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Henry Winkler's New Kids Book "Alien Superstar" Taps Into His Hollywood History

Alien Superstar, by Henry Winkler & Lin Oliver. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Alien Superstar, by Henry Winkler & Lin Oliver. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Audiences have loved Henry Winkler from his iconic role as Fonzie on “Happy Days” to playing the Bluth family’s incompetent attorney Barry Zuckerkorn on “Arrested Development.”

But some may not know that the beloved actor is also a writer, and his latest children’s book with longtime co-author Lin Oliver is called,“ Alien Superstar.” The story follows a six-eyed alien named Buddy who lands a role on television after losing his senses forces him to escape his home planet. 

“He comes from a repressive society where they’re not supposed to experience any sensory joys of life — music, art and so on,” Oliver says. “And so when they turn 13, their sensory enhancer is deactivated, which is what prompts the whole story of his flight to Earth.”

Winkler says it’s almost a story about the relationship between Buddy and his sensory enhancer, which gets the young alien into a lot of trouble. 

“What it turned out to be was a buddy comedy because you’ve got Buddy, who is this kind of wonderful young man who’s looking at the world with wonder, and you’ve got his crazy friend, the enhancer, who just does what he feels,” Winkler says. 

Oliver says she thinks children will relate to the book and Buddy’s complicated relationship with his senses. 

“I think that children experience the world first through their senses,” she says. “Their intellect comes much later, and not necessarily in a good way.” 

After Buddy lands on Earth, he is mistaken for an actor cast in a show as an alien and becomes a star overnight. Winkler says Buddy’s overnight stardom is much like his own experience in Hollywood. 

“I left New York on September 18th, 1973. I had just made ‘The Lords of Flatbush.’ I had a thousand dollars in my pocket. I could stay in Hollywood for one month. That was the length of time that thousand dollars would take me,” Winkler says. “In the very first week, I got a part on ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show.’ It was four lines. They let me ad-lib it to eight. In the second week, I auditioned for ‘The Fonz.’ ”

Winkler and Oliver have both worked in Hollywood for years — she as a producer and writer, and he as an actor and producer. For this book, Winkler says they simply took their own experience and made it fantasy.

“Here it is: Lin has written and produced at least 300 episodes of television and movies. We’ve written 35 books together. I produced ‘MacGyver.’ I’m an actor. I’m on a wonderful show called ‘Barry,’ ” Winkler says. “But we took our experience and we put a stranger in a strange land inside our experience.”

Interview Highlights

On why they chose to write a complete fantasy story 

Winkler: “My mentor Garry Marshall always said, ‘You know, a lot of people write important things. They make important television. I make recess.’ And Lin has always said to me, ‘We want to be the book that is rolled up in somebody’s back pocket or in their backpack, that they are reading for pleasure and they don’t feel the pressure.’ And then also we have great underlying themes — body shaming, authenticity, don’t judge a book by its cover (no pun intended) — that underpin the comedy.”

Oliver: “It also felt like the world was ready for a real look at fame. We live in a society where fame comes very quickly and easily and for no particular reason necessarily, you know, instant celebrity, and we think that that’s held up as a value for kids. And so we thought it would be very interesting to write about fame and celebrity from all points of view — the advantages and the glamour and also the personal cost.”

On if kids are actually reading as much today 

Winkler: “Kids say two things to us, ‘Wow. I laughed so hard,’ and two, ‘How did you know me so well?’ ”

Oliver: “I find that kids — I do a lot of work with literacy and run a non-profit organization … called the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. There are 30,000 members worldwide and all the members are authors and illustrators of children’s books. And we are all finding that kids are actually reading more. That the devices are one thing, and of course everyone is on their devices, but there has been a huge resurgence of reading among children. I think the predictions of the downfall of the printed book were premature and not true.”

On what they read as children 

Oliver: “My parents read to me all the time until I was about seven or eight years old. They read poetry. They read classics. Then I started to read Charles Dickens, which I adored because I like big fat sagas. And then I discovered ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ and ‘Marjorie Morningstar’ and sort of early literature that was aimed at girls and young women and that was life transforming for me.”  

Winkler: “I read my first novel when I was 31 because I am so dyslexic. I was so intimidated. My eye and the page never made friends. Now I read thrillers. Daniel Silva, the way he writes, it flows like a river in my brain. So that’s my experience and that I have written these books with Lin is one of the proudest moments of my life and one of the most unimaginable moments that exists.”  

