Award-winning actor, producer, director, and author Henry Winkler ’67, H. ’78, dropped by Emerson this week to teach a master class to sophomores in Associate Professor Scott LaFeber’s Musical Theatre class.
Winkler is in Boston until June shooting his latest film, a romantic and buddy comedy titled Here Comes the Boom with Kevin James and Salma Hayek. He listened to and then advised the students on their monologues and vocal performances. Following words of advice and encouragement, he also gave each student a big hug.
“It was a real privilege having an actor of such prominence sharing his expertise with the students,” said LaFeber. “His passion for the craft, the process of an artist, and the realities of the business is infectious and the students were greatly affected by it. Above all, the students were taken with his confirmation of how the training at Emerson, geared toward effective acting in musical theater, is so important to their longevity in the business.”
The actor, who attended graduate school at Yale, first came to fame for his Golden Globe Award winning (and Emmy nominated) performance as Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli on the hit television show Happy Days. He has gone on to act, produce, or direct many television shows, movies, and plays that have ranged from Shakespeare and Dickens to more contemporary projects, such as his current one.
He is passionate about Emerson and enjoys coming back to campus when he can. Asked about his own Emerson experience, Winkler said “The College accepted me into its family. Being dyslexic and not having done well at all in high school, it was an act of kindness I will not forget. Emerson’s size allowed me to be cushioned while growing up and at the same time to know my college community really well during my four wonderful years. I was able to be part of the theater world, the fledgling television broadcast world, and the social world that made up Emerson.
“The experience of putting on a play, studying scenes, or doing a television show directed by my fraternity brother Jeff Goldstein ’66, helped me understand how important discipline and concentration were for the profession I dreamed of,” he said.
Winkler recalled several Emerson faculty members who greatly influenced his career: “Charlotte Lindgren, my English professor, was one of the first teachers in my life who understood me and did not judge my learning challenge. Leo Nickole (professor emeritus of Performing Arts) taught me my first lesson in humility. They both eventually became my mentors at Emerson.”
In February of this year, Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II announced that she will award Winkler an honorary Order of the British Empire for his services to children with special educational needs and dyslexia. He is the first Emersonian to receive an OBE.
“What a privilege to receive this award,” Winkler said. “As a young person, I was told I would never achieve. Now I have an OBE. I am one of four non-British subjects to receive the award this year.”
In 2003, in collaboration with Lin Oliver, he started a series of children’s books. The series follows the adventures of a 4th-grade boy named Hank Zipzer, who is dyslexic. To date, Winkler has published 17 books about his hero Zipzer, “the world’s greatest underachiever.”
The message in the books is that no matter how brilliant you are, everyone learns in their own way. Initially, he was told by his British publisher that the stories were too American and would never sell in the United Kingdom. “In the years that followed, I was performing pantomime as Captain Hook in Peter Pan in various productions across England. And I’d tell anyone who would listen about my books. Finally, Walker Books agreed to distribute them in the UK and they’ve done really well.”
And what’s next for Sir Winkler? “In June, after the film wraps up in Boston, I will be flying to the UK and going on tour. I will be visiting at least two elementary or high schools a day, talking with 300 to 600 kids a day, about learning. The UK’s only newspaper written exclusively for children, First News, which has a circulation of 800,000, is covering my tour and doing a complimentary campaign they are calling ‘My Way.’ Very exciting!”