'I was called Dumb Dog': Henry Winkler's happy days as The Fonz were blighted by condition undiagnosed for 35 years
By Nikki Murfitt
With his slicked-back hair, blue jeans and leather jacket, actor Henry Winkler turned the character of Arthur 'The Fonz' Fonzarelli into a Seventies icon.
Millions of teenage Happy Days fans watched in envy as he sat astride his gleaming Harley-Davidson and, with just one wink, had girls flocking around him.
But the reality was rather different. The star couldn't actually ride the bike because his co-ordination was so poor – one symptom of dyslexia, a condition that had crippled him since childhood yet remained undiagnosed until he was 35.
Instead, the Harley was mounted on a piece of wood on wheels and pulled along for action scenes.
'It's not just the fact that you can't read or you find studying difficult,' says Henry, now 63.
'There are so many ways dyslexia can affect you. For some, it means you don't always understand what's being said to you. Numbers get transposed, so instead of 13 you read 31.
'One of the effects was being unable to make my brain understand how to co-ordinate the clutch, throttle and brake on a motorcycle. There was just no way I could figure it out, so I never got to ride that cool Harley-Davidson.'
Dyslexia is a neurological problem that manifests itself primarily as a difficulty with written language. Sufferers may also have time management, clumsiness and co-ordination problems.
Experts believe the condition, which is thought to affect ten per cent of the population, according to the British Dyslexia Association, results from differences in how the brain processes language.
It is not an 'intellectual' disability and has been diagnosed in people of all levels of intelligence. Albert Einstein was believed to be a sufferer and could not read until the age of nine.
Famous names from Sir Richard Branson to Eddie Izzard and Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, are diagnosed dyslexics.
While there is no cure, individuals can learn to read and write with specialist education or treatment.
Although it has been 24 years since The Fonz hung up his leather jacket, the star has lost none of his affection for the role that catapulted him to worldwide fame. 'He was my alter ego. He was everything that I wanted to be,' says Henry.
He was diagnosed as dyslexic when he and his wife Stacey took Jed, her son from a previous marriage, to be tested because of a glaring gap between his excellent verbal skills and his poor writing ability.
Recognising Jed's symptoms in himself, Henry chose to take the written and verbal test that is used to diagnose the condition. It was a life-changing discovery for the star, who confesses his childhood was a misery because his parents, Harry and Ilse, believed he wasn't trying hard enough at school.
The condition is often hereditary and Henry's other two children, Zoe and Max, are also dyslexic.
'I always vowed that I'd be a very different parent to my own children and yet before Jed was diagnosed when he was eight, I'd say to him exactly the same thing my father said to me: “You're being lazy, you aren't trying hard enough.”
'Jed was lucky that the school suggested we have him tested for dyslexia. Of course, when our daughter Zoe came along eight years later, and then our son Max three years after that, we knew the signs to look for because we'd read up about it.
'Zoe struggled to read, as did Max. The perceived wisdom at that time was to give dyslexics medication used for attention deficit sufferers, such as Adderall and Dexedrine. It helped both our children concentrate and their grades improved.
'But within a few weeks we were sitting round the dining table wondering what had happened to our kids. Max and Zoe suddenly had no personality. There was no spark, no bubbling enthusiasm, nothing. It had been sucked out of them. We took the decision there and then to stop the medication.
'Throughout my childhood my parents thought I was stupid and lazy and used to call me Dumb Dog. My father spoke 11 languages and knew how to insult me in every one of them. He thought if I sat at my desk long enough I'd eventually get it.
'I spent my school days either in lessons or in summer school catching up on what I hadn't understood in the rest of the academic year – when all my friends were out having fun or going on holidays. My parents were determined to find the punishment that was going to force me to get better grades.
'I wasn't allowed to watch TV, they'd stop me going out with my friends or to the movies, I couldn't go to the school dances. I honestly prayed that I'd come home from school one day to find they'd moved.'
Henry, who lives with Stacey in Los Angeles, admits he is unable to understand how much money he has to pay while shopping, or work out the change he should be given. 'I went into a shop the other day and asked if I could get a discount. They said absolutely. But I've no idea how much they actually took off for me,' he says with a wry smile.
'I could be driving home and even though I was in my street I'd drive right past my house – you don't always have an awareness of your environment. I'd phone my wife to tell her I was on my way home and find myself in another city.'
As a teenager Henry was embarrassed by his inability to read and would go to great lengths to hide it. 'I'd look at a menu, which I couldn't read, then ask what everyone else was having and choose from that. Or if I was out with a girl I'd tell her I loved the way she spoke and get her to read the whole menu to me.
'I got through life by listening very carefully to what people said and learning that way. As I got older I learned to ask for help.
'I've always seen myself as one of those toys that you can punch, it falls down and then bounces right back up again. I was somehow able to work through my sadness and think, “Well, OK, I don't understand something today but I'm going to get it tomorrow.” The trouble was tomorrow never came.'
Henry was determined not only to become an actor – an ambition he'd had since childhood – but to take a degree.
'I applied to 28 universities and received only two offers, one at Emerson College in Boston, which I accepted, to study fine arts.'
He later went on to Yale to take his master's in the same subject.
'I nearly gave up after my first term at college,' he says. 'I hated the work because it just about beat me into submission trying to cope and not being able to read. I wrote a paper by looking at the headings in the index and then writing around them. I could not refer to any books or texts because I couldn't read them.'
Entering a profession that is reliant on reading a script may have seemed foolhardy but Henry coped by asking for his lines early or by improvising.
'I'm lucky that I do have a great memory and for some reason as a dyslexic, when you have to learn a constant stream of things such as that, your ability to understand and take information in can actually improve. But there's a very fine line between that and complete overload and if that happens then your brain just turns to mush.'
Recalling his Fonz days he admits: 'There were times when I'd mess up because I couldn't read the script and I'd use a joke to hide the fact.'
Henry, who is spending Christmas in the UK while starring as Captain Hook in pantomime in Milton Keynes explains: 'Every child has different needs. When Zoe was about 18 I had terrible trouble with her and her credit-card bills. She was always going over her limit. Eventually we realised that it was the dyslexia – she just couldn't get the management side of her life co-ordinated.
'Max, on the other hand, knows what he's doing down to the last penny. There is no easy way around it. You have to write everything down and try to keep track and now and again it goes wrong. It's a constant battle.'
Henry is very proud of their achievements: Zoe, 28 , is a nursery school teacher, Jed, 36, runs his own design company and Max, 25, is forging a career as a film director and producer.
The actor is passionate about using his experiences to highlight the problems of dyslexia. He has written 16 humorous children's books about a ten-year-old sufferer called Hank Zipzer. They have sold more than 22million copies.
'As a parent I felt incredibly guilty that I'd passed on this defect to my children and that I couldn't take the pain of it away,' says Henry.
'But being dyslexic isn't something to be embarrassed about. It doesn't mean that you can't achieve your dreams. It might take longer and be more of a slog but it is possible.'
• Peter Pan is at Milton Keynes Theatre until January 18. See www.milton keynestheatre.com.
Hank Zipzer books are available from bookshops and www.walker.co.uk