“Aaayyy!” - Fonz actor Henry Winkler visits Downham Market to tell pupils about dyslexia
17:27 06 March 2013
Archant © 2013
Downham Market pupils had to ‘sit on it’ as Happy Days actor Henry Winkler talked to them about learning challenges and dyslexia.
Mr Winkler, who played the legendary Arthur Fonzarelli - aka The Fonz - in the 70s sitcom, told students at Downham Market High School about how he came to be cast in the role.
“I went to Paramount Studios and they were doing auditions,” he said. “I had six lines as the Fonz, next thing they say do you want the part, I say ‘yes’ and then I’m saying ‘aayyyy’ for 10 years.
“I got to play the character I wanted to be and wasn’t. He’s a reflection of who I wanted to be.”
Mr Winkler was visiting the school as part of the First News My Way campaign which aims to raise awareness about the difficulties of learning challenges in schools.
At the height of his fame, as millions around the world tuned into the hit US sitcom about American teenagers, broadcast in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the Fonz was the coolest guy on the block. But behind the scenes, he was struggling with dyslexia.
“I want to tell them about the potential they have. I am a dyslexic, I was told I would never achieve, and I’m in the room with them and they’re are going to read books I never thought I would write. I want to show them that they are powerful,” said Mr Winkler, who was awarded an OBE for his work for children with learning difficulties.
“You have greatness and your job is to figure out what it is and give it to the world.”
Speaking of his struggles, Mr Winkler said: “Without a doubt it has helped me in some ways, it made me a fighter. It has kept me focused, at this moment I’m working on three television shows.
“It is hereditary, one in five have some form of learning challenge. Fifty-three percent of everyone in prison are dyslexic.”
Telling the children of his experiences growing up Mr Winkler said: “I got a bad grade in everything but lunch.
“My german parents used to call me ‘dummer hund’, which for those who don’t speak german means dumb dog.
“I was told I was stupid, that I was lazy, that I wasn’t reaching my potential. You start to believe it when the fact is that I’m not.”
Mr Winkler, 67, did not discover he was dyslexic until he was 31 and his step-son, Jed, was diagnosed.
“Everything that they said to Jed was true to me and when I was 31 I finally found out I had a learning challenge.
“You have to negotiate your learning challenge, for me I covered it with a joke and improvised. “In school I covered it up with humour, I was the class clown.”
Despite his dyslexia Mr Winkler has gone on to become a bestselling children’s author writing the Hank Zipzer books.
“I started to read when I was 31 and I’m sad that I started so late.
“A friend of mine said ‘you should write a book for young people about your learning challenge’. I thought: ‘I can’t write a book.
“You don’t know what you can achieve unless you try.”
Harry Bird, 12, a pupil at the high school, said: “I used to watch Happy Days as a kid it was enjoyable at the time. My parents used to watch it so it’s a good experience to meet him.”
Assistant headteacher Martin Moss said: “He’s a real celebrity who has a positive message for the pupils, which is in line with our current goals to continue to improve positive performance across all aspects of the school.”
Today, Mr Winkler will be speaking to 110 teachers from across the region at an education conference in Mattishall, Dereham.