williams and Donny Most, as we continue to engage in frequent conversations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Winkler utilized Zoom to support social justice causes.
He participated in a video shared by the Office of the Governor of California on May 7, 2020, where he encouraged Californians to practice physical distancing and adhere to stay-at-home orders.
Winkler supported SAG-AFTRA artists and their families by arranging a virtual table read of “The Motorcycle” episode from Season 3 of Happy Days (1975).
He returned to his iconic role as “Fonzie,” and fellow S.A.G. members, including Glenn Close, Aldis Hodge, John Carroll Lynch, Jamie Chung, Eli Goree, Luke Newton, and Nicola Coughlan, assumed other character roles in the episode.
Henry Winkler’s Additional books and legacy
In his 2011 memoir, “I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River,” Winkler delves into his passion for fly fishing. The following year, he collaborated with his writing partner Lin Oliver to create the Ghost Buddy book series (2012–2013), which revolves around the friendship between the protagonist Billy and his “ghost buddy.”
A few years later, they embarked on writing the science fiction trilogy known as Alien Superstar (2019–2021). The adventures of the Alien Superstar’s protagonist loosely draw inspiration from Winkler’s journey after he arrives in Los Angeles.
He recalled, “I left New York on September 18, 1973, having just completed The Lords of Flatbush. With a mere thousand dollars in my pocket, I ventured to Hollywood, uncertain of my stay.
Incredibly, during the first week, I landed a minor part on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Initially, it was written for just four lines, but I expanded it to eight with my ad-lib.
In the second week, I auditioned for ‘The Fonz”. In October 2023, Winkler released a new memoir titled “Being Henry: The Fonz…and Beyond”.
Simultaneously, in 2023, he and Lin Oliver introduced a fresh series of children’s books titled “Detective Duck.”