Former child actor Ron Howard (born 1954) may be remembered by some for his roles as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show and Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. He has also carved a niche for himself in Hollywood as a highly regarded director and producer.
Ron Howard doesn't remember a time in his life when people didn't ask him for autographs. He appeared in his first movie at the age of 18 months, and remained in the entertainment industry throughout his life. He became well-known over the years for his role as freckle-faced Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, as redheaded Richie Cunningham on Happy Days, and later as a respected director of films, including Splash, Parenthood, the acclaimed Apollo 13, and Ransom. Despite living a life in the public eye, Howard has garnered a reputation as a "nice guy" and describes himself as reserved. "I've always been a little shy, tended to keep to myself, was never sure what other people think of me, not real easy to get to know," Howard told Todd McCarthy in Film Comment.
Ron Howard was born in Duncan, Oklahoma on March 1, 1954, to parents with theatrical careers. His father, Rance Howard, worked as an actor and director of plays, and his mother, Jean Howard, was also an actress. Young Howard (then called Ronny) appeared in his first movie, Frontier Woman, when he was just 18 months old. He appeared on stage at the age of two in The Seven Year Itch. His father directed the summer stock performance at the Hilltop Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1956, Howard appeared on television in episodes of Kraft Television Theatre and The Red Skelton Show.
Three years later, Howard was cast in a feature film called The Journey, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. In order to perform in the film, Howard was required to travel to Ireland. "My parents talked it over and decided that since my dad would be there and since it was in Europe, it might be a good experience," Howard later told Peter Gethers in Esquire. "If it wasn't, then I simply wouldn't have to do it again." Howard enjoyed the experience and continued acting in two CBS teleplays: "Black December," on Playhouse 90, and "Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley," on General Electric Theatre. Ronald Reagan hosted the production on General Electric Theatre and made special mention of Howard's contribution as Barnaby. Television producer Sheldon Leonard saw the production and wanted to cast him in The Andy Griffith Show.
The Andy Griffith Show
On October 3, 1960, six-year-old Howard began a successful eight-year run as Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. Even when he would become a famous director, many still referred to Howard as "Opie." His parents supported his career, but wanted him to have as normal a childhood as possible and, therefore, kept him enrolled in public schools. "They didn't care how much money there was to be made," Howard told Darlene Arden in the Saturday Evening Post. "They wanted me only to do the Griffith show and maybe one thing during the off-season, and that was that."
Howard's off-season projects in the 1960s consisted mostly of films, including Five Minutes to Live, The Music Man, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and Village of the Giants. By the time Howard was 15 years old, he had set his sights on becoming a director. He began shooting movies with a Super-8 camera and asking questions on the sets.
In January 1969, Howard played the son of a police detective in the television drama The Smith Family, starring Henry Fonda. Later in the year, he was featured, along with his younger brother Clint, in the film The Wild Country. Howard graduated from high school in 1972 and enrolled in the film program at the University of Southern California. During the same year, he starred in an episode of the comedy anthology Love American Style, called "Love and the Happy Day." The episode became the pilot for the Happy Days. television series.
In 1973, Howard gained momentum as a teenage actor. He appeared in the horror film Happy Mother's Day, Love George with Patricia Neal and Cloris Leachman. Soon after, he starred in his first box-office smash, American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas. The movie received an Academy Award nomination for best picture, along with four other nominations.
A Decade of Happy Days
The first episode of the hit television series, Happy Days, aired in January 1974. Howard played the starring role of Richie Cunningham and continuing with the series until 1982. He also appeared in two 1974 television movies, The Migrants and Locusts, and one major motion picture, The Spikes Gang. Around this time he left his studies at USC in order to learn the filmmaking business on the job.
