He shared that he hid his struggle and embarrassment with humor and wishes he knew his diagnosis much earlier.
Living with a learning disorder, especially an undiagnosed one, isn't easy. Henry Winkler knows what it feels like. The 77-year-old actor was diagnosed with dyslexia at 31 and recently spoke about what it is like to live with a learning challenge, reported TODAY. The actor has appeared in dozens of films and television shows over the years and most recently "Barry," in which he plays a self-absorbed acting coach named Gene Cousineau opposite Bill Hader. The dark comedy, which is currently in its fourth and final season, has not only earned Winkler legions of fans but also his first Emmy in a career spanning more than 50 years.
But it was Winkler's portrayal of Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, the tough guy with a golden heart in "Happy Days," that made the actor a household name, endearing him to a generation of viewers before he was typecast in an acting drought that lasted nearly a decade. Winkler shared that dyslexia affected his work as an actor over the years. Starting with his role in "Happy Days" he said, "There are times when I am so frustrated by my brain that I hit my head... I sat around the table reading 'Happy Days' in the '70s. Now, I'm reading it and I'm stumbling. I stumble because I can't read off the page. No matter how hard I try, it is a difficult process for me. I'm messing up other people's timing. I'm slowing the process down. I'm making jokes because I'm hiding behind humor in my embarrassment."
He added that he wishes he knew about dyslexia—a learning disorder that involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words—much earlier. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, when people knew less about dyslexia, Winkler claims he was embarrassed about his lack of comprehension in school and at home.
When he was diagnosed at 31, the "Barry" actor said, he finally grew aware that he was dealing with "something with a name." His first reaction was anger toward his parents, he admitted. "I was so angry that I was yelled at, humiliated. I was grounded. I was punished. For what? For nothing," he said. "I wasn't trying hard enough. I was stupid. I was lazy. Not living up to my potential."
Winkler has since used his diagnosis to help others suffering from the same learning disability. In 2014, he co-wrote "Here's Hank," the first in a best-selling series of children's books about a lovable second-grader who, like Winkler, struggles with reading and math. The actor also helps others with dyslexia, most recently Kelly Clarkson's daughter, River.
During an appearance on "The Kelly Clarkson Show," Clarkson told Winkler that her daughter was "getting bullied at school for not being able to read like all the other kids." Winkler said in retrospect, "I said to her what I have said to every child I have ever met on this planet. How you learn has nothing to do with how brilliant you are."
"(Dyslexia) is a passion because it is something that empowers me. Something that embarrasses me. Something that I didn't know I had. Something you don't overcome," Winkler said. "How you learn has nothing to do with how great you are. And how difficult it is for you to learn has nothing to do the with destiny you're going to meet." Moreover, Winkler believes there is still a long way to go even though much progress has been made in understanding the disability since he was a child.
"We make fun of, we judge people who are different," he explained. "A lot of people on this earth, they're not making a choice. It's in their DNA. You cannot help being dyslexic. You don't wake up one morning and say, 'I'm going to be a pain in the a-- in my teacher's life.'" The "Happy Days" actor stated that he can continue having "the best time ever." "I still love what I do. I love what I do in my house with our children and grandchildren. I love what I do in my professional life," said Winkler.