Front Row Q&A: Henry Winkler
The once-and-future Arthur "Fonz" Fonzarelli brings new hope for upper limb spasticity sufferers to Southbury.
Nearly 30 years after completing his epic “Happy Days” run, in which he played—in case you actually need a reminder—Arthur “the Fonz” Fonzarelli, Henry Winkler is still cool. Cool enough to openly discuss his lifelong struggle with dyslexia (and almost as lengthy a battle with self-deprecation), cool enough to engage in a side discussion about Freudian theory during an interview meant to be about something else entirely—and warm enough to think of that interview as a “chat,” even at 7:30 a.m. A tireless public speaker, Winkler, 66, comes to Southbury’s Crowne Plaza Hotel on May 24 to give the keynote address at Today’s Caregiver magazine’s 116th Fearless Caregiver Conference. For the last two years he’s served as ambassador for the “Open Arms: Raising Awareness of Upper Limb Spasticity” educational campaign (OpenArmsCampaign.com). For info on the Fearless Caregiver Conference in Southbury, call (877) 829-2734 or visit FearlessCaregiver.com.
How are you this morning?
I'm unbelievable. I feel great. Where am I calling you?
I live in New Haven.
New Haven! New Haven is very important to me. I got my MFA at Yale. I lived in East Haven at the time, on the beach, which made me very happy. The only thing is, there are summer homes and the walls are a little separated, so when the wind blew, it knocks you out of bed. But, one of the best pizzas in America is right there at Pepe's.
Don't forget Sally's too . . .
I've never been inside Sally's; I've only been in Pepe's. I tweet about Pepe's; I tell people to visit Pepe's—I dream about Pepe's.
Do you still have any connections to the New Haven community?
I visit the drama school once in a while. If I'm ever there, it's one of my pleasures to talk to the students. I mourn the loss of the Yankee Doodle. And I'm grateful to the Yale Coop.
You attended Yale at a very tumultuous time—the era of the Black Panther trial.
It was indeed. But what I found was, it was very interesting to objectively watch the revolution. There were people who were really committed, who printed newspapers that no one read. I watched this young man across the street at Branford College: I swear to you, it was like a Life magazine documentary. The kid stood across the street in the fall wearing J Press. After Christmas break, he was in J Press above the waist and revolutionary clothes at the bottom. And by the spring, the kid was completely dressed in Army-Navy. It was amazing to watch the transformation.
What do you remember about the School of Drama?
I'm a true believer in training. I had 13 teachers and I learned to grow up as an actor. Five years later, I applied one of the most important lessons—it took five years of gestation in my body to finally be able to live it—which was, relaxation is concentration. Relaxation is the key to allowing your mind and body to create another human being. And I was so filled with tumult and worry that it took me a long time to taste that. I didn't realize it at the time, but, for example, I rehearsed a play one afternoon: 25 started, 11 finished, three were asked into the professional company—and I was one of the three. And I had been told that I'd never achieve. So that was already amazing.
That's what my speech is about, mostly, especially when I talk to students all over the world. That you have no idea of the power that's inside you. And how you learn has nothing to do with how brilliant you are.
It's kind of like the Eleanor Roosevelt line, "Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission."
Oh wow—I've never heard that! What a great . . . and oh my God, it takes so long to learn it! Oh my God. The courage it takes to admit it or just divest yourself of that terrible feeling. Oh my God.
I went to graduate school too . . .
. . . Human development and family studies, at Penn State. And I remember what the students always used to talk about was, that feeling you carry, that "eventually, they're going to find out I'm not so special" . . .
It's unbelievable! Is it just in the DNA of human beings, or is it trained?
Well, I think you can certainly be beaten down by experience . . .
That's for sure.
. . . but I think the tendency to doubt ourselves is just ingrained in us.
Why? What does it serve? Once you put a period on the end of a negative thought, it grows into a thesis of negativity, and it serves no nutritional purpose in your life. But I'm now 66, and I cannot tell you how long it took me to really understand that, and be able to live it a little bit.
It's easier to believe the negative stuff about yourself at times.
Yeah! Do you think it was sent from the cosmos to help us keep our equilibrium? But then—that's not true.
Well, Freud talked about all that—the superego and the ego; the superego is the thing that slaps you down, and the ego is the thing that keeps the balance . . .
But I mean, why was that put there? For a monitor on human beings? Or a governor of some sort?
I guess we put it on each other. You know, when a baby is born, it's a bundle of screaming id, until the parents establish rules . . .
I guess that's true. So, each society puts it on in a different degree?