In 1975, Howard began to steer his career toward directing. After an appearance in John Wayne's last film, The Shootist, Howard met Hollywood B-movie producer Roger Corman, who agreed to help him direct his first feature. In exchange, Howard would star in Corman's movie Eat My Dust. "I hated Eat My Dust, hated the script, but from my film-school days at USC, I knew that Roger Corman was like a ray of hope for student film makers," Howard told Todd McCarthy in Film Comment. "He was one guy who would take chances on directors." To Howard's surprise, Eat My Dust became a hit and Corman planned a sequel. He gave Howard the opportunity to develop a script with his father and direct the follow-up movie, Grand Theft Auto. Released in 1977, the film was shot in 22 days for $602,000. Grand Theft Auto ended up grossing $15 million, and opened the door to Howard's career as a director. He started his own company, Major H Productions, appointing his father as vice-president and his brother Clint as secretary. The following year, Howard directed the television movie Cotton Candy.
Moved Behind the Camera
In 1979, Howard appeared in More American Graffiti, which became his last major acting credit. He signed a three-year exclusive contract with NBC to become a full-time executive producer-director in 1980. He directed Through the Magic Pyramid and Skyward, the latter starring Bette Davis, in 1981. The year became a landmark in Howard's life: he met his future partner, Brian Grazer. The two had met at Paramount Pictures while Howard was directing Skyward.
In 1982, Howard directed Night Shift, with Grazer producing. The film starred Happy Days co-star Henry Winkler, as well as the up-and-coming Michael Keaton. "Ron just sort of has this glow," Grazer told Christopher Connelly in Premiere. "When I hired him to do Night Shift, I'd never seen anything he'd directed. But I met him, and… you just don't imagine that anything bad could happen; If you're in an airplane with him, you just don't think if your going down." Two years later, Howard worked with Grazer again when he directed Splash, starring Daryl Hannah, Tom Hanks, and John Candy. The fantasy/romantic comedy became the hit that launched Howard's reputation as a director.
Howard further enhanced his reputation in 1983 when he directed Cocoon for Twentieth Century-Fox. The star-studded cast included Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton, Hume Cronyn, Wilford Brimley, Don Ameche, and Jack Gilford. It is a fantasy about senior citizens that come into contact with extra-terrestrials. "I'd like Cocoon audiences to have the sense that something good can be right around the corner, and can happen to you if you're ready for it," Howard told Diana Maychick in Mademoiselle. "That's always been my attitude. I haven't changed much emotionally since I was 14. I talked to a lot of older people for this film, and they told me the same thing. You get your personality, whatever it is, early on. It doesn't alter that much over the years."
By the end of 1985, Howard had decided to move his family, which then included his wife Cheryl and three daughters, from Los Angeles to Connecticut. Though he had started out his life in show business, he didn't necessarily want his children to follow the same path. "I wouldn't allow them to be kid actors, knowing what I know," Howard told Sheryl Kahn in McCalls. "I am a rarity. I think my parents did a wonderful job, but I'm not sure that it's something you can guarantee."
Formed Production Firm
Howard and Grazer cemented their business relationship officially in 1986, when they formed Imagine Entertainment. The film and television production company went public, initially selling 1.7 million shares at eight dollars each. By the end of its first day on the market, the price jumped to $18.25. "When I was 17, I wanted to go door-to-door in my neighborhood in Los Angeles to try and raise money to make a film," Howard told Peter Gethers in Esquire. "When Imagine came up, my mom reminded me of that."
Later that same year, Howard appeared in a made-for-television reunion of The Andy Griffith Show called Return to Mayberry. "Andy was like a wonderful uncle to me," Howard recalled to Jane Hall in People. "He created an atmosphere of hard work and fun that I try to bring to my movies." Howard also directed and produced the social comedy, Gung Ho, starring Michael Keaton. He went on to direct the $50 million fairy tale movie, Willow, in 1988. The following year, Howard co-wrote and directed the successful film Parenthood, which climbed to number one at the box office. The idea for the movie came from screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel on a trip to Argentina with Howard and Grazer for the filming of Gung Ho. The four men, along with their wives, devised lists of 20 experiences or feelings about their kids (which totaled 15 among the four couples), and the story went from there.
