From failure to Fonz -- actor Winkler aims to inspire

NEW YORK Fri Apr 27, 2007 2:13am BST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - As a child with dyslexia, Henry Winkler was ridiculed, so as "the Fonz" in the 1970s television sitcom "Happy Days" he made himself into everything he wanted to be -- cool, funny and popular.

Winkler, 61, won international fame for playing the ultrar-cool auto mechanic Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli in the ABC sitcom that ran from 1974 to 1984 with his motorcycle, leather jacket and thumbs-up gesture becoming television icons.

But a new generation of children are relating to Winkler in a different way -- not as his alter-ego The Fonz but as Winkler, a child teased at school for being dumb.

After a lifetime of struggling with dyslexia, Winkler put pen to paper in 2003 with co-author Lin Oliver and recreated himself as Hank Zipzer, a smart fourth grader with learning difficulties but a great sense of humour and adventure.

"Hank Zipzer is my life. It is the building I was born in, it is the school I went to ... and it is the frustration at trying to figure out how to cope," said Winkler, who embarks on his first national tour next month to promote the 11th book in the Hank Zipzer series.

"I was called stupid and lazy and not living up to my potential. I was grounded for most of my school career and never saw the moon. The parents thought if I stayed at my desk I would learn geometry."

Winkler, whose dyslexia was not diagnosed until he was 31, said his difficult childhood was probably part of the reason for his success, as he had been determined to get over it.

After being cast at The Fonz, he helped mould the character himself and gradually became the focus of the show.

"He was my alter ego. He was everybody that I wanted to be, everything that I wasn't growing up. It was like a perfect match as I was allowed me to add my point of view to the character," he told Reuters in an interview,

Since the show ended over 20 years ago, Winkler has numerous acting and directing roles but The Fonz remains a key part of his fame.

The Fonz was recently voted the third coolest TV character by a poll of 4,000 respondents by Britain's radiotimes.com. He lost out to actor David Tennant who plays "Dr. Who." Jack Bauer played by Kiefer Sutherland in "24" came second.

"I don't mind that at all. He is always going to be there. It is part of my life," said Winkler.

"People who want to talk to me about The Fonz do so but others might want to talk to me about being in "The Waterboy" and some children only know me from Hank Zipzer. It depends on who is approaching me."

Winkler said his books about Hank Zipzer started out as a series of four but has since been extended to 16. The 11th, "The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down," goes on sale on May 3.

"One out of five kids in America have some kind of learning challenge. You never get over it but you learn to cope with it and these books point that it's not so terrible as this kid is resourceful, funny and has great friends who don't judge him," said Winkler.

Reuters/Nielsen

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