Hank Zipzer creator Henry Winkler: ‘I thought ‘I can’t write a book, I’m stupid!”

Henry Winkler talks to TV Times magazine about going from The Fonz to playing teacher Mr Rock in a new kids’ comedy, Hank Zipzer (premieres January 27), based on his school days…

You’re starring in new CBBC series Hank Zipzer, adapted from your autobiographical children’s novels about growing up with dyslexia. How does it feel to get this made on TV?
“Holy moly, it is all beyond my wildest dreams. In 2002, my agent suggested I write books for kids about my learning challenges, because there was a lull in my acting career. But when you grow up with a learning challenge and you are told over and over again that you’re stupid, you believe it. So I thought, ‘What, is he crazy? I can’t write a book, I am stupid.'”

The books and the series have one over-riding message – help others and be patient with peers who struggle at school. But they also happen to be brilliant fun…
“We wrote them first as a comedy. They are not self-help books. But we don’t talk down to kids, so the emotion is true. When we are writing about me not being able to remember my spelling test, thinking the words must have fallen out of my head on the way to class, it feels as if I am 12 again, re-living that moment. The show goes inside Hank’s head. When he can’t figure something out, it goes into animation. So all the emotional underpinning gives it legs but boy, oh boy, it is funny first!”

What were your school days like?
“I was never allowed to be in the school play, because my grades weren’t good enough. But Mr Rock let me do it. Most teachers would say, ‘Winkler, you are not going to achieve anything’, but he said: ‘When you get out of here, you are going to be OK.’ And I took that one line and I placed it in my heart and I have kept it there until today. So it’s great to play him.”

How do you look back at your time in Happy Days now?
“I loved playing him, I love the Fonz now. I’m thankful everyday I got to play him. A lot of kids are watching it because their parents loved it. It all depends on the age of the fan – some people know me from Happy Days, some from The Waterboy, others know me from Arrested Development and there are so many children now who only know me as an author.”

What are fans like when they meet you?
“They get mixed up and say, ‘You’re my biggest fan!’ I say: ‘Yes I am! I’m your biggest fan!’ They get it twisted, but it is still lovely because you know what they are feeling. Besides, I get tongue-tied when I meet musicians. Mick Jagger? I swear to God I became a 12-year-old girl. I just jumped up and down, I didn’t know what to do. There was no cool in my body!”