Dyslexia Made Henry Winkler Feel 'Stupid' For Years. Now, He's A Best-Selling Author The Emmy-winning actor is lesser known for his work writing for children. But he calls his book series, about the adventures and struggles of a dyslexic child, his proudest accomplishment.
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Dyslexia Made Henry Winkler Feel 'Stupid' For Years. Now, He's A Best-Selling Author

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Dyslexia Made Henry Winkler Feel 'Stupid' For Years. Now, He's A Best-Selling Author

Dyslexia Made Henry Winkler Feel 'Stupid' For Years. Now, He's A Best-Selling Author

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today, we're betting you know Henry Winkler as The Fonz on "Happy Days" or more recently from his Emmy-winning turn as the acting coach Gene Cousineau on the HBO comedy "Barry." But if you have a grade-schooler in your house, especially one who struggles to read, then you're probably very glad that he's also the co-author of the children's chapter book series "Here's Hank." The stories follow the daily adventures of a kid named Hank Zipzer, who is kind, funny, observant and tries really hard but still finds himself struggling at school. Henry Winkler knows a lot about that because he, too, is dyslexic, and he's brought that experience to bear in his books.

This week, the latest installment in the "Here's Hank" series comes out. It's actually the last in the series. It's called "Everybody Is Somebody," and we thought this would be a good time to speak with the one and only Henry Winkler. Henry Winkler, thank you so much for joining us.

HENRY WINKLER: Oh, my goodness. I'm so happy to be here.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations on everything, especially the Emmy...

WINKLER: Thank you, thank you.

MARTIN: And we're going to talk about that in a minute. But, first, we, of course, we want to talk about the books. And I'm thinking that there are probably two groups of people out there - people who know you as an actor - and a very successful one at that - and people who had no idea that you'd been an ambassador for people with learning differences. And, of course, there's everybody who's so grateful that you are. I was wondering when you figured out that you had this learning difference.

WINKLER: I was actually 31. And my stepson, Jed - he was having trouble, and we had him tested. And everything that they finally said to us at the evaluation at the result of all the tests - I went, oh, my goodness. That's me. And so, at 31, I found out I wasn't stupid, that I wasn't lazy, that I had something with a name.

MARTIN: How did it feel when you found out that you had something with a name?

WINKLER: That's interesting because I - the first thing that happened is that I was so angry because I was grounded 97 percent of my high school career. My parents thought I was being lazy. And I - if I stayed at my desk long enough - so I was really angry. And then - now, I realize maybe if I was not dyslexic, if I didn't have that challenge, I might not have had the tenacity to get here into this studio to talk to you this afternoon.

MARTIN: So why don't we stop for a minute, and just tell us what dyslexia is and what it's like to live it.

WINKLER: First of all, it is the wiring in the brain, and it's hereditary. For every child, there is a different degree. Some people - it works on their ability to read, do math. Some people write backwards. When you're reading, you miss words. They drop off the page or the words start swimming. But, for every child, it is a personal journey.

What I have found over the years, talking to kids today, is that our journeys are similar - the feeling of inadequacy, of embarrassment, of, oh, my gosh, am I going to have a future because I don't have the immediate moment of being able to achieve? It is the same when I was in grade school in the '50s to young people today graduating from high school.

MARTIN: How did you cope all those years? I mean, I think that, you know, you have an MFA, auditions and cold readings and memorizing scripts. I mean, how did you handle it all those years?

WINKLER: I thought I was stupid until recently, actually. You take that mantle with you when you're - it's said often enough and when you're young enough. There is a - an emotional component I think that comes along with learning challenges, where I had for myself no sense of self. It took me a very long time to put that in place. The auditions I would memorize as quickly as I could - because I couldn't read the page and act at the same time - to make an impression on the casting person or on the director and the producers. So I would memorize as much as I could, and I improvised the rest. And when they said, well, you're not doing what's written on the page, I said I'm giving you the essence of the character.

MARTIN: Do you think that humor was a cover?

WINKLER: Definitely. I used humor because I was so embarrassed all the time. When I got "Happy Days," we read the scripts on Monday morning at 9 o'clock around the table with all the producers and the heads of the departments. And I was embarrassed for 10 years because I could not read what was on the page. I just tripped over words, and everybody just kind of tolerated it. So I used humor to cover all those mistakes for all those years.

MARTIN: You know, that's all the more reason why I think, you know, reading about what you went through and, frankly, reading the books, the way you described the experience of the eye-rolling, the name-calling, the adults who were impatient, the people who think you're being lazy - after having gone through that, you are not only willing to talk about it, but you decided to write these books about it. And to...

WINKLER: Well, you know, I...

MARTIN: ...Put all that out there. And I was just wondering - what made you do that? What made you decide to write about it...

WINKLER: But, Michel, I didn't think I was going to be a spokesperson. There was a lull in my acting career in the early 2000s. And my agent at the moment said, why don't you write books about your learning challenges for kids? And I said I can't do that. I'm stupid. I can't write a book. And he said OK. I'm going to introduce you to Lin Oliver. Lin Oliver knows everything about children's literature. So we met for lunch, and it turned into this incredible other career of Hank Zipzer and 29 novels.

MARTIN: He's been in 29 - he's been a character in 29 novels. This is the 12th of the "Here Is Hank" (ph) series...

WINKLER: Yes, he's in second grade...

MARTIN: Yeah.

WINKLER: ...In "Here's Hank."

MARTIN: Well, you know, it says - in the author bio on the back page, it says that of all of your career accomplishments that you're most proud of co-authoring this series. Is that true? Why is that?

WINKLER: It is absolutely the truth because it is not hyperbole. It is - when I first started with Lin, I'm telling you as my name is Henry, it never dawned on me that I would have my name on a book. And this last installment is called "Everybody Is Somebody." And...

MARTIN: Well, why is that the last one? What's up - I mean, what's up with that...

WINKLER: Well, you know what? It was time. It was time.

MARTIN: He's in second grade. I think he...

WINKLER: He's...

MARTIN: ...Could go a little farther. I don't know...

WINKLER: He could go to third.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WINKLER: Yeah, it's true.

MARTIN: Sixth.

WINKLER: But the last moment of "Here's Hank," of "Everybody Is Somebody," he's lying in bed that night. And he thinks to himself, I'm going to be somebody.

MARTIN: That's lovely.

WINKLER: Well, it touches me, I'll tell you because it's very easy for me at 73 to become 8 and remember what it was like.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations on all that. And thank you for all the books and...

WINKLER: Well, I didn't know what else to get you.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I want to talk about the acting for a minute because you're on a streak. You won your primetime Emmy for your role in "Barry." Do you kind of feel like you're getting a second look, a second wind? Or what do you think...

WINKLER: No, I don't think of it as a second wind, but I sure know that this moment in my life is pretty extraordinary. So whether I win awards or not, I'm, at this moment in time, a major winner.

MARTIN: That is the actor, director and author Henry Winkler talking to us about his latest and his last installment in the "Here's Hank" series, which he writes with his co-author Lin Oliver, talking to us from NPR West. Henry Winkler, thank you so much for talking to us.

WINKLER: I thank you for inviting me. What a pleasure, Michel.

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