In 1991, Howard directed Backdraft, another high-budget film that featured a popular cast, including Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Scott Glenn, Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Rebecca De Mornay, Jason Gedrick, and Robert de Niro. The film became an immediate hit for its insights into the lives of firefighters and enjoys its own attraction at Universal Studios in Hollywood.
Howard's first box-office failure came in 1992. Far and Away, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, barely broke even after it was released for worldwide distribution and Howard was stunned. "We always scored high at test screenings," he told Merideth Berkman in Entertainment Weekly. "Then we got some bad reviews I wasn't braced for. Because I wanted to make [the movie] for so long, it felt like a conclusion to the first phase of my career." However, the film didn't slow Howard's momentum. By 1994, his films had grossed a total of nearly $500 million. He and Grazer had worked out an arrangement to privatize Imagine Entertainment. Later that year, Howard released his third work with Michael Keaton, The Paper, which also featured Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, and Marisa Tomei.
Apollo 13 a Soaring Success
Howard's 1995 film, Apollo 13, starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton, returned him to the top ranks of Hollywood directors. "The bittersweet quality of Jim Lovell's experience definitely drew me in," Howard explained to Jeffrey Ressner in Time. "Here was a guy, arguably the best-equipped individual to walk on the moon, and the opportunity was pulled out from under him. It was devastating, and we can all relate to that kind of disappointment." Apollo 13 received nine Academy Award nominations, including one for best picture.
Howard's November 1996 release, Ransom, starred Mel Gibson, Rene Russo, and Gary Sinise. Despite a strong cast, some critics felt that the film didn't realize its potential. Leah Rozen wrote in her review for People: "This is a confident piece of commercial filmmaking, but when the final credits roll, you'll wonder if director Ron Howard and the screenwriters couldn't have tried a wee bit harder to give the characters as much dimension as the chase scenes." Owen Gleiberman commented in an Entertainment Weekly review, "In Ransom, Howard is trying for a tone of tense malevolence he doesn't appear to be fully comfortable with."
Howard co-produced From the Earth to the Moon, which won an Emmy Award for outstanding miniseries. This was followed by the series Sports Night and Felicity, both of which first aired in 1998. In 1999, Howard produced the innovative Eddie Murphy animated program The PJs. He returned to directing with 1999's EDtv, which he also produced with Grazer. It featured a young man who agreed for his entire life to be televised around the clock. Though it bore an uncanny resemblance to the 1998 hit The Truman Show, Edtv was more of an upbeat comedy than a cynical commentary. As Howard described its theme to Jeannie Williams of USA Today, he might as well have been commenting on his own rich and longstanding fame. He explained that the film outlined how being a celebrity is "sometimes painful, sometimes kind of embarrassing, but it can also be thrilling and rewarding."
Further Reading on Ron Howard
Entertainment Weekly, April 1, 1994, p. 22; November 15, 1996, p. 47.
Esquire, December 1986, p. 256.
Film Comment, May-June 1984, p. 40.
Library Journal, October 15, 1995, p. 100.
Mademoiselle, July 1985, p. 44.
McCall's, August 1996, p. 39.
Newsweek, August 28, 1989, p. 56.
New Yorker, November 11, 1996, p. 124.
People, November 23, 1981, p. 46; April 14, 1986, p. 90; March 25, 1996, p. 122; November 18, 1996, p. 20.
Premiere, April 1991, pp. 97, 144; June 1992, p. 61.
Saturday Evening Post, December 1981, p. 36.
Teen, April 1986, p. 74.
Time, August 4, 1986, p. 56; July 3, 1995, p. 53.
USA Today, February 19, 1999, p. 3E.
Internet Movie Database, March 3, 1999. http://us.imdb.com.