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Becoming Henry Winkler

The actor and author of a new, deeply moving memoir, ‘Being Henry,’ freed himself from crippling self-doubt and insecurity — and hopes others will learn from his story

Henry Winkler as the Fonz in "Happy Days." Winkler's new memoir is out now.Courtesy of Celadon Books

Henry Winkler, whose memoir, “Being Henry: The Fonz … and Beyond,” is just out from Celadon Books, was a legendary figure in my 1970s childhood, but not for the reasons you might think. I was never allowed to watch him as Fonzie, the iconic role in the sitcom “Happy Days” that vaulted him to stardom, because my parents forbade me from watching any network TV, only PBS (Channel 13 to me and fellow New Yorker Winkler). To this day I have never seen an episode.

To me, Henry was the actor who’d been my father’s prize student at the Yale School of Drama in the late 1960s and appeared in a play directed by my father in 1970. Henry was one of my father’s surrogate sons, a fellow New York Jew, a tough yet tender, wisecracking, immensely gifted student he identified with, nurtured, and ultimately lost, the one who left serious theater and made it big in Hollywood. Henry thus became my father’s image of the prodigal student.

“Henry is a great actor. He could have done Shakespeare!” he’d say ruefully.


But one night, at the height of his fame, Henry came up to my father in a New York restaurant and, with great humility, told him how much his tutelage had meant to him. After that, my father proudly watched Henry in whatever form he could find him.

Many years later, after my older son was diagnosed with motor and language disorders (and later, autism) and my younger son with dysgraphia and dyslexia, Henry Winkler became important to me for very different reasons. “Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever,” a witty and wonderful children’s book series Winkler co-wrote, based on his own struggles with dyslexia and impulsivity, gave my children both hope and so much laughter. That a Hollywood star and beloved former student of their grandfather’s had, like them, contended with feeling different and learning differently made an inspirational difference to them — and their mother.


And now there is the deeply moving experience of reading “Being Henry,” a book shocking in its frankness about Winkler’s work in therapy to free himself from the defenses he had erected against insecurity. The book lays bare his crippling doubts about his worth and the enduring pain of being misdiagnosed and misunderstood. It honestly appraises the people who treated him poorly, from his demanding, harshly judgmental parents to uncomprehending or insensitive teachers and directors.

At a number of points, Winkler discusses the shame he felt, particularly as a Yale-trained actor, about giving up a more Serious Acting Career by accepting the role of the Fonz, and I felt a pang of vicarious guilt. Had my father made him feel this way?

So when I got the opportunity to talk to Winkler over Zoom recently, I was eager to offer him a belated benediction from a favorite Yale professor and to tell him just how moved I was, as a daughter and a mother, by his book. The moment he popped onscreen, in a cozy flannel shirt with Emmy statuettes and shelves of his children’s books visible behind him, an immediate sense of warm familiarity enveloped me.

I began by telling him how much I’d loved his memoir, and his eyes widened.

“This book is brand new and you are the third person I have ever spoken to about it aside from my wife,” he said, his voice trembling a little. “I can’t even begin to tell you how overwhelming and wonderful this is to hear. Thank you.”


The vulnerable little boy so vividly depicted in his book, afraid of judgment and eager for affirmation, was so nakedly evident that I felt tears welling in my eyes.

We compared notes on classic New York City bakeries — Babka, Grossinger’s, Ebingers — and vowed to hunt down recipes for the blackout cake and strudel we’d loved as kids. We shared memories of my father and how much he’d believed in Henry’s talent.

“He only was disappointed, at first, when you became the Fonz, because he thought you could do anything,” I told him. “You say in the book that the head of HBO listened to you deliver your lines at the ‘Barry’ pilot script reading and declared: ‘I had no idea Henry Winkler had that in him.’ Well, Richard Gilman did have an idea!”

“It’s good there’s a screen between us now,” Winkler said, chuckling, “or you’d be getting a very big hug!”

I mentioned also how much his book had resonated with my experience as a mother. In “Being Henry,” Winkler talks about his essential self being buried in concrete, and how he needed a therapist to help him excavate it, all of which reminded me of trying to reach my autistic son through so many barriers and scrims.


The actor-author understands something fundamental as well: that therapy isn’t about fixing or curing, but about helping us to be ourselves. That’s what “Being Henry” is essentially about: learning to be yourself.

“It’ll help so many parents and so many kids,” I told him. ”It’ll get so many men to go to therapy!”

I see Henry leaning forward as though both incredulous and deeply proud.

I bring up a story from the book in which prima ballerina Carmen de Lavallade and Winkler are both playing deer in a summer acting troupe’s production. Winkler doesn’t know how he can possibly measure up, but de Lavallade reassures him: “Each of us is our own being, in our own body — you will be a different kind of deer.”

When my younger son, James, was about 6, I tell Winkler, he couldn’t spell anything and my older son, Benj, could spell everything perfectly. Discouraged, James said he felt that his brother was so much smarter than him. To which I replied that Benj’s brain just worked differently.

But now, I told Winkler, I could say: “He’s just ‘a different kind of deer.’”

This elicited a broad smile.

“My one wish for this book,” Winkler said, “is that with something I learned, somebody else will say: Oh, I can use that!

“The book actually is about how I started being who I thought I should be rather than just a different kind of deer,” he added. “I didn’t know how to be authentic, but I knew it was the place I needed to be. People would say to me, what is the definition of being cool? You’re the Fonz, tell me how to be cool! I now know the only way to be cool is to be authentic. And part of that is always holding on to 4-year-old me.”


“I identify with you. Henry, because I’m kind of a grown-up kid,” I told him.

“I see that,” he said quietly. “I really do.”

We hugged each other as best we could through screens, promised to meet one day for a real-life hug, and I logged off feeling his embrace all around me.

And I could also feel my father’s happiness at this family reunion of sorts, between a daughter and an adoptive son, and at having his message delivered: being Henry, like being the Fonz or being Hamlet, was more than good enough.

Henry Winkler will discuss his book with Tiziana Dearing at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 2, at First Parish Church in Cambridge in an event sponsored by Harvard Book Store. (This event is now sold out, but stand-by seats are sometimes available.)

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy” and “The Critic’s Daughter.”