How child star Howard became A-list director

Ron Howard’s first reaction to five decades in show business is to demand an asterisk, because a milestone like that rarely comes when the subject is only 54.

Howard is glad to reach it at a time when some of his recent work has delved back to his formative years. He revisited his roles on “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days” for a self-deprecating video endorsement of now President-elect Barack Obama.

His latest movie, “Frost/Nixon,” brought him back to the memory of casting his first vote in a presidential election and watching his choice resign in disgrace. His Obama endorsement went better, and though the president-elect didn’t respond directly, Howard has gotten tickets and plans to take his family to the inauguration next month.

“With Nixon, I’d stuck my toe into the democratic process for the first time and obviously made a horrible decision,” Howard says.

He reaches the 50-year career mark with an Oscar on his shelf for directing “A Beautiful Mind” and another for producing it, and a resume filled with commercial and critical hits. He and partner Brian Grazer have built Imagine Entertainment into one of Hollywood’s most prolific production companies, and they follow “Frost/Nixon” with the May release of “Angels & Demons,” the sequel to “The Da Vinci Code,” the biggest-grossing film Howard has made, with $757 million.

Howard has managed to succeed while taking particular pride in not stamping his films with self-indulgent stylistic flourishes and flashy camera work, and though he runs a set with a firm hand, he’s no tyrant. Some would go as far as to call Howard a nice guy, but not “Frost/Nixon” star Frank Langella, who feels it discounts the director.

“His reputation for being nice underestimates him. He’s much more complicated than nice,” says Langella, who was delighted to find Howard didn’t feel the need to overhaul Peter Morgan’s play to fit the bigscreen.

“In my first three or four meetings with Ron, he only asked questions,” Langella recalls. “That takes a certain amount of self-confidence and lack of ego to say, ‘You’ve lived with Richard Nixon for a year and a half, tell me what you’ve learned.’ A lot of directors would have tried to reconceive it. Ron doesn’t feel the need to be a concept visionary.

“The film reflects his belief that an audience stays in its seat by relating profoundly to what’s going on in the eyes of the lead characters. Too often, you watch movies and don’t care about those characters, because a director is trying to dazzle you. Ron understands that what people want to watch are humans and their inner struggle.”

Howard’s career seems free of valleys, but to hear him explain it, many of his most valuable lessons came as a response to adversity. Those lessons began shortly after his actor parents, Rance and Jean, guided him into the family business.

“My dad once spanked me on the set of ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ ” Howard says, recalling a downside of growing up in Mayberry. “It wasn’t about trying to get me to do a scene. I was being a smartass, a 9- or 10-year-old brat who was disobedient.”

Such outbursts were rare, and Howard traces his early path to storytelling to that set, where even a first-grade-aged actor was invited into the creative dialogue.

“Every once in a while, I’d raise my hand and made a suggestion, and of course nobody took those ideas,” Howard says. “But once I said I didn’t think a kid would say something that way, and the director, Bob Sweeney, changed the phrasing. We were starting the scene and I was standing there, grinning. Andy said, ‘What are you grinnin’ about, young’n?’ which is what he called me. I said, ‘That’s the first suggestion of mine that anybody has taken,’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s the first one that was any damn good. So let’s do the scene.’ Fortune was smiling when I wound up on that show. It was as healthy an environment as a kid could have hoped for.”

Howard became more interested in working behind the camera when he reached 15 and couldn’t get hired.

“I hit that awkward adolescent stage that child actors all face, and for the first time in my life, I couldn’t get a job, and not many opportunities to even audition,” Howard says. “I was already making Super 8 movies, but I realized how much I missed it, and that I didn’t want to wait for the phone to ring, to be invited. I wanted to be the catalyst.”

His next job came on the short-lived TV series “The Smith Family,” but Howard was encouraged by co-star Henry Fonda, a friend of his father’s. Fonda watched Howard’s silent short films, projected on the wall of the soundstage during lunch breaks. He also read writing samples.

“He said, ‘If you love acting, you need to make theater your focus, that’s what I’ve done,’ ” Howard recalls. “‘But if you love the medium of film, you ought to be the director.’ I took that to heart.

Though I started acting very young, I never felt I really had a performer’s personality. I’m better suited to work with people at the center of the creative swirl than I am turning myself into an instrument of expression.

“Now that I’ve worked with a handful of bona fide artists, I really understand the difference. Watching the way Tom Hanks worked. On ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ Russell Crowe took so many chances that were so effective, it was an incredible thing to be around. And Jim Carrey with the Grinch. His performance was utterly singular, and I remember watching Jim on a monitor, where he invented something that was hysterical that involved improvising a line of dialogue, and doing something physical that was perfectly timed to the camera as it moved around him. I turned to my first a.d. and said, ‘This is Michael Jordan, with a 360 degree slam-dunk at the buzzer.’”

