Henry Winkler says Ed Furstman, who died in 2004, "had an affection for me different than my father"
After a difficult childhood, Henry Winkler found a different kind of solace in his relationship with his father-in-law, Ed Furstman.
“I loved him. He was funny. He was massive, tall, very tweedy, and he had an affection for me different than my father, more accessible than my father,” Winkler tells PEOPLE.
The Happy Days alum, who has been married for 45 years to Stacey Weitzman, describes growing up in New York with harsh German refugee parents in his memoir, Being Henry: The Fonz…And Beyond. But unlike the relationship with his own mom and dad, he had special bond with Furstman, who died in 2004. That closeness made it especially difficult for Winkler to witness Furstman's loss of his vision due to age-related macular degeneration.
“I literally watched him go from reading his mail to a machine coming in the house that projected and enlarged the letter, to not being able to read, to closing his dental practice, to not recognizing his grandchildren,” says Winkler, who recently partnered with Apellis on an awareness campaign to educate people about Geographic Atrophy, an advanced form of age-related macular degeneration.
Winkler's goal, he says, “is to tell people, especially 60 years and older, just go and have your eyes checked. Don't wait." With an early eye exam, he adds, “you have a shot at at least slowing it down a little bit. It's bone-crushing for the person who is losing one of the most important senses.”
In his memoir, Winkler also opened up about his struggle with severe dyslexia, and his tough years growing up with parents who mocked his undiagnosed learning disability and called him "dumb dog" in German. His children, including his stepson Jed, 52, son Max, 40, and daughter Zoe, 43, were also eventually diagnosed with dyslexia.
Winkler was in his 30s when he and Stacey took Jed to be examined — and that's when the actor learned he had it, too. “In third grade [Jed] had to write a report and couldn't do it,” Winkler told PEOPLE. “I said to him everything that was said to me: ‘Go back to your room. You're being lazy. Live up to your potential. You're so verbal.’ I then had him tested and we read everything they said. I went, 'Oh my God, Stacey, this is me. I have something with a name.'"
Today, Winkler says he realized he spent too many years holding himself back due to crippling self-doubt.
“I spent most of my adult life being frightened, on the outside looking like I had it together and mostly being anxious. The biggest lesson, I really now believe today in 2023 looking back, is not only must you be tenacious, not only must you be grateful, but you also have to be flexible,” Winkler says.
"You have to take a leap of faith. You have to jump off the precipice and just trust you're going to fly, because there were so many years I was not hired as an actor," he continues. "I have a family, I have a house. What am I going to do? And then somebody suggested I become a producer. I start off saying, 'I can't do it. I'm dyslexic. I have no idea what the business is. I can't do it.' And then finally you say, 'Oh, just shut up and try.'"
"So I think 'shut up and try' might be the most important lesson that I could pass on to somebody," he adds.
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