We met actor and author Henry Winkler when he was visiting the NBCUniversal offices in Manhattan recently. Henry has been a favorite for everyone since the 1970s when he starred as The Fonz in the TV series “Happy Days.” He has since been in many movies and TV shows and has written the “Hank Zipzer” book series with Lin Oliver.
What inspired you to be an author?
I was not inspired, I was scared. I have a learning challenge. Math was hard. English was hard. Spelling — I still can’t spell. You know what I was great at? Lunch. You know what I was even better at? Going home. School was so hard for me. I mean really difficult. So now I wanted to be an actor. And I am working, working, working to be an actor. And one day somebody I worked with said, “Why don’t you write books for children about your learning challenges?” And I said, “Because I think I’m stupid, because my teacher told me I was stupid. My parents told me I was stupid because I was doing so poorly in school.” Is this an interesting story? Am I all right so far?
So then one day this man that I worked with, he said, “I’m telling you, write books for children. I’m going to introduce you to my best friend, Lin [Oliver].” We had lunch. The fish was horrible. But the meeting was great. And we started writing “Hank Zipzer.” Hank is short for Henry, and Zipzer was a woman who lived on the fourth floor of my apartment building in Manhattan. Her name was Ella Zipzer, and I thought it was a zippy name, and he’s a zippy guy. So that’s how I started writing books, and then we never stopped, and then we’ve written 34 novels.
You have done so many great things. Which have given you the greatest joy, and what do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
I wanted to be an actor since I was 7. I am thrilled that I get to be a professional and so busy right now. Do you know what I mean? But my greatest accomplishment outside of my children and my grandchildren? The books. I never thought I could write a book, and they are now in nine languages. They are in Hebrew! In Portuguese! In Italian! In Russian! I mean, they are just in everything, you know. Who knew? I will try. You don’t know what you can accomplish until you just try.
How do you go through airports or stores with everyone crowding you?
I never did. Everyone crowds me — even today. But they are so warm to me. I don’t think I’m a star. I think, “Hey, I’m a guy and I love what I do.” And all of these people are coming to say, “I like what you do.” And so it’s pretty lovely. And they come to me in different languages.
Is the new “Hank” TV show going to follow the books exactly?
Almost exactly. Because there were so many episodes, they made up some stories to put in those shows. But they follow the books pretty closely, and I get to play Mr. Rock. You know, my music teacher, Mr. Rock, in my real life said to me, “Winkler, if you ever do graduate from high school, you’re going to be OK.” Because everybody else thought I was never going to accomplish, because I am such a bad student. But he had faith in me, and I never forgot him as long as I live. And I get to play him in the book. Miss Adolph, the bad teacher, was also my real teacher. And so she’s in the book, too.
Where was the show shot?
It was shot in England, so it takes place in London, and “Hank Zipzer” really takes place in Manhattan.
In your books, are your characters real or made up?
Frankie and his best friend, Ashley, are combinations of friends of mine who lived in the building that I grew up in. Miss Adolph is real. Hank is real. The father is real. My dad did not know what dyslexia was. He didn’t know what a learning challenge was. And so he was always disappointed in the fact that I didn’t do well in school. The emotion in the books, when he [Hank] really says, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m so frustrated. I wish I could do better. I really want to do well. How could I forget this? How could I lose the frog?’ Those are real. The comedy is exaggerated.
We know you grew up in New York. Where do you live now? And what do you miss about New York?
I miss everything about New York. I think New York is the greatest city in the whole world, and I’ve been to a lot of places. I just love the energy of New York. Now I live in Santa Monica, California. My dogs are born in Los Angeles. My children, my grandchildren, my wife. But in my heart I still live in New York. My body lives in L.A.
Were you ever a Boy Scout, and have you ever been camping?
I love camping. I was a Cub Scout for a little while. I was not very good at knots. I was on the swim team, but I had breakfast before training before workout in the morning. So I might have thrown up in the pool. And they kicked me off the team. I was on the soccer team, but because I am learning-challenged, I never knew my right from my left so I didn’t know if I was right wing or left wing. It was hard. But I love camping. And you know what I love to do with friends? I went down rivers in America in a rubber raft. I went down the rapids, and that was a lot of fun. Yes. I would take my daughter, who is now 36, but when she was 12, we went camping. And we would look up at the stars, and we would see shooting stars!
Which do you prefer to be in, to be in movies, or television shows?
I don’t care. I love my work. I am very fortunate. I feel grateful that I get to be in work. Now I do a lot of television. I produce a show called “MacGyver.” I’m in and I produced and I wrote the books of “Hank Zipzer” on Universal Kids. I made a show called “Arrested Development.” I traveled all over the world with four other men, and that will be on in December. That’s called “Better Late than Never.” And then in March I’m in a brand-new show that you can’t watch on HBO. And that’s with Bill Hader, who is a really wonderfully funny fellow, creative fellow. And that’s called “Barry.” So I have a lot of jobs.
Were your parents supportive about acting?
No, they were not. They were not supportive about much. But then of course when I got famous, they became very supportive.
Did you ever play an instrument?
I tried to play the piano. Didn’t take. I dream of playing the guitar because I would like to play like Bruno Mars. Do you like music? Do you listen to Sia? I was in her video. How great is that? Sia, one of my favorites, asked me to be in her Christmas video.
We heard that the motorcycle you rode in “Happy Days” is the same one used by Steve McQueen.
OK. Can I ask you a question? Is your mother the smartest woman on the Earth? Yeah. She’s pretty smart, because that is true. And I was so excited because “The Great Escape” was such an important movie when I was growing up. It is an adventure movie, and I loved it. And then all of a sudden I’m using the same motorcycle that my hero in the movies was using — Steve McQueen.
Your books are about a boy with dyslexia. How would these books have helped you as a child?
How would have they have helped me as a child? You know what I found, kids ask me two questions about “Hank Zipzer.” One is — and it’s not a question, they say, “I laughed so hard, my butt and my funny bone fell out of my body.” And the other thing they say is, “How did you know me so well?” So I think if I had something — if I could read, I didn’t read a book until I was 31 years old. I was scared of reading, you know, truly. And so I waited an awfully long time before I read. But if I had “Hank Zipzer,” I would think to myself, “Wow, I’m not alone. Other people feel the same way I do, or have a problem like I do.” And it turns out that one in five children has a learning challenge. That’s a big part of the population. Twenty percent, about, of the population has a learning challenge on the whole Earth! It’s a lot of kids. Great question.
Do you have any more books you’re working on? What are you up to next? What other things are you going to do after being an author?
OK, well, I do a few television shows. And we are here in New York to meet to talk about a new series of books, and I’ll tell you a little bit — no, I won’t. Anyway, we’re working on a new series. And we’re going to talk to publishers — those are the people who say yes, and they put the books out in the world.
Therese O’Loughlin’s fourth-grade class, Michael F. Stokes Elementary School, Levittown