Howard re-established his onscreen currency with “American Graffiti” and especially TV’s “Happy Days,” but in his mind, acting had become a bridge to directing. He spent all his spare time producing and directing TV movies, getting the technical know-how and learning how to overcome a baby face when dealing with talent like Bette Davis, whom he directed on the telepic “Skyward” when he was 25.

“She loved the role, but resented me because of my age,” Howard says. “She kept calling me Mr. Howard on the phone as we talked about the script. I said, ‘Miss Davis, please call me Ron.’ She said, `No, I will call you Mr. Howard until I decide if I like you or not,’ and then she hung up. I had nightmares.”

Howard didn’t have to wait long to be tested.

“I gave her a direction and she said, in front of the whole crew, ‘Oh, I was so startled to have this child come and talk to me. I just wonder, what could this child have to say to me that is of any consequence?’”

Howard laughed with the crew but kept up his confidence, remembering advice he’d gotten from his father.

“He said every good actor wants to be directed and wants to trust in the director, and so I just kept going in for more,” Howard says. “Finally, I gave her a direction she disagreed with. I asked her to just try it, that it would be helpful, and I explained why I needed it. Halfway through the rehearsal, she said to the whole crew: ‘You’re right. It makes the scene. Suddenly, it flows. Thank you.’ And when I later said, ‘Miss Davis, you’re finished, you can go home now,’ she said, ‘OK, Ron, see you tomorrow.’ And she patted me on the ass.”

Howard’s jump to features came through the unabashed leveraging of his “Happy Days” star power with Roger Corman, who wanted Howard to topline his car-chase comedy “Eat My Dust,” a film Howard would otherwise have had no interest in making.

“I asked my agents not to go in with me, because they wanted to see how much money they could get out of Roger, and I knew I wanted to horse-trade,” Howard remembers. Though Corman was impressed by Howard’s short films, he declined to co-finance a script Howard had written with his father, which Howard hoped to direct as a fair barter for starring in the other film. Corman promised Howard that if he did the movie, Corman would at least let Howard be second unit director on a future project.

“That was as close to a hard offer as I’d ever gotten, and I took it,” Howard says.

Corman nixed all of Howard’s subsequent ideas; one of them, a sci-fi saga called “The 89th War,” is now being developed by Imagine — but the mogul came through.

“Roger said that when he tested titles for ‘Eat My Dust,’ the runner-up was ‘Grand Theft Auto,’ and if I could fashion another car-crash comedy with young people on the run under that title, he’d probably make it,” Howard says. “It became the fastest greenlight I’ve ever gotten. In 24 hours, we had an outline and it was a go. It was 23 shooting days at a cost $602,000, a pretty good budget for the time, and almost equal to the $600,000 that David Frost paid Nixon.”

Howard waited five years for his next shot with “Night Shift,” an idea from Grazer that was scripted by Howard’s “Happy Days” cohorts Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. After chasing John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase, Howard got Warner Bros. to agree to make the film with Henry Winkler, who said yes.

“Once I got past the first two weeks, worrying if I’d be fired, and later that Michael Keaton would be fired because he was so original that he scared everybody, I really began to feel confident. I was suddenly grateful for the work I did for Roger Corman, for the TV movies I’d done where I was responsible for the overages. The last six weeks of that shoot turned out to be a spectacular thrill, and the same energy carried through to ‘Splash,’” Howard says. “Both were successful, but ‘Night Shift’ cemented Brian and my friendship and showed us how good we were together and that we could really get things done. A partnership was forged on back-to-back movies that were pretty hard to get made.”

That began a string of hits, but Howard had another seminal experience when he made “Apollo 13,” after which he became more selective about his choices.

“It was the first time I’d taken on a film inspired by true events, and on a degree-of-difficulty level, it exceeded anything I’d ever tried before,” Howard says. “Up to that point, I was trying to prove I shouldn’t be typecast the way I had been as an actor. I proved to myself and the creative community that I could do the type of movies I wanted to make. While I couldn’t really explain why I say yes to things, if I spark to it, I wanted the world and the creative community to trust me. I think I earned that trust, and it was pretty gratifying.”

Howard says that for the most part, he’s an optimist who prefers to tell stories that have a celebratory aspect to them, especially with groups or families that overcome obstacles. Grazer says that some of Howard’s best work has come with darker subject matter.

“He’s slowly embraced his darker side, after he directed ‘Ransom’ and started to understand the darkness of those kidnappers, and became more open to the darker aspects of his life, and his own psyche,” Grazer says. “That’s come to full fruition with ‘Frost/Nixon,’ and if you look at that and the sequel to ‘Da Vinci Code,’ all in one year, two really different genres and tones, Ron is working at his highest levels now.”

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