Henry Franklin Winkler was born on October 30, 1945, in Manhattan, New York. His parents, Ilse Anna Maria (Hadra) and Harry Irving Winkler, were German Jewish immigrants who escaped the Holocaust by moving to the US in 1939. His father was the president of an international lumber company while his mother worked alongside his father. Winkler is a cousin of Richard Belzer.
Winkler grew up with "a high level of low self-esteem." Throughout elementary school and high school, he struggled with academics. This was due to what he would later identify as dyslexia. His parents expected him to eventually work with them at the lumber company. However, he had other plans as he saw roles on stage as the key to his happiness. Winkler's acting debut came in the eighth grade when he played the role of Billy Budd in the school play of the same name. Following his graduation from McBurney High School, Winkler was able to incorporate his learning disability and succeed in higher education. He received a Bachelor's degree from Emerson College in 1967 and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama in 1970. He later received an honorary PhD in Hebrew Literature in 1978 from Emerson College.
Following college, his top priority was to become an actor. However, if this was unsuccessful, he wanted to become a child psychologist because of his deep interest in working with children. Like many other actors, he began his career by appearing in 30 commercials. His first major film role was in The Lords of Flatbush (1974) in which he played a member of a Brooklyn gang. After that, he was cast on a new ABC series which was set in the 1950s, Happy Days (1974). He was given the role of high school dropout and greaser Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli. The character was seldom seen during the first few episodes as ABC initially feared he would be perceived as a hoodlum. However, the character became extremely popular with viewers, and the show's producers decided to give Fonzie a more prominent role in the series.
Following this, the show's ratings began to soar, and Fonzie became a 1970s icon and the epitome of cool. His motorcycle, leather jacket, thumbs-up gesture, and uttering of the phrase "Aayyyy!" became television trademarks. Unlike many other 1970s stars who rose to fame in a short period of time and developed "big heads", Winkler managed to stay well grounded and avoided falling into this trap. He was said to be more polite and agreeable, even after his popularity soared. He remained on the series until its cancellation in 1984.
In the mid-1980s, with his Happy Days (1974) now behind him, Winkler decided to change his focus toward producing and directing. He produced and directed several television shows and movies, most notably MacGyver (1985) and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (1996). In the mid-1990s and early 2000s, he was able to re-establish himself with a younger generation of moviegoers and TV viewers, appearing in the popular films, Scream (1996) and The Waterboy (1998) and on shows such as The Practice (1997) and Arrested Development (2003).
In 2018 after over 45 years in the entertainment industry, he won his first ever Prime Time Emmy Award: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for his role on the HBO series Barry (2018). In addition to his movie and film credits, Winkler is a well accomplished author. Between 2003 and 2007, he co-authored 12 children's novels with Lin Oliver. The series is called "Hank Zipzer, the World's Greatest Underachiever." The books are based on his early struggles with dyslexia, and they sold more than two million books in that time.
Winkler has been married since 1978 to Stacey Winkler (nee Weitzman) with whom he has three children. Together, they are actively involved with various children's charities. In 1990, they co-founded the Children's Action Network (CAN), which provides free immunization to over 200,000 children. Winkler is also involved with the Annual Cerebral Palsy Telethon, the Epilepsy Foundation of America, the annual Toys for Tots campaign, the National Committee for Arts for the Handicapped, and the Special Olympics.
In September 2003, Winkler suffered a personal setback when John Ritter, unexpectedly passed away. Winkler was on the set of 8 Simple Rules (2002) that day for a guest appearance and was one of the last people to talk to Ritter.