When Henry Winkler returns to HBO on Sunday as the acting teacher Gene Cousineau in the dark comedy series Barry, he will have his dyslexia to thank.
Well, maybe not directly. But the actor, now 73, sees his lifelong learning challenge as something that’s inspired him to achieve so much.
“I might be successful because I am dyslexic,” Winkler says. “If I was not dyslexic, and I did not have to fight all the time to figure out another way to do [things], I might not be sitting [here today].”
Growing up, adults often thought that he was “stupid,” he recalls. “When you have a learning challenge, you don’t know why you can’t figure it out,” he says. “Education was so important to my parents. When I didn’t do well, I was an embarrassment to them.”
He stresses that learning challenges, whether dyslexia or something else, present themselves differently for everyone. “Sometimes when I read, I fall asleep within four minutes,” he says. “Math, you literally cannot compute. Spelling, cannot sound the word out.”
When it came to pursuing a career in acting, Winkler faced constant hurdles. “I learned through my ears. I would read the script out loud over and over again. I was embarrassed a lot, because I could not read and act at the same time, so I just improvised.”
That’s exactly what he did for his audition at Yale, when found himself “rewriting Shakespeare,” and just kind of making it up as he went along. “Somehow, I got in,” he says. “When you want something badly enough, you figure out how to negotiate your own challenge to make it work.”
Winkler soon went to New York and did commercials, saving just enough money to head to California for a month. Within two weeks, he got his first big break, in an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “Two weeks after, that I auditioned for Happy Days,” which of course he got, with the role that would make him an icon: the Fonz.
“For the next 10 years…my job was to be confident. As the Fonz, I was everybody I dreamt of being but wasn’t,” he says of the super-cool, leather-jacket wearing 1950s greaser. Now, with his role on Barry, he says, “I am getting to be the actor I dreamt of being when I was 27, when I got the Fonz.”
Winkler would not find out until age 31 that his learning issue actually had a name: dyslexia. “It made me angry,” he admits. “All that humiliation was for nothing.”
Years later, he was able to turn that simmering anger into power for other children who struggled with similar issues, by penning a book series for children, about a character named Hank Zipzer, with his writing partner Lin Oliver. He says he began hearing right away from children who wondered how he understood them so well.
“I just know, at 73, what it is to be that 8-year-old who struggled to figure it out,” he says.
“Outside of my family, I am the proudest of those books, bar none, no matter what else I have accomplished,” he says. “And I’ve had a pretty unbelievable life, that I was told I’d never have.”
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