‘It’s really difficult:’ How Henry Winkler navigates dyslexia in a long acting career

Actor, author will be at MegaCon in Orlando next week

ORLANDO, Fla. – Henry Winkler says he didn’t have a choice.

“If people are born to do something, I was born to try and being an actor,” Winkler said.

In a career spanning 6 decades, Winkler has played a range of roles, from the cool comedy of Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli on the hit series “Happy Days,” to the stoic Gene Cousineau on the HBO series “Barry,” which returns for the fourth and final series on April 16.

“(”Barry’s”) like a gift in my life. It really is. It’s amazing,” Winkler said.

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But if the iconic actor, author and producer was born to perform, it was not without an obstacle: dyslexia, and undiagnosed at that.

“Here’s the thing — when I was growing up, no one knew,” Winkler said.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, dyslexia affects 20% of the population, and has a high comorbidity with other disorders like ADHD and anxiety.

“So you feel inadequate. You feel stupid. You feel less than and that literally warps and shapes your being as you journey on the Earth as an adult,” Winkler said.

Despite that obstacle, Winkler has persevered. He found ways to help him get through scripts, allowing him to take on roles in films like “The Water Boy” and TV series like “Arrested Development.”

Winkler won an Emmy in 2018 for playing Gene Cousineau in “Barry.”

“Somebody sends me a script that I have to read, you know, and meet the director. I walk around the script, I look at the script, I pick it up, I put it down. Finally, I start reading it, I lose my place. It’s really difficult,” he said.

It was while filming “Happy Days” that Winkler learned he had dyslexia, a discovery made when his son was diagnosed with the learning ability. He was in his 30s.

“The first thing that happened was I got angry,” Winkler said. “That all the punishment, all the yelling, all the disappointment was for nothing. And the people who were yelling at me gave it to me because it’s hereditary. And then you learn how to negotiate your learning problems.”

Winkler also used what he learned from his experience and eventually turned it into a series of children’s books about a boy with dyslexia named Hank Zipzer, with collaborator Lin Oliver. His Hank Zipzer and “Alien Superstar” book series are bestsellers. It was made into a British television series for children that also began airing on HBO Max last year.

In 2011, Winkler was made an honorary officer of the Order of the British Empire for his services to children with special needs.

“If children are listening, I would say to them that how you learn has nothing to do with how brilliant you are,” Winkler said.

Winkler has also become a mental health advocate. He’s the keynote speaker at the Legacy of Champions Luncheon benefiting the Mental Health Association of Central Florida in May. The event is open to the public and tickets are available.

“I encourage people to get into therapy because you don’t always know why you are feeling the way you’re feeling,” Winkler said. “And the more you know about yourself, the more you know about every other human being. All of a sudden the world, not completely, but it takes on like a whole other definition.”

Before then he’ll be meeting fans at MegaCon Orlando, March 30 through April 2 at the Orange County Convention Center, where Winkler said he will marvel at the generations of people who recognize his work.

“I was lying in bed on West 78th Street in New York City, dreaming that I would be able to even have a career as an actor, because I had no plan B,” Winkler said. “And here I am with a table full of photographs.”

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About the Author:

Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.