Book Review

An inspiring story of a resilient actor known to all as ‘The Fonz’

Posted 7/2/24

You might be surprised to know that Henry Winkler, better known as “The Fonz” on TV sitcom “Happy …

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Book Review

An inspiring story of a resilient actor known to all as ‘The Fonz’


“Being Henry: The Fonz … and Beyond”

By Henry Winkler

You might be surprised to know that Henry Winkler, better known as “The Fonz” on TV sitcom “Happy Days,” is a Yale University (School of Drama) graduate. In this memoir he lays bare his dysfunctional family, his struggle with acute dyslexia, and his attempts to break out of the stereotype that made him famous and beloved.

For 47 years he has been married to wife Stacey, to whom the book is dedicated – “for loving me, supporting me, and standing by me” – which is far different than the partnership of his parents, German Jews who escaped before the Holocaust. His father had been clever enough to smuggle his mother’s jewelry by melting down a box of chocolates, pouring the mixture over the jewelry, and returning the candy-covered jewels to the box. So when the Nazis asked if he was taking anything of value outside Germany, he was able to say, “No, you can open every bag: we’ve got nothing.” All other members of their family perished there.

Both parents were constantly hollering at their son and at each other; most of the time their anger was directed at Henry’s failing grades, the result of his inability to read, spell, or do basic math. He would pay for a slice of pizza with a dollar because he didn’t know how to make change. He failed geometry four times.

At Emerson College he was kicked out of acting class for not being able to memorize lines. Later, when he took to making commercials to remain solvent as he struggled to advance his career, his former classmates were scandalized. “We were trained for the theater!” they reprimanded.

Unaware of their son’s severe disability, his parents concluded that he was lazy, defiant, and stupid. As a result, he used humor to camouflage everything he couldn’t do. From early childhood, Henry felt an intense need to perform, perhaps a desperate need for attention.

To escape their tirades, he would lock himself in his room and listen to arias – Tebaldi, Corelli. He favored songs that were sad, mournful, yearning, because they completely matched how he felt. He vowed that, if ever he were a parent, he would be a completely different one from his own. On more than one occasion he had to give over his money – once his Bar Mitzvah gifts – to his father who was living beyond their means.

Winkler is achingly honest about his fear of not finding work following his early break in “Happy Days.” He’d had a bit part on “The Mary Tyler Moore” show, although again he was faced with the reminder that “real actors” didn’t lower themselves to do TV.

Being typecast as the “Fonz” character also remained a problem, as well as his ambivalent relationship with his parents. When they expressed pride with his new-found fame on “Happy Days,” he felt it was too late. “They weren’t proud for me … they were proud of me … like a possession.”

Even on the set of “Happy Days,” at the height of his fame, he would lose his place in the script, stumble, leave out a word, a line making him feel embarrassed and inadequate. When it ended in 1984, he was frozen in bleak scenarios: “I can’t get hired … I don’t know what to do … I feel rudderless … I don’t know if anything is going to happen … How will I take care of my family,” which eventually included three children.

He was an actor who wasn’t acting. If people couldn’t see him as anything but “The Fonz,” he decided to do some acting where he wasn’t seen – doing voice for animated features.

In addition, in this memoir are portions about his warm relationship with Ron Howard, whom he loves; his encounter with Meryl Streep, a fellow Yale School Drama classmate when she was a complete unknown. Although Universal would not hire her — “she was a nobody” — he knew instantly he was “in the presence of greatness.” At that time, “The Deer Hunter,” Kramer vs Kramer, and “Sophie’s Choice” were all in her future.

He also talks of acting with Sally Field, Harrison Ford, all of whom he praises. He speaks positively about all, which is probably why he is known as the “nicest” person in Hollywood.

Henry would go on to direct Dolly Parton in “A Smokey Mountain Christmas”; win a Daytime Emmy directing an afterschool special “All the Kids Do It,” work in “Memories of Me” with Billy Crystal and Alan King, and “The Water Boy” with Adam Sandler. In addition, he endeared himself with roles in “Arrested Development,” Parks and Recreation,” and “Barry.”

He also partnered with Lin Oliver to write children’s books and then young adult novels, putting him on “The New Tork Times” Best-seller list.

In order to survive and remain in the business, Henry Winkler reinvented himself again and again, eventually winning two Golden Globe  Awards, two Critics Choice Awards, nominated three times for an Emmy Award, and honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His greatest gratification comes, however, from being a good dad, trying to be in the “present” for his three kids and six grandkids.

Can you even imagine “The Fonz” we knew, as a grandfather? Well, 50 years later he is and a very proud and loving one indeed.

This is an inspiring story of a misunderstood kid who suffered embarrassment and insecurity but developed a resilience to overcome his deficiencies and, in the process, achieved success and retained his humanity in a very competitive business. Henry Winkler is to be applauded.

Donna Bruno is a prizewinning author and poet recently recognized with four awards by National League of American Pen Women.

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