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Beloved Henry Winkler: From The Fonz to Hank Zipzer and Everything in Between
November 1, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Fifteen years ago, Henry Winkler decided that dramatizing some of the rough stories from his own childhood could make other childhoods better.

That was the start of the Hank Zipzer book series, and after dozens of print adventures, Hank has finally made it to American television.

Hank Zipzer can now be seen on NBCU’s new Universal Kids channel (the former Sprout), at 8:30 p.m. ET Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

“Getting to American television was its own adventure,” says Winkler, who has carved out a long and successful TV career after memorably launching himself as Arthur Fonzarelli, The Fonz, on the 1970s sitcom Happy Days.

Hank had been a best-selling book series for a dozen years before it got a television deal – from CBBC, the BBC’s children’s network in England.

That was an interesting twist because the books were all set in New York, where Winkler and his alter ego Hank Zipzer grew up.

On TV, therefore, Hank (Nick James), his smart sister Emily (Madeline Holliday), his mother Rosa (Juliet Cowan) and his father Stan (Neil Fitzmaurice) all had British accents – and since the British series is the one airing here, they still do.

Winkler says it makes surprisingly little difference.

“There are a few places where we use British words,” he says. “But the kids still come through. They’re recognizable to everyone.”

It’s true that even when it was only being shown in Britain, Hank Zipzer kept many of its American roots. In an episode about the kids in Hank’s school splitting up into two sports team, they’re playing baseball, not soccer.

Hank’s adventures, or more often misadventures, will remind some grandparents of the banana peels on which television pre-teens have been slipping since Leave It To Beaver.

But Hank’s premise has a serious undertone. Hank’s random adolescent screw-ups are compounded by the fact that like Winkler he’s dyslexic, which makes ordinary schoolwork a major struggle and leaves him more vulnerable to hazards like bullying.

“When I was a kid I was told I was stupid,” says Winkler. “Today we understand dyslexia better. We teach children better. But some parents and teachers are still in the dark. Some parents are still embarrassed that their child won’t get into the fancy school they went to.

“When a child is fidgeting, or staring out the window, they aren’t trying to be disruptive. The 20 percent of the population that has learning challenges are well aware they aren’t keeping up, and to not understand how hard they have to work is damaging.

“In Ireland, they identify kids with learning challenges in pre-K. If you can do that, so much is possible.”

Hank, like Winkler, doesn’t get quite enough help, especially since he has “the worst teacher in the world,” Miss Adolf (Felicity Montagu).

Fortunately, he also has two good friends in Ashley (Alicia Lai) and Frankie (Jayden Jean Paul-Denis), plus a great faculty friend and supporter in Mr. Rock, a former rock ‘n’ roll musician.

Winkler plays Mr. Rock himself. That enables him to crack a bunch of classic rock jokes that may go over the heads of 7-year-olds, but make the show more fun for grownups.

“I had a Mr. Rock,” Winkler recalls. “When I got on Happy Days, he sent me a letter of congratulations.”

While some of Winkler’s childhood experiences were painful, he says he doesn’t hesitate to tackle them in the Hank Zipzer series.

“If you write the truth for children, they will figure it out,” he says. “Comedy is the way to a child’s heart.”

In the bigger picture, he says, he hopes Hank Zipzer leaves its audience with two takeaways.

First, don’t give up if someone tells you you’re stupid or you can’t do something. Second, “If you get knocked down, get up and keep trying.”

In his own life, he says, those lessons resonated well beyond childhood.

“I never thought I would write a book,” he says. “My agent suggested it and I said no way. Then a year later he suggested I meet with a woman named Lin Oliver.

“We met for lunch in a restaurant at Gower and Sunset. The meal was horrible, but the meeting was great. We’re about to come out with the 15th book.”

Winkler has also overcome at least one other challenge, one that ironically arises only after a great success.

He became so popular as The Fonz that after Happy Days ended, he had to convince producers that in his 30s he could play other characters.

“They’d tell me hey, The Fonz, man, one of the all-time great television characters,” he recalls. “You can’t play anyone else.”

For a time, he didn’t. He concentrated on producing and directing. He returned to acting in the mid-1990s and has had guest and recurring roles on dozens of shows, including Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation (left), and Royal Pains.

He received an Emmy nomination for a guest role on The Practice.

And he has nothing but love for The Fonz.

“I get recognized everywhere in the world,” he says. “People stop me on the street in Italy or England and invite me to dinner. I’m an old friend.

“When I do a book signing, the kids come for Hank Zipzer, and their parents come for The Fonz. So I get 600 or 700 people instead of 50 or 60. I’ve been reaping the benefits of The Fonz for 42 years.”

And by the way, if anyone wonders where “Zipzer” came from, Winkler reports the source was Ellen Zipzer, “who lived on the fourth floor of my apartment building when I was growing up in New York. She was a very forceful woman, a wonderful lady.

“And I just thought it was a zippy name.”

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