The show has been off the air for nearly 25 years, and the world at large still identifies Henry Winkler with the leather-jacket-clad Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli he played on Happy Days, even though Winkler himself long ago moved on. This month, he updates his resume once more with Hallmark Channel’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
In it, he plays Ralph, the rough-around-the-edges uncle of a single mother, Jennifer (Brooke Burns, Miss Guided), whose worries and grouchiness dwarf her holiday spirit. When Ralph brings a stranded stranger home from the airport, she’s anything but thrilled. But as the stranger’s stay drags on, his yuletide spirit begins to rub off on her and everyone else, and she begins to reconsider her own priorities.
“It really is a feel-good romantic comedy,” Winkler says of the film. “There is humor, but it is a wonderful romantic dilemma. Brooke’s character is caught — wanting security, she has made herself too safe. And my character is her surrogate dad, almost. … He literally wants to give her the gift of taking a risk. That might be the biggest Christmas gift he gives her.”
Playing the father figure isn’t just familiar to Winkler, who, even as the Fonz, played a paternal sort of role. For him, children are a reason for being. “That is a very important force in my life,” he explains. “I minored in child psychology and majored in theater in college. And then I went on to get a master’s in theater from Yale. Because I knew that if I did not have the ability to earn a living as an actor, I would work with children in some way.”
Part of Winkler’s child-nurturing impulse derives, he says, from the difficulties he had growing up with severe dyslexia — a condition that plagues him to this day. As a child, Winkler’s parents didn’t understand their young son’s resistance to hitting the books. “My father thought that education was paramount,” he recalls. “And, you know — probably true. So he sent me to Switzerland, to a school outside of Lausanne, where I was supposed to learn French. Well … ‘Je m’appelle Henry Winkler.’ That’s it. … He was convinced that if I sat at my desk long enough, I was going to get it. And my brain didn’t compute — doesn’t compute. I can’t spell. I can’t do math. Reading is difficult.”
It was an aspect of growing up that Winkler understandably remembers as distinctly frustrating — not just the dyslexia, but also his parents’ inability to appreciate his perspective. “I spent most nights before going to bed, daydreaming or night-dreaming about being an actor and reminding myself that I would not be the same kind of parent,” he says. “That my children — and they do — would have a point of view. My children could say to me and to [my wife] Stacey what was on their minds, and if it made good sense, we would change policy. Because I found that if a child is heard, a child feels powerful.”
It’s a message that Winkler tries to share with parents and would-be parents whenever possible, because he feels it’s one of the keys to effective child rearing that not enough folks seem to grasp. “It’s amazing, because [the kids] are on the money,” he says. “It’s easier to dismiss them, or it’s scary to say, ‘You know, I might be wrong.’ But the fact of the matter is, it’s very powerful to have that kind of a discussion with a young person, because if they feel respected, then they respect you.”
Winkler’s children are now all grown, but he and his wife are looking forward to the holiday season as always. Although the Fonz was distinctly Italian and Winkler himself loves Christmas, he is Jewish and observantly so. “In my household, we took our Hanukkah menorah with us on vacations and we would light the candles,” he remembers. “We were definitely a Hanukkah household. Except that the sight, the sound and the smell of Christmas — I love it and I enjoy it. This is my third Christmas movie.”
You can look forward to Winkler’s latest Christmas movie, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, when it premieres on Hallmark Channel Dec. 13.