Right. And as you grow, the ego develops as a balancing point to help you negotiate between the two extremes.
But I don't understand why we need the extremes, or how they help you to negotiate living on the planet, which is already impossible to negotiate. That's my thought today.
Most of us are out of balance in some way. Not to go too far with this, but all animals have their own method of negotiation . . .
I see it in my dogs. I see them talk to each other. My labrador, who grew into a Great Dane, didn't get the message of balancing wants and limits. The labradoodle was the alpha dog, until the Great Dane became so big and said one day, "You better remember who's in charge." That was five years ago, and she still gives him a wide berth.
Let me ask you about the reason you're coming to Southbury in May—the Fearless Caregiver Conference, for which you are the keynote speaker.
Two years ago, I was asked to be the voice for this therapeutic use of botox. That is something that's amazing because they use it for upper limb spasticity; I've seen the results. The organization had come to me and asked, "Did you ever have any relationship to stroke? And if you did, would you consider being our spokesperson?" My mother had a stroke, but too early to benefit from this intervention. No matter what you do—and it goes back exactly to what we were talking about—if somebody starts on a spiral where they are letting joy or hope drip out of their body, there's very little you can do to bring it back.
And I'm amazed personally, because the doctors figure out where, what muscles, how much, what the proper dilution is. They know all this stuff, and then people who have had limbs in an uncomfortable, painful, unsightly position—frozen—they don't get use of the limb back, but a lot of times the limb goes back to where it should be. The secondary muscles are relaxed. And the caregiver's job is made much easier, because they can now help that person get dressed.
How are people receiving this news about botox?
People's receptivity is 100 percent when they hear this option exists. Honest to God—it is amazing. And the doctors I meet across the nation when I speak with a doctor? Because I can't answer all those questions, I only answer the emotional questions. The doctors are fantastic, because most of them are heads of stroke centers, or they have dealt with their stroke patients. And of course, there is head injury, cerebral palsy, spine injury, heart disease—it just goes on and on with all the different organizations that have jumped on board. Because they all see results. My role is, I just point people to the place where they can get more information and say, "Go and enjoy."
And the doctors work in teams in these cases, right?
Right. There's also a physical therapist, or a podiatrist . . . I don't think that's the right word.
You mean, physiatrist?
Right. May I just say, it's taken me two years to pronounce that word correctly. I'm so dyslexic. I almost never say that word.
Well, there are so many different specialties now, it's hard to keep up.
Yeah . . . I wish that were the truth. It's just my brain.
That's amazing that there's no resistance to botox, because in cosmetics, we think of it as the stuff that freezes muscles . . .
There's no resistance, because you know what happens? At a meeting or a get together of doctors and patients, it becomes—I swear to you—like a revival meeting. Patients testify to its success in their lives. It's so moving, it's an honor to be in that room. Doctors worked on this for seven years before I even got to it. Down in Winston-Salem, there's a Dr. Allison Brashear—a woman who's the head of stroke response—wow! she might be my hero. She was the first doctor that I was paired with, and she knows everything there is to know about everything.
You've done a lot of public outreach on behalf of important causes.
Well, you know, I have a really good time. I'm not kidding, I really do. The hardest job for me in my whole life is when I finish this interview with you, I'm going to read the second novel of our second series on CD, Ghost Buddy. It is truly one of the most difficult hings for me to do, to read a page out loud.
So this is not the Hank Zipzer series . . .
No . . . that was the first series. There are 17 Hank Zipzer novels, and they are about my life as a dyslexic. Through Scholastic, we started a brand new series that just came out in January, about two beings who would never be friends in real life, who need each other. One is, of course, a kid—Billy Broccoli—who moves into a brand-new house and finds an irresponsible ghost in his closet, who's two years older than Billy and died 99 years ago. They both have to help each other. One needs to get out of the closet; he can't leave the boundaries of the original property—and Billy needs to meet his potential. He's a little socially awkward after having moved to a new school, and needs to make friends, so the ghost helps him and he helps the ghost. And it's also based in bullying.
If I were to ask you what you think of the phenomemon of bullying in schools . . .
I think bullying has always been there; I know what it's like because I was a bad student in a private school for boys. Grades and where you were going to college were all part of the expectation. If you didn't pass muster, you were made fun of and you were an outcast. And so, I know what that feels like.
I went through some of that too, but of late, it's appalling how deadly it's become.
Yes, because it's so anonymous. What I say to any kid who will listen is that it's as easy to look at someone else and say, "Oh yeah, that kid's got a problem, I can deal with that" as it is to slice them open like a razor blade with your words, and leave them bleeding while you walk away to a sports program, or lunch, or your next class. Compassion is a tough thing to learn.
