There are very few people that have been able to last in the film industry as long as Ron Howard. Those that have, have certainly not achieved the prestige and acclaim that the actor, director, writer, producer (and a heck of a doodler) has garnered in the 57 years he’s spent in front of, and behind, a camera. From Mayberry’s Favorite Son to the voice of Arrested Development, Howard has gifted the world with laughs, tears, courage, hope, and personal introspection that will last lifetimes. At 62, Howard has no plans of stopping, or even slowing down. Last month, released his documentary, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, and this week marks the release of Inferno; his third entry in a trio of films based on Dan Brown novels. Seeing such gusto in a filmmaker that has been working so long is what made Ron Howard the ideal choice for the next installment of Eventful’s Director Series.
Ronald William Howard was born on March 1, 1954 in Duncan, Oklahoma. He was born to actors Rance Howard and Jean Speegle Howard; Rance was already an accomplished actor, having appeared onstage with the likes of Henry Fonda. At the age of four, Howard’s parents moved the family to Hollywood, where they lived in a neighborhood adjacent to Desilu Studios. His first appearance on-screen was at the age of two, in a small part with his father in the film Frontier Woman. While many parents of child actors have a reputation for being exploitative these days, Ron’s father Rance was notoriously protective of his son, sheltering him from unscrupulous studio executives and teaching the child humility. In 1959, he received his first real film role in The Journey, which consequently led to numerous guest parts on television shows for the next year.
In 1960, just a year after his career really began, Howard landed the role of Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, which he played for eight seasons until the show’s end. On the program, Howard made life-long friends of stars Andy Griffith and Don Knotts, and spent plenty of time with his father and younger brother, Clint, who frequently appeared in episodes. During his time on the show, Howard made the occasional transition to the big screen, appearing as the precocious and trusting Winthrop in The Music Man, and as the titular Eddie in Glen Ford’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Howard has said that Shirley Jones, whom he worked with on both films, was one of his most influential mentors as a child.
“Ronny” Howard’s boyish charm and adult attitude made him America’s darling throughout the 60s, but things weren’t so cheery for the actor when the show concluded during his teenage years. According to Howard, studios were more likely to hire an 18-year old and make them look younger, rather than deal with the strict legalities involved in hiring a minor. For four years after leaving Mayberry, Howard struggled to find small parts on television, with his only regular role as Henry Fonda’s son on the show The Smith Family. Meanwhile, Howard attended John Burroughs High School in Los Angeles, where he was a classmate of Rene Russo. In his spare time, he directed short films; an pursuit he had become interested during his time spent on-set.
Luckily for Howard, it was one of these small TV guest roles that led to his most high profile role. In 1971, he appeared in an unsold pilot that was eventually discarded, then recycled on the anthology series Love, American Style. A year later, a young George Lucas asked to view the pilot in order to see if Ron Howard would be right for his upcoming film, American Graffiti. Howard did become part of the film’s legendary cast as conflicted former class president Steve Bolander; a role that helped Howard transition into substantial adult roles. At the same time, producer Gary Marshall recycled the pilot episode into an entirely new series based on the boon of interest in 50s nostalgia at the time. Beginning in 1984, Howard once again became America’s son through his role as the responsible Richie Cunningham on Happy Days.
While Howard nationally renowned for his role on Happy Days – as well as his role in John Wayne’s The Shootist — he continued to explore his interest in directing. His first chance to director a feature film came from renowned B-movie director and mentor to the stars, Roger Corman. In exchange for Howard starring in Corman’s Eat My Dust, he gave Howard the opportunity to direct and star in Grand Theft Auto. While the film received mediocre reviews, it only spurred Howard’s passion for the work. With a few exceptions, Howard essentially retired from acting after his departure from Happy Days in 1980, and pursued his dream of directing.
It wasn’t an easy start, though. Howard remembers struggling to prove himself as a director to the great Bette Davis on-set: “She didn’t much like that there was this 25-year-old from a sitcom that was directing her.” While Howard’s age and lack of practical experience seemed risky to some, like Ms. Davis, he won over cast and studio alike with his keen insight into the process and relentless perseverance. After cutting his teeth on a few TV movies, Howard directed the film Night Shift in 1982, where he got to work with former co-star Henry Winkler from Happy Days. It was also his first time working with future collaborator and Imagine Entertainment co-founder, Brian Grazer. However, it was the duo’s 1984 film, Splash, which would cement Howard’s transition from actor to director, as well as create a life-long working and personal relationship with Tom Hanks.
Howard further showcased his talent at directing comedies like Cocoon and Gung Ho before foraying into fantasy with Willow. After that, Howard began to take on more serious projects, exploring family in Parenthood, the fraternal camaraderie of firefighters in Backdraft, and romance between social classes in Far and Away. The culmination of Howard’s more dramatic approach to filmmaking came in 1995, with the release of Apollo 13. The retelling of how the three astronauts managed to return to Earth from the bleakness of space perfectly captured the essence of American perseverance and ingenuity that lived within the director himself. While Howard wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, he did receive an award from the Directors Guild of America that year, and the movie itself continues to appear on lists of greatest films.
Howard’s next opportunity for an Academy Award came with the release of A Beautiful Mind in 2001. Howard’s portrayal of the tortured yet brilliant scientist John Nash was not only psychologically gripping, but also visually breathtaking, taking audiences on a journey through the mind of a genius paranoid schizophrenic unlike anyone had ever seen. The film won a number of Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, cementing Howard as one of the great modern directors. The director continued to pursue films concerning the intricacies of humanity, re-teaming with Russell Crowe for the underdog story Cinderella Man, as well as with Tom Hanks for The Da Vinci Code.
In 2008, Howard once again explored new directorial territory with his historical drama, Frost/Nixon. The director turned what was originally a human-interest interview with a scandalized ex-president, and portrayed it as a herculean battle over the truth; Frost desperately trying to uncover the truth, and Nixon desperately trying to obscure it. The film didn’t showcase action, or danger, or larger-than-life villains, but Howard was able to create tremendous suspense and anticipation from a battle of wits between two men. Once again, Howard was rewarded for his efforts with Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards.
A struggle of will and determination between two ordinary men is exactly what made his 2013 film, Rush, a hit with critics and audiences. Competition between two top drivers as an outlet for fulfilling personal glory and satisfaction was complemented by Howard’s superior direction of high-speed, adrenaline pumping race scenes that kept audiences on the edge of their seats. Similar themes emerged in 2015’s Heart of the Sea, as Howard’s expert camerawork captures the thrilling chase and battle against a sperm whale as Owen Chase obsessively tries to fill an emptiness inside him with the death of the sea creature.
These days, Howard seems to be enjoying the fruits of his tireless labor. He’s releasing Inferno, filmed with one of many friends that he’s made throughout his career. He released his second music documentary, which tells the story of The Beatles’ touring years. Like his father before him, he’s continued the family dynasty of superb actors, including his daughters Bryce Dallas Howard and Paige Carlyle Howard. In his sparse free time, he spends idyllic days with his wife of 41 years, Cheryl Howard, on beautiful Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. He has lost friends like Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, and Tom Bosley, but his genial nature and positive attitude have left him with many more that he’s made throughout his career. Ron Howard has a lot to show for his years of probing and exploring the human spirit, and –if we’re lucky – he’ll continue for years to come.