Actor and author Henry Winkler talked “Happy Days,” finding his path to success despite learning disabilities and the power of positive thinking at the Cornell Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts Sept. 17.
Winkler, known best as “the Fonz” on the 1974-84 “Happy Days” sitcom, spoke as part of the Cornell Hillel Major Speakers Series.
He talked candidly about his early struggles in school and the lack of support from his parents; his only positive encouragement came from his 11th-grade music teacher, who told him: “Winkler, if you ever do get out of here, you’re going to be OK.”
“I held onto that sentence like it was a lifeline,” Winkler said, telling the audience of several hundred that “Your words count.” Winkler didn’t learn until he was more than a decade into adulthood that his early struggles were due to dyslexia.
After Emerson College (“Somehow, I made it through,” he said) Winkler earned an MFA at the Yale School of Drama in 1970. He described his early work in commercials and his first movie role in “The Lords of Flatbush” before landing the part of Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli in “Happy Days.”
Winkler went on to direct and produce, and he acted in such movies as “Scream,” “The Waterboy” and “Click” and, on TV, in “The Practice” and “Parks and Recreation.” Most recently, his TV roles have been in the USA Network series “Royal Pains,” the Cartoon Network’s live-action “Children’s Hospital” and the Netflix-resurrected “Arrested Development.”
Since 2003, he has published, with co-author Lin Oliver, 26 children’s novels in the series, “Hank Zipzer, the World’s Greatest Underachiever,” about a boy struggling with dyslexia. The message of the books, using comedy, is friendship and empathy, he said.
Mixing humor, heartfelt inspirational messages and a slideshow of personal photos, Winkler told the audience to trust their instincts and figure out what their unique gift is (“even if it is a different journey than what you were expecting”).
“I was the king of negative thinking,” he said. “‘I can’t,’ ‘I won’t,’ ‘I’ll never’ – if you finish a negative thought, it becomes a paragraph, and that paragraph becomes a thesis of negativity.”
He cited Armenian philosopher George Gurdjieff and his disciple, Peter Ouspensky, as influences. “Don’t put a period on the end of a negative thought,” he said. “Don’t finish a negative thought; put it out of your mind. Let a positive thought come in.”
On education, he said: “We have to … not just celebrate the top 10 percent of the class” [he gestured to the Cornell audience, drawing a laugh] but also the bottom 10 percent: “Me” [drawing another appreciative response], “because there are people who are allergic to school, people who are good with their hands but not good with that part of their brains.”
In responding to a student’s request for advice for aspiring writers, Winkler said: “You have to write what you feel, what you want – not what you think somebody else wants to hear; not a screenplay you think a studio is going to go for. … I wrote what I knew – I wrote a kid whose glass is half full, and who just spills it everywhere.
“Write what makes you laugh, write what makes you sad. Write the truth. Write the people you know.”
Co-sponsors of the event included the Department of Communication, Department of Performing and Media Arts, Cornell Interfraternity Council, Cornell Jewish Studies Department and Cornell Center for Jewish Living. Winkler’s talk was funded by the Himan Brown Charitable Trust.