An appearance by actor/author Henry Winkler at the Book Festival of the MJCCA Nov. 12 was pure entertainment. Even before he appeared with Lin Oliver, co-author of a new children’s book series, MJCCA board chair Ken Winkler got in on the act. He described what the “other Winkler” might have given him as a bar mitzvah gift if they were related. The comedy started there.
When the authors of “Alien Superstar” took the stage, they alternated telling their life stories with a slideshow: Winkler as an actor from Manhattan, N.Y., and Oliver, a comedy and children’s book writer from Burbank, Calif.
Winkler’s segment was a dramatic retelling of his rapid rise to stardom and his determination to succeed despite his “very short” German parents – who moved to the U.S. to escape the Holocaust – calling him a dumb dog, in Yiddish, and not believing in him. His heartbreaking learning difficulties contrasted with his unscripted comedy, such as describing the writing process.
“I talk and she writes. When she talks, I wait.”
Although his father wanted him to go into the family lumber business, the only wood Winkler was interested in was Holly-wood, he said, showing slides to illustrate his point.
“I was told I wouldn’t get there because I am in the bottom 3 percent academically in America.” Two weeks after arriving in Hollywood in 1973, he got a part in the pilot, “Happy Days.” The director told him to comb his hair and he went to the mirror and recaptured the moment with his New York greaser accent and an imaginary comb, “Ayyy, I don’t have to, because it’s perfect.”
When asked by CNN journalist Holly Firfer about his iconic role, Winkler said he didn’t consider himself cool. “I wanted to be The Fonz.” Winkler also spoke of scenes involving his two-wheeled sidekick. “I do not ride a motorcycle. I do not like motorcycles.” First attempt, he said his dyslexia caused him to speed into and slide under a sound truck. Afterwards others were only concerned if the motorcycle was OK, Winkler recounted, to more laughter.
More little-known Fonzie trivia: ABC initially nixed him wearing a leather jacket associated with crime. But “Happy Days” creator Garry Marshall convinced the network, “You know, he could be hurt if he’s riding his motorcycle wearing cloth.” ABC agreed, but Fonzie could only stand near the motorcycle while wearing the jacket. So he didn’t have to ride it, after all.
Firfer asked about a role he declined not wanting to be typecast: Danny Zuko in “Grease.” “I went home and had a V8.” John Travolta got the part. “He went home and bought a plane.”
When Firfer asked how he was able to run lines with reading issues, Winkler explained that memorizing was quicker and easier for him. “Whatever I didn’t remember, I made up.” And if questioned, he’d explain he was capturing “the essence of the character.” But if he got the role, he promised to read verbatim.
Reinventing himself as an author, the 36 books he’s written with Oliver tend to reflect his struggles. The latest is drawn from their shared experience in Hollywood, where “Alien Superstar” takes place.
The story, like Winkler’s life, shows what it’s like to feel like an alien in a strange world, but be comfortable with who you are. “I remember what it’s like to be 8 and fail.”
But his primary message last week was about perseverance.
“When you know what you want to do, never let it out of your mind. … If you will it, it is not a dream.”
In a lightning round of questions from Firfer, Winkler disclosed his bucket list, including fly fishing as long as he can and winning a Tony.
Favorite saying: Yes I will.
The epitome of cool: Cool is being authentic.
Coolest person: Bruce Springsteen. “If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, I’m coming back as ‘The Boss.’”
Best advice: “Relax. Anticipatory fear is worse than the actuality.”
Finally, during a Q&A with the audience, a young author asked Winkler his advice for dyslexics. “Don’t be ashamed of it. Life is too much fun to be ashamed.”