On acting and writing with dyslexia 

Winkler: “I read my scripts over and over again … I can’t read very well, but I can memorize pretty quickly. And if you want something, there is a way. In my fan mail, in 1975 I got a metal cutting that said, ‘If you will it, it is not a dream.’ And I live by that concept. You want something, you can figure out how to do it. There is not one way.

“When I was lying in my bed in New York City in my apartment on West 78th Street, I dreamt of being an actor every moment — and now, I am living it. And I’m a pretty verbal fellow, I have no words for the joy that courses through my body that I’m able to do this.”

On how they began writing together and their process

Oliver: “When Henry and I first got together to do that to do the ‘Hank Zipzer’ books, he always says it was during a lull in his career. So I’m grateful for the lull in your career, Henry. I’m sorry to say that.”

 Winkler: “Me too. No, I am too now.”

Oliver: “So now there’s not a lull in his career, so we have the books and our work together and his acting career. So to me, it’s all a wonderful thing. I’m happy to see him happy. And I would just like to say that his memory, you asked about his dyslexia and remembering the lines, when we sit down, we write together. We write in the same room much like television comedy is done. We have a writers’ room except it’s just Henry and me. And Henry comes in, he can have been gone for three days and remembers exactly where we left off and what the last line is. So I see how he’s compensated for whatever was a reading issue by having an incredible memory and feel for where we are in the story and what the lines are.”

Winkler: “And we write every day. So we write from 10, we schmooze, and then we get down to work and we finish it about 12:30. Right now, we’re in a studio in Los Angeles, and we’re facing each other, which is exactly the way we work together. I sit on one side of Lin’s desk and Lin sits on the other at the computer, and we literally hammer out chapter after chapter that way.”

On if there is more coming for Buddy and this story

Winkler: “We’re in the middle of book two right this minute.” 

Oliver: “The concept is a trilogy, a three-book series.” 

Winkler: “The first contract that Lin and I got for ‘Hank Zipzer’ was a contract for four novels. … And out of that came 28 books.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 


Book Excerpt: “Alien Superstar”

By Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

Chapter 2

When I came to, I had no idea where I was or how much time had elapsed. Grandma Wrinkle had preprogrammed my vehicle to land on planet Earth, but I couldn’t tell how far along in the journey I was. I swiveled all six of my eyes to the front and looked out the windshield at the panoramic view. Wow, space is beautiful, I thought as I surveyed the swirling misty spiral ahead of me filled with two hundred billion stars. Moving my eyes to the left side of my head, I noticed a shimmering yellow planet circled by glowing rings of brown, gray, and pink.

Wait a minute! That misty spiral had to be the Milky Way, and the glowing planet was Saturn. That meant I was only 746 million miles from Earth, give or take 50 million! I realize that to you this might seem far, but then you humans are still driving around on four rubber tires surrounded by steel. I don’t want to make you feel bad, but where I come from, our technology is way beyond that. Without getting into the physics of it, let’s just say my faster-than-light vehicle was using teleportation to get me to Earth in less time than it would take you guys to drive from Big Arm, Montana, to Green Acres, North Dakota.

I suddenly became aware of a gnawing feeling in my stomach and remembered Grandma Wrinkle’s warning.

“I have left some nutrient wafers for you in the sustenance box in the dashboard,” she had said. “I couldn’t leave more because every ounce counts and I didn’t want to weigh down your vehicle. The wafers will provide the nourishment you need until you figure out what will sustain you on Earth. And remember, you must always drink lots of water to maintain your life force.”

As I reached out to open the sustenance box, I felt a burning sting in my shoulder. All my eyes raced to the right side of my head and glanced down at the wound, which was already scabbing over with dark purple blood. The pressurization system Grandma Wrinkle had installed inside my vehicle was healing the wound faster than normal. I hoped it would be entirely healed by the time I landed on Earth. It’s hard to make a good first impression when you have fresh purple blood gushing out of your body.

I took out one of the wafers and popped it in my mouth. Immediately, I felt a burst of energy as it dissolved on my tongue. There was no need to chew—our species evolved past teeth eons ago. That must sound pretty good to you earthlings, who still have to go to the dentist every year. I hear they drill holes in your teeth, which doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

Our Supreme Leader had decreed that our nutrient wafers should have every speck of taste baked out of them so that our senses are never stimulated. He believes that stimulated senses can lead to all kinds of trouble, as if enjoying a pepperoni pizza is the first step to overthrowing

a repressive government.