You just received an honorary OBE, correct? For your work with dyslexic kids in Britain?
Yes, I did. It was for my work with students in general, for going around and touring the U.K. I've traveled from Ireland to the tip of England talking to children, 500 to 600 kids at a time. I ask in the beginning, "Is anyone having trouble in school?" Three hands go up. By the time I'm done telling my story, 600 kids raise their hands because they all want to be dyslexic. It's phenomenal: We're all the same.
It's getting people to share and understand, it's not bad. I'm in the bottom three percent academically in America.
And now, as the academic world gets ever more competitive . . .
The idea is that we really don't do much, because kids don't vote. Think about it. But really, no matter how competitive the world gets, we are still dropping in math, and science, and reading—test scores are cheated. We don't actually just change our point of view and go, "You know what—you're important, and we're going to make you the best you can be the way you can do it." Everybody learns their own way.
The problem with that, for teachers anyway, is that it requires more time.
It does. But you have teachers in class teaching the same material, in the same amount of time, to the fastest kid and the slowest kid. That takes time—that takes time they don't have, so maybe a reinvention of the use of time is really the key.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed or burdened by any of the outreach that you do? I get the feeling that the answer is "no."
Not one second. What I feel burdened by is that I can't get to enough people fast enough. Because in this particular area, for whatever reason, I know that my story works on the children. I've seen it, I hear it. By the time I'm done, 600 kids just want a hug. So we have group hugs that go out to the middle of the gymnasium. I know it works, and if it works, I'm just going to keep doing it. Not that I'm going around saying, "It's all me," I'm just reporting what's happening.
To change gears a bit, does Fonzie still cast a shadow over your life?
Absolutely—a beautiful shadow. The shadow is as wonderful as the video I have of my granddaughter discovering her own shadow. Her mother happened to have her iPhone out, and you see this little girl bouncing around, chasing her shadow on the sidewalk—that's how wonderful my shadow is.
So he's still as popular an icon as ever.
It's shocking to me, but yes. People all over the world tweet me about what he meant to them. Their children, who are in the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th grades come up to me and I say to them, "All right—how many people have seen 'Happy Days'?" The majority raise their hand. They see it on YouTube, they see it on The HUB, they see it because their parents wanted to share it with them. It's amazing. He keeps marching on. And then, another generation talks to me about Waterboy. And another talks to me about Arrested Development.
If the powers that be finally get that movie version of "Arrested Development," would you reprise your role as Barry Zuckerhorn?
Of course. I love Barry.
It's amazing that the characters you've created are so beloved. It says a lot about how you inhabited them.
I attribute that mostly to the writing. I think if it's not on the page, it's not on the stage. But I sure love my job. I dreamt of doing this since I was 7, and I get to do it. And it's just phenomenal.
What was your first acting experience? What sealed the deal for you re committing to this job?
I did a Broadway play in New York, I did the film The Lords of Flatbush, and a lot of repertory theater before that. I couldn't do a lot of plays in high school, because my grades were never good enough. You had to have a certain standing.
You just did a guest shot in "Up All Night" . . .
I did that because look who I got to be with: Maya Rudolph, who's like an angel.
What other young'uns do you admire?
Ryan Gosling, Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard.
She's your goddaughter, I understand.
She is, but she's the real deal. I've known her all her life, she's just really good at what she does.
Ron Howard has been very kind to our magazine, by the way. We've run a feature on him; he also talked to me when I did a piece on Kevin Bacon, who lives in Connecticut.
He does? I love Kyra's show "The Closer"; it's one I do not miss—it is fantastic. Ron is like my brother—I love him with all my heart.
You also did a movie with Kevin James . . .
Yes, that comes out in October. It's called Here Comes the Boom.
What would you like to do next?
I would like to do what I dreamt of doing until I can't anymore. I would like to see my grandchildren flourish, and my children happy. I would like to go back to Japan. I would like to have a Pepe's pizza in the near future.
When did you go to Japan?
Went to Japan in 1983 with the "Happy Days" baseball team. We played with the American troops in Okinawa. I took my oldest son with me who was 13 at the time, he's now 40. We traveled on the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. It's a trip that I will never forget. I'm telling you, it is fantastic. What a country.
Is there any particular part you yearn to play?
No, because I always think that if I was meant to have it, I would. So I don't dwell on that. I only yearn for I don't know what's next, and I want it to be there. I want the "next" to present itself.Front Row Q&A: Henry Winkler