LOS ANGELES — “Everybody got a cutting.”
Henry Winkler is jumping back to West 78th Street now, telling the story of a plant. It’s not just the story of a plant, it’s likely the only story of a plant that includes an escape from Nazi Germany, the sitcom hero named the Fonz and the acclaimed Amazon series “Transparent.”
But let’s get back to the story.
“I grew up with a woman, Tanta Erma,” Winkler explains.
Erma wasn’t a blood relative. Almost all of Winkler’s extended family died during World War II. Harry and Ilse, his parents, somehow managed to escape. That was 1939. How close a call was it? Harry’s brother, who decided to wait an extra day to get his dinner jacket back from the cleaners, did not get out.
In New York, a community of German exiles formed a kind of family. They were joined, a few years later, by Tanta Erma. She was older and became part of Winkler’s extended family, the neighborhood of German immigrants who helped found Congregation Habonim.
Erma had been smuggled out of Germany in a coffin.
“And at her feet was this plant,” Winkler says.
Henry Winkler is 70 now, with gray hair and grandchildren. But he still looks like he could throw on his leather jacket, pound the juke box and deliver a double-thumbed “correctamundo!”
On “Happy Days,” the smash sitcom that ran from 1974 to 1984, Winkler first met lifelong friend Ron Howard, who played Richie Cunningham, and introduced the world to the expression “jump the shark,” a reference to the 1977 story line during which his character literally did just that.
Winkler’s post-Fonzie career has been diverse, from executive producing “MacGyver” to a slew of small but memorable roles in “The Waterboy” and “Scream” and his turn as attorney Barry Zuckerkorn in “Arrested Development.”
And through the decades, from that boyhood apartment on West 78th Street in New York to his current home in Hollywood, Winkler has kept his precious spider plant. Today, it hangs outside the kitchen door in a thicket of bamboo.
The green-and-white leaves flow out of a small, brown pot. He feeds it unceremoniously with a thrust of the metal bowl he keeps on the narrow porch that hangs over the yard where his dogs roam.
Back in the mid-’70s, after Winkler had found success, he headed back to New York for a few possessions. He grabbed a plastic pistol and holster he got in sixth grade and a pair of wooden, carved beavers from a trip to Switzerland as a teenager. Then he sliced off a sprig of the spider plant.
“It was only instinctual, not intellectual,” he says. “I grew up with it, I heard the story, and I thought maybe it’s my responsibility to make sure it lives.”
Years later, Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent,” the transgender comedy starring Jeffrey Tambor, heard Winkler reference the spider plant during an interview on the “WTF With Marc Maron” podcast. She invited him to visit the show’s set. Winkler brought a clipping from the spider plant.
“We didn’t totally understand what he meant when he told the story,” Soloway says now. “The person in the casket with it. Was the person dead? No, the person was in the casket pretending to be dead. We asked him about his dad, his family, the personalities of his parents.”
Winkler talked of it all. He told them how his father managed to smuggle the family’s jewelry into the States. Harry melted chocolate over the precious items and didn’t flinch when asked by the Nazis if he had any valuables. No. And then Harry proceeded to leave with the box of chocolates under his arm.
During its second season, Soloway wrote this into “Transparent” — with Winkler’s permission — as the show flashed back to 1930s Berlin.
And the plant? It didn’t end up on the screen. But Soloway kept it as a symbol, watering it and keeping it in the writers’ room for inspiration.
“It’s kind of crazy we have it here,” she says. “It’s a beautiful story.”
For Winkler, the plant is a symbol of grit and perseverance. It also links him to a difficult past.
He was born in 1945, six years after his parents escaped. And what he learned most from Harry and Ilse, he says, was how not to parent. As a boy, Winkler struggled in school and, at one point, his father gave him the nickname, “dummer hund,” or dumb dog. As a teenager, Winkler would go to summer school — every summer — to try to pass the same introductory geometry class. Finally, the summer after his class graduated, Winkler eked out a D-minus. He got his diploma in the mail.
It would be years before he would be diagnosed with dyslexia, a reading disorder.
Fifty-three years later, Winkler still gets angry about his struggle.
“Here we are and after all this time, not one human being has ever said the word hypotenuse,” he says. “What were they thinking? Why did I have to be humiliated, worried, work so hard, feel so horrible and feel humiliated that I didn’t walk with my class?”
The answer, for Winkler, came in the mid-1970s. That’s when he was diagnosed.
“It was like a miracle,” recalls Howard, now a film director. “Finally, an answer. It was such a relief to him, to actually understand this thing. That he’d been struggling with his whole life. He was the first one who explained dyslexia to me.”
None of this — the poor grades, the stumbling over scripts — had been his fault. Recognizing, though, does not mean forgiving. Winkler had tried to make peace with his father in his early 20s. Today, sitting in his living room nearly a half-century later, he slips into a thick, German accent.
“Yeah, I’m a terrible father,” he says, recounting his father’s response. “I gave you all this.”
Howard, who still remembers Winkler entertaining his co-stars with that accent, knows that the comedy only masked the sadness. Now, when Howard considers his friend and the plant he has maintained for all these years, he imagines a deeper theme at play.
“Those are the lost roots,” Howard says. “He’s a family man, and that’s a significant vacuum in his mind and in his heart.”
When he speaks at events on dyslexia, Winkler will share this frustration. He shows a photograph, taken on Feb. 13, 1980, at his commercial peak. In the frame, he is at the Smithsonian during a packed news conference to donate his “Happy Days” leather jacket.
In the photo, watching proudly, are his parents.
“I will say, ‘The short Germans are behind me,’ ” Winkler says, “and it gets a big laugh. And here I get serious. I say, ‘I didn’t need them to be proud then. I needed them to be there when I could not figure anything out.’ ”
His parents died in the 1990s, but that hasn’t dulled his emotions.
“You know what I mourn,” he says. “I mourn when I hear other people say, ‘My parents were my best friends. I’m so grateful my parents are still alive.’ I think, ‘I don’t have the slightest idea how you can have that thought.’ ”
With the childhood wounds still raw, Winkler chose a path once thought unlikely for a man who used to stumble over his scripts. He decided to become a writer.
He has a partner, Lin Oliver, who works to flesh out the adventures of Hank Zipzer, the “world’s best underachiever.” Since 2003, the pair have published six of the books, which are aimed for children ages 8 to 12. The seventh, “You Can’t Drink a Meatball Through a Straw,” is out this month.
“The theme of my life, the theme of what I say to every child is, ‘No matter how difficult it is for you to learn, it has nothing to do with how brilliant you are.’ And that’s Hank. And the emotion is real. When he is really scared and can’t figure it out and he hates his brain, I go back to being 8, to being in my room.”
The difference here is that Hank embraces what makes him different. If he can’t do it the “right” way, he simply does it his way. And because Winkler is pulling the strings, he can create a happy ending.
He is asked what that spider plant, which he clipped without much thought so long ago, means to him. This time, Winkler doesn’t hesitate.
“Life, tenacity and will.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Henry Winkler’s character on the television show “Arrested Development” was Barry Zuckerberg. His character’s name was Barry Zuckerkorn.