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Thirty-eight years after he first slipped on the leather jacket to play the Fonz, Henry Winkler remains one of the busiest guys in show business. He just finished filming Here Comes the Boom with Kevin James in Boston, and the third season of Royal Pains on USA starts on June 29. Next month he’s headed to England to promote the release of the latest Hank Zipzer novel, his young adult series about a kid with dyslexia. With a schedule like that, what does Winkler do to relax? The kid from New York City goes fly-fishing in Montana.
Winkler writes about his late in life passion for fly-fishing in his new book I’ve Never Met an Idiot on the River (Insight Editions, May 31). Part memoir, part travelogue, and part meditation on overcoming adversity, the book is illustrated with Winkler’s beautiful photographs of the Montana wilderness. Winkler tells about how he became a passionate fly fisherman in his mid-forties, how it helped him gain the self-confidence to start a second career as an author and what it taught him about perseverance and patience.
Winkler talked with The Hollywood Reporter by phone from Boston about the book, his new co-star on Royal Pains and how he’d only do Dancing with the Stars if Ron Howard agreed to be his partner.
THR: Your photographs of the Montana wilderness in the book are fantastic. It’s hard to believe you’re just an amateur.
Winkler: I’m so dyslexic that I’ve never changed a knob on the camera. The only thing I change is the focal length — sometimes a close up, medium or wide — and then see what I’ve got when I get home.
THR: One of the great things about the book is how you relate your efforts to become a more skilled fly-fisherman to your struggle against dyslexia, which you were not diagnosed with until you were 31. I wondered if the repetition and rhythm of fly-fishing was especially attractive to someone with dyslexia.
Winkler: That’s interesting. I never thought of that before. I like to think of it as a challenge, not a disability. The repetition of it, the sound of the water, I find it to be totally draining. Anything that bothers you is completely washed from your body. I see fly-fishing as a washing machine for your brain. My technique is still ugly as sin. But somehow I get the fish.
THR: You’re almost as well known for raising awareness of dyslexia as you are for your acting.
Winkler: Acting has been my dream since I was seven. It makes me so happy. I love my job. L-o-v-e it. Outside of my children, the most proud I am is of the books [the Hank Zipzer series]. I never thought I would be a writer in my entire life. You say to a child you’re lazy etc., you’re not living up to your potential, you say it long enough and often enough that’s how a child defines him or herself [which Winkler writes is how he felt people interpreted his dyslexia as a kid].
THR: But we learn in the book how fly-fishing gave you confidence.
Winkler: It’s true. The first time I was asked to write the books I didn’t even entertain the idea. I said to Alan Berger [Winkler’s agent at CAA] who made the suggestion to me there’s no way I could never write a book. Two years later he made the same suggestion and I had gotten better on the river and I said yes. I’m going to try this. I’ve written 17 novels with my partner Lin Oliver. We just handed in the first novel of a brand new series for Scholastic [about a kid who gets bullied scheduled for fall] — that’s 18 — and then my first adult book is this book so that’s 19.
THR: You’ve also reinvented yourself as an actor, which can be hard to do when you’ve played an iconic character like the Fonz. Did you ever imagine you’d be able to do that when Happy Days ended?
Winkler: No, I didn’t. It’s just true I was on a television show that was really popular for a long time and then you’d go into an audition and people would say, “You’re such a great actor. You’re the Fonz!” For 10 years I had to bob and weave to figure out what I was going to do. I can understand how people can fall off the edge of the earth when they are on a popular television show. How disheartening it is. Two words to live your life by: tenacity and gratitude.
THR: Did you ever lose your passion for acting during those years?
Winkler: No. I sometimes allowed myself to be overtaken by the doubt. I make things simple for myself. I literally imagine myself as that toy with sand at the bottom you punch it and it goes right back to center. That is it: You have to get up, dust yourself off and you have to just keep yourself moving forward.
THR: The new season of Royal Pains starts June 29. You came in last year during the second season to play Eddie Lawson, the long-lost father of main characters Hank (Mark Feuerstein) and Evan (Paulo Costanzo). Now this season we meet their grandfather — your father — played by none other than Ed Asner.
Winkler: We just shot those scenes [in late May]. It was amazing. The three generations: Mark Feuerstein, Paulo Costanzo, Henry Winkler and Ed Asner. It was like we had been doing this forever when we got together. Not just when we did the scenes together but how the two boys played with Ed. He’s so feisty and funny and sharp as a tack. It was just joyful.
THR: Do you have to put yourself in a different mindset to play someone’s son instead of their father?
Winkler: I didn’t because of the way it was written. You know when you go home no matter how old you are you immediately fall back into being a teenager? That’s what happened.
THR: Asner is in his early eighties and still going strong. Can you see yourself still acting in another 15 years?
Winkler: Let me just say unequivocally in large letters: I hope so.
THR: Do you think at point you’ll be ready to do Dancing with the Stars?
Winkler: Never. Not with someone else’s legs. I watch it. I enjoy it.
THR: You could get Ron Howard to do it with you — a mini Happy Days reunion.
Winkler: I would do it if Ron was my partner. He’s like my younger brother. Listen, I had no idea I would ever put on the leather jacket again until he called me about Obama.
THR: Was that fun?
Winkler: It was amazing. It was surreal. We went back 33 years in about two seconds. I leaned against the car and opened my mouth. And there we were. Not a beat missed.
THR: It’s amazing the affection the Happy Days cast still has for each other.
Winkler: It’s true. I talk to everyone at least a few times a year. We see each other some times. I talk to Marion all the time, I talk to Ron, Don Most.
THR: Some of the other Happy Days stars [Marion Ross, Erin Moran, Most,and Tom Bosley’s estate] recently sued CBS for $10 million claiming they were owed money for Happy Days merchandise, notably slot machines in Las Vegas. You and Ron Howard were not part of the suit. What do you think about it?
Winkler: They’re doing what is right for them. They deserve what they contracted for.
THR: Does it make you uncomfortable to see your likeness on a gambling machine?
Winkler: No. I knew full well going in. I did the voice. I thought if it’s going to exist at least let’s have some control.
THR: What’s the strangest thing somebody ever proposed putting your Fonz likeness on?
Winkler: When we were doing the show they wanted to make underwear for little girls. We nixed that.
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