Henry Winkler has never felt like he fit in. Despite spending over a decade on Happy Days playing Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, a tough guy from the streets of Milwaukee who is pretty much the definition of “cool,” Winkler says that growing up, he always felt like he was on the outside looking in. Years spent with undiagnosed dyslexia and the insecurities that came from that encouraged the grown-up Winkler to build a legacy of kindness and strength for those who feel a little less than.
Aside from acting (which he’s still doing, as fans of HBO’s Barry know), he’s written nearly 40 children’s books, nearly all of them starring a character — a very vulnerable character — who has been taught that their voice doesn’t matter. His latest book, Detective Duck: The Case of the Strange Splash, is right in line with the stories he’s written before because Winkler has one goal: to make sure everybody knows they’re worthy.
“I was never heard,” Winkler tells me in a Zoom interview. “A heard child is a powerful child,” he says, so he “made that a mantra” when he became a parent — and it’s a theme I tell him I’ve seen running through all of his books.
“That is exactly correct,” he says. “I have noticed overall, the umbrella of my books is a child on the outside, looking in, wanting to be over there, and thinking ‘How do I figure it out? How do I get over there where everybody is?’ And that is the way I feel even in my child self at 77. I feel the exact same way.”
“Being a mother is the most difficult job on the face of the earth. That’s not even hyperbole. That just is a fact.”
It’s hard to imagine someone with multiple awards and nominations, someone whose iconic character has an instantly recognizable signature catchphrase — and the best leather jacket in television history; someone whose career and legacy shows no sign of fading away, feels that way. But there it is. Rooting for the underdog — being the underdog — is a theme that’s been important to Henry Winkler all his life.
Now is when I should probably tell you that I have been a superfan of Winkler’s since I was a kid. (I never missed a rerun of Happy Days because I wrote the Nick@Nite Summer Block Party schedule in my calendar in middle school.) During our interview, I mention to him that when I was a teenager, I bought a 1970s biography of him at a local thrift store. (“I know it. I know it well. Charles Pike, right?”) In it, he’s quoted as saying that he felt sensitive as a child and that he often “gave his power away.” Yes, he says — that’s what’s made him so determined to help children feel brave and courageous now.
Above all, Winkler wants children to think they can and should be anything they want to be. In Detective Duck, little Willow realizes that her beloved home — a beautiful pond — is being harmed by human behavior nearby. She sets off to figure out what’s happening and put a stop to it. “Little Willow doesn’t believe she can be a detective,” Winkler tells me. “Until her friend tells her ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ And she is centered in that.”
I have my own Detective Duck moment. Before this interview, I’d actually met Winkler once before, at some convention show when I was 20 years old. At the time, I told him I wanted to be an actor and a writer, and he wrote in that thrifted biography, “Your dream is perfect.”
“And?” he asks me as I remind him of this, those familiar eyebrows raised in expectation on my Zoom screen. I can’t help but beam as we trade stories about doing community theater (Winkler has an acting degree from Yale and starred on Broadway with John Ritter; I starred in the Main Street Theatre production of Neil Simon’s Rumors). I now make my living as a writer. When I tell him I haven’t been on stage in a while because I now have three girls, he says, “I understand. Being a mother is the most difficult job on the face of the earth. That’s not even hyperbole. That just is a fact.”
When I ask him for parenting advice, he tells me simply, “It’s listening. Imagine you’re late for set. You can’t be late for the set; millions of dollars count on you being on time. Your youngest says, ‘Dad.’ ‘I’m late.’ ‘But Dad, I love green.’ You say, ‘I’m so happy you told me that. I’m going to go now to do my work. When I come back, we’re going to talk everything green. I want you to think green. I’m going to think green.’ And that’s all it takes: 45 seconds.”
“When our children were younger, I could not read. I can’t read out loud. So my wife Stacey, is a great reader. She read, and I acted out the story as it went. That was my contribution.”
Forty-five seconds doesn’t sound life-changing, but it can be. Winkler shares with me how many parents have stopped him to say that they changed how they spoke to their children after reading his books about dyslexia and hearing his interviews where he candidly shares what it was like to grow up not realizing he had the learning disorder. “Everybody has got a challenge, no matter what it is,” he says. “And only in this country do we need to be perfect in order to fit in.”
“When our children were younger, I could not read,” he says. “I can’t read out loud. So my wife Stacey, is a great reader. She read, and I acted out the story as it went. That was my contribution.”
Amid all the judgmental noise available every time I pick up my smartphone, it’s almost overwhelming to hear how simply he thinks about shaping children’s development. “They come as a clean slate. And then all that other junk is put on them,” he says. Which is why in his house, raising children, his one rule was “don’t lie.”
“If you don’t lie, if you tell me the truth, there will be no consequences,” he told his kids. “No matter what you did. If you fib and I find out about it, there goes every bit of anything except for breathing and homework and maybe a grilled cheese.”
Because like Fonzie, Henry can be tough — but he never forgets the love. From encouraging children to speak out to sharing his own stories of triumph to build up others, Winkler just wants everyone to be heard. Even if it’s just for 45 seconds. “It will pay you back with a lifetime of wonder,” he says.
And with such a legacy of kindness behind him at age 77, “45 seconds” might even be a better catchphrase than “Ayyyy.”
Detective Duck: The Case of the Strange Splash is out October 17 and available for preorder now.