“I thought I was a nobody my whole life,” Henry Winkler tells PEOPLE

By Aili Nahas
April 03, 2019 11:30 AM

By 27, Henry Winkler was an international superstar, beloved by fans for his role as The Fonz on Happy Days. But behind the scenes, the actor was still struggling with a private pain.

“I thought I was a nobody my whole life,” Winkler, whose severe dyslexia would remain undiagnosed until he was in his 30s, tells PEOPLE. “I’m getting 55,000 fan letters a week, but I think I’m stupid. Those worlds were colliding.”

From a young age, the star of HBO’s Barry, who grew up in Manhattan, faced challenges caused by his condition.

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Henry Winkler
Pamela Littky

“There is an emotional component to the learning challenged,” says Winkler, whose parents called him “dumb dog” for his failures. “You don’t have a sense of self because you’re not keeping up with everybody. When you’re growing up and you don’t know that it’s just wiring in your brain, you feel terrible about yourself.”

Continues Winkler, 73: “I was failing at everything. I thought: Will I ever be somebody?

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Even when his fame grew, the dyslexia kept Winkler from an inflated ego. “No matter what people told me, and I understood pragmatically that being a celebrity was amazing, I didn’t believe that it could be me.”

Henry Winkler in Barry

Eventually, Winkler was diagnosed at 31. “The first thing that happened, was I was angry,” he explains. “All the yelling, all the grounding, all the humiliation was for nothing.”

But the father of three came to terms with his condition, even applying it to a second career as the author of 29 books featuring Hank Zipzer, an elementary school student with dyslexia.

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Still, even today, Winkler says he makes a concerted effort to stay positive and not be overwhelmed by his past struggles.

“The self-doubt doesn’t leave you,” he explains. “But will is the beginning and end of living on this earth. And you need to stop the negative voice.”

Barry airs Sundays (10 p.m. ET) on HBO.

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