Even though I could have eaten all the wafers at once, I forced myself to leave one behind until I figured out what kind of Earth food I could eat. Earth food looked great in the movies and television shows Grandma Wrinkle and I watched secretly in her underground cellar. Especially ice cream. It looked like such fun to use your tongue as a spoon. Or spaghetti, which looks like a huge pile of string.

Does it tie itself in knots in your stomach? I wondered.

Suddenly, a massive object appeared, zooming right toward me.

“Evade! Evade!” I screamed, with only me there to hear it.

I grabbed the altitude lever and pulled, forcing my vehicle to shoot up and over the object. As it whizzed past, I looked down and realized it was a satellite with the gigantic letters USA emblazoned on its solar panels. That meant I must be close to Earth. Looking out the windshield, I could see the circular curve of the blue planet come into view. My three lungs started to work overtime, inhaling gulps of air in a combination of excitement and fear.

There it was. Earth.

I was heading right to the spot Grandma Wrinkle had programmed, our favorite address on Earth, the one we saw at the end of so many movies.

Universal Studios, North Hollywood, California.

We were the only ones on our planet who even knew movies existed. Grandma Wrinkle had remembered seeing several as a child at the Great Library, before it was destroyed by the new government, and she never forgot the influence they’d had on her. Later, being the master engineer that she is, she invented a device to funnel earthly movies and television across the universe directly to her cellar. We watched those movies endlessly, laughing and crying over every detail. And that’s how I learned that creativity had to always be in my life. I couldn’t be me without it.

Had our Supreme Leader or any of the Squadron discovered Grandma Wrinkle’s cache of entertainment, she would have been placed in a single-being prison capsule and shot into space, banished forever. And I wouldn’t have been far behind. But our dream was that if I could reach Universal Studios before my sensory enhancer was deactivated, I would be safe and able to live my life as I knew it needed to be lived.

“Landing coordinates in range.” The monotone voice of the onboard computer startled me.

“Repeat, please,” I said.

“Landing coordinates are locked in. Are you prepared?”

“Yes.” I gulped. I wasn’t sure if I was at all prepared, but when you’re billions of miles from home, you want to let the universe know you’re confident, even if you’re not.

“Make sure you go to the bathroom before you land,” the computer droned.

“What am I, a baby?” I snapped.

“Babies are defined as one year or younger. You are thirteen, so the answer is no.”

Computers have no sense of humor. That’s the same no matter what planet you live on.

The ride got very bumpy as we drew near Earth. My sensory enhancer burrowed closer to my body and hid in my armpit, obviously reacting to the change in atmosphere. I heard it take a whiff and then let out a big grunt. I couldn’t blame it—I hadn’t washed in days. I wrapped my fingers around the armrest until all fourteen of my knuckles turned white. Looking out the window, I could make out an ocean and a coastline, giving way to ribbons of highways packed

with adorable little vehicles. There they were, four rubber tires surrounded by steel.

I heard the braking system engage and felt the landing legs descend from the belly of my spaceship. The pull of Earth’s gravity and the drag from its atmosphere slowed us down enough for a gentle approach. Looking out the window, I saw a crowd of humanoids looking up at the sky—real, live, actual human beings that I had only seen in movies or television. But these humans were wearing big hats and flowered shirts of all different colors. On my planet, you

could go to prison for wearing clothes like that.

As my ship hovered above the crowd, the heat and downdraft sent the people running for cover, scattering like colossal red sand beetles do when asteroids collide. You know how that is.

At first, the humans looked frightened, and I couldn’t blame them. It’s probably not every day that you see a spaceship land right in front of your eyes, even during tours at Universal Studios, where people come to see movie magic like fake shark attacks and wizard castles and giant mechanical apes with banana breath.

The ship shuddered and touched down with a thud. I looked out the window and stared at the crowd of people. What I saw was them staring back at me. Not one eye was blinking. Not one mouth was moving. Not one hand was waving.

Would these people welcome an alien? Or would I be attacked and have to lock myself inside this capsule for the rest of my life?

I unbuckled my seat belt, filled my three lungs with air, and reached for the door handle.

There was no turning back.

Adapted excerpt from the forthcoming Alien Superstar, by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver, appears by permission of Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams, © 2019.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.