He was the coolest character on television. Henry Winkler will always be Fonzie – even though his mission now is to help children read. Education Correspondent Shahid Naqvi met the great man when he visited the Midlands.
Question: Who’s the greatest TV character of all time?
Answer: The Fonz.
There’ll be some debate over that. But for people of a certain age there can be no doubt. Anyone who grew up in the 1970s would also probably have regarded The Fonz as the coolest guy in the universe.
The hit series Happy Days was set in Milwaukee, the heart of middle-class America. On Friday, for the great man – or at least 63-year-old actor Henry Winkler who played him – the setting was a school in Kidderminster, Worcestershire.
It’s not a script anyone would have written, least of all the 100 or so middle-aged parents who gathered outside Franche Community Primary School to greet him, many going on to queue with pupils to gain his autograph.
Winkler, however, was there in his capacity not as the man who made Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli a cultural icon, but as a successful author.
More specifically, co-author of a series of children’s books about a dyslexic youngster, based on his own experience of growing up with learning difficulties.
His Hank Zipzer books, which have become best-sellers in the US, were launched in the UK this year and his visit to Franche School was part of a tour of the country to promote the National Year of Reading.
Despite enjoying a notable career as an actor, producer and director after Happy Days, Winkler – who discovered later in life he was dyslexic – said that being an author is what he is most proud of professionally.
For many of the pupils at Franche, it is the only thing they know him for.
“After my career and my children, my proudest achievement is my books – we have sold more than two million in the US,” said Winkler.
“These kids read them and laugh and that is amazing.”
Still sporting a thick head of hair, although somewhat greyer, the TV legend was greeted on his arrival by a group of year five pupils singing the Happy Days theme tune. The actor then went on to give a talk in assembly before signing copies of his book for every one of the 600 pupils.
Spurred by a strong feeling of being let down in his own childhood – he once told a group of US college students: “Thank you for listening to me ... my parents never did” – Winkler is passionate about helping youngsters achieve their full potential.
“All I know is that if I was not an actor I would work exclusively with kids to keep their sense of self-worth,” he said. “I really understood that my childhood was so crooked and it takes a long time to recover from what you are told when you are a child.
“Whatever they say to you when you are a kid, you start to believe that is the truth. There are one-in-five kids that have some kind of learning challenge in all kinds of different ways.
“Seventy per cent of all those who have been incarcerated are dyslexic.”
Practising what he preaches, the star spent time talking to every youngster he met, reinforcing a positive message about themselves in each of them.
But for discovering his acting talent, Winkler – who says he grew up with “a high level of low self-esteem” – seems to feel he might easily have ended up down and out.
It’s easy to see his most famous creation – a high school drop out who compensated for his inadequacies by developing a cool image – as an alter-ego of himself.
“Every character starts with who you are and the person you are,” he said. “I made him dyslexic. It was hard for him to graduate from high school. But at the end of the series he became a teacher despite that.”
The Fonz was originally only a bit part in Happy Days, but soon grew to become the show’s biggest attraction, so much so that producers considered renaming the series Fonzie’s Happy Days.
Thirty years on people still love the character. Middle-aged mothers queuing up to get his autograph swooned when they met him. A taxi driver pulling up outside the school shouted: “Heyyy, it’s the Fonz! Wait till I tell everyone I’ve met the Fonz!”
Jane Howard, assistant head of Franche, said: “I was on the phone this morning to my friend telling them who was visiting and they said ‘not the real Fonz?”
So what is it that made Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli such an enduring icon? It’s a question Winkler himself is probably best placed to answer.
“I based him on reality,” he said. "He was flawed. When I first got the part I asked the producers if they would allow me to show the other side of him when he takes of his leather jacket at home and there is no one to be cool for, and they said ‘yes’.
"People make the mistake today of thinking its all about action. You just get the explosions without the emotion. That is why Adam Sadler is so successful, because he is always emotional."