By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jun 01, 2004 at 5:48 AM

{image1} It has been 20 years since the final episode of "Happy Days" aired, but Henry Winkler, the actor who played "The Fonz," remains cool.

Winkler holds a Master's degree from Yale University and has scores of acting, producing and directing credentials, yet he has struggled with dyslexia his entire life. His three children also have learning challenges.

Despite a busy schedule, the 48-year-old Winkler will fly from his home in L.A. to Milwaukee on June 17 to guest lecture about his learning challenges at the 2004 IndependenceFirst Power Lunch at the Midwest Airlines Center, 400 W. Wisconsin Ave.

Though Winkler's never lived in Milwaukee, many people still associate Brew City with "Happy Days." It's fitting, then, that Winkler is the subject of this latest edition of Milwaukee Talks.

Why? "Milwaukee's my honorary home in my heart," says Winkler.

OMC: What is the main message you are trying to convey about people with learning challenges?

Henry Winkler: My main message is that if you will it, it is not a dream. I didn't write that sentence, but have it hanging on my wall. I found it to be one of the most important thoughts in my life. It's one of those thoughts that is said in a different way by every great thinker no matter where they are in the world. If there are rules that this planet revolves on, that is definitely one of them.

OMC: Are you on tour now, or is your trip to Milwaukee an isolated event?

HW: I am not on tour right now. When I'm asked to go to a place to speak I decide if I want to go there, and if so, I get up really early and fly there.

OMC: Why did you want to come to Milwaukee?

HW: I gotta go to Milwaukee! Milwaukee is my honorary home in my heart. Every time that I've been to Milwaukee I'm treated with such warmth it's hard to say no.

OMC: You've co-written a series of young adult novels around a character named Hank Zipzer. How much of Hank is based on you?

HW: 90 percent, with 10 percent exaggeration. I receive letters from all over the country. Kids say, "I laughed so loud the teacher took the book away from me." This is music to my ears. This kid (Hank) is just a great kid, but he has trouble in school.

OMC: Is it true that you found out you had dyslexia as an adult, after you graduated from Yale?

HW: Yes. When my stepson was in third grade we had him tested (for dyslexia) and everything we learned made me think, "Oh my goodness, this is me."

OMC: How does dyslexia affect your life?

HW: I can't spell. If I give someone dollar bills I have to pray they are honest and give me back the correct change. I can't figure out how much money I have in my hand or how much I should get back.

OMC: I thought dyslexia was when you transpose letters?

HW: That's one form, but there are so many forms. One in five human beings have some sort of learning challenge - whether it's with spelling, numbers, auditory -- and that's why when I wrote these novels for children.

OMC: What was it like for you as a kid?

HW: I was told I was stupid, lazy and not living up to my full potential all my life, so that's what I thought. As I got older, I started to think, "I have good thoughts and I'm a good thinker so how could I be stupid?"

{image2} OMC: What advice do you have for parents of kids with learning challenges?

HW: First of all, it is not their fault or their kid's fault. We all learn differently. Support is so important. The child already feels badly enough, and if the learning challenge destroys their self-image, then you've got even a bigger problem. So just support the child.

Early detection is also really important. When you think there might be a problem, have the child tested immediately. All three of my kids - my son, daughter and stepson -- have a learning challenge and we jumped on it and got them the tools they needed. We just said, "Look, as long as you try your hardest, whatever you bring home is fine." One went to Georgetown University and my daughter went to Wisconsin (Madison).

OMC: What does she do now?

HW: She teaches preschool and she's amazing ... Parents get embarrassed if children aren't "the best" and just because they're not "the best" in school doesn't mean they are not extraordinary citizens of the world.

OMC: Is it true you were rehearsing lines with John Ritter right before he collapsed and died?

HW: Yes. I was going to guest star on "8 Simple Rules" and we were going over lines and he said "I gotta go. I gotta get some water." And that was it. I never saw him again.

OMC: You two were really close, weren't you?

HW: We were friends for many, many years. We did a lot of stuff together. I produced him, directed him; we acted on Broadway and TV movies and raised millions of dollars for Cerebral Palsy together.

OMC: What are you working on right now?

HW: I just started the seventh book in the Hank Zipzer series and we're making a pilot for Nickelodeon to see if it will be a TV series. I just did a pilot for NBC, a comedy that unfortunately didn't sell, which really bummed me out. I really want to be acting on TV again. I did do six "Arrested Development" episodes this year and three "Third Watches."

OMC: What do you love about television acting?

HW: I just love acting. I decided I'm not going to produce as much and am going to act more instead.

OMC: Have you ever worked with Ron Howard? (who co-starred with Winkler in "Happy Days.")

HW: I directed his "Cop and a Half" that starred Burt Reynolds ... Ron and I are very, very close. He's like a brother.

OMC: How much were you and the rest of the "Happy Days" cast told about Milwaukee when you were working on the show?

HW: Very little. The executive producer, Tom Miller, was born and raised there so he told me some things about it.

OMC: Has the public ever let go of you as "The Fonz?"

HW: No, but they go to see my movies, they watch me on TV, they buy my books, so it doesn't matter. They accept me in other stuff while still loving the Fonz character. And that's just dandy.

For more information about the June 17 Power Lunch, call (414) 226-8304.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.