Having starred in “The Partridge Family” for four seasons, Shirley Jones knows something about child actors, and as she puts it, “Ron Howard is probably the best child actor I’ve ever worked with.”
Jones, who won an Oscar in 1960 for “Elmer Gantry,” followed that award-winning effort with two films that featured Howard: “The Music Man” in 1962 and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” the following year.
Jones’ assessment of the young Howard, who was only 7 years old when she first worked with him, is not empty praise. The actress is fairly tough on some of her “Partridge Family” offspring, for instance.
“Sometimes it’s difficult working with kids,” she begins. “In ‘Partridge Family,’ Danny Bonaduce was wonderful but crazy. We had another boy. He was a nightmare. We had to let him go and replace him. Sometimes child actors aren’t brats but they’re so grown up and so wise and full of themselves that you don’t feel for them. That’s the thing Ronny had that was so special. When he cried, you cried with him. Everything he did came out naturally.”
Jones credits much of that childlike quality to Howard’s father, Rance. “His father was with Ronny most of the time,” Jones says of production on “The Music Man” and “Eddie’s Father.” “Sometimes with parents of young actors, they take the approach of ‘Your dog is going to die unless you do the scene right.’ Rance was the opposite. He would talk to Ronny, and you could see Ronny’s face light up. He understood what his father was saying. So many child actors grew up to be drug addicts and strange people and never really remember what their childhood was like. On the contrary, every single day Ronny was a real kid, but he knew what he had to do.”
Also, Ronny just had “it” as an actor, even at age 7, says Jones. “He took direction like an adult. He was a small adult. Some kids listen to the director and then do something else. Ronny understood what the director wanted.”
According to Jones, her “Eddie’s Father” co-star had some hesitation about doing the movie. “Glenn Ford wasn’t thrilled with working with children, he really wasn’t,” she recalls. But after one big scene with the young Howard, he had those doubts put to rest. “Glenn came off the set going, ‘Wow!'”
Rance Howard appeared in some of his son’s early films, so there was always a parent present to ward off the demands of the business. That impressed Jones, and she made a point to introduce her own actor son Patrick to Ronny.
“I think that’s why Ron Howard is so successful today with his own home life and his career as a director and producer. His parents acted like acting coaches, it was a nice family affair,” Jones recalls. “They weren’t the Barrymores.”