If there’s anyone you’d expect to find rhapsodising about the magic of the movies, it’s Ron Howard. From toothsome child star to one of the world’s most bankable film directors, he’s spent his entire life in the shadow of that famous Hollywood sign. And yet…
‘The movies were never really magic for me,’ Howard tells Weekend. ‘It was a way of life. I remember Yul Brynner, in the first movie I was ever in [1959’s The Journey], taking a shot of vodka, then eating the glass. When the take was over, he came over to me and said, “This is sugar – taste it, it’s not real. Don’t bite real glass!”’
The son of actors Rance and Jean Howard, Ron was a household name in America by the age of six thanks to his role as Opie Taylor, the cute but precocious sheriff’s son in winsome sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. According to the usual script, child stars are supposed to end up going spectacularly off the rails. But that’s not the Howard way.
‘I think my parents did an exceptional job of helping me keep a perspective,’ he reflects. ‘They were very careful not to exploit the success of The Andy Griffith Show. My father felt it was a great learning experience: that I could put some money in the bank, pay for college, have a jump-start in life. He thought it was an opportunity to build a career, not exploit a moment by trying to cash in. There were opportunities to put out a children’s clothing line, do animated TV shows, things like that. But he thought it was important to for me to hang around in Burbank with the neighbourhood kids, and go to public school.’
Six decades later, that cute moptop is one of the top 10 most successful movie directors of all time, with hits like Splash, Backdraft, Apollo 13 and his Da Vinci Code trilogy racking up more than $4bn at the box office. In recent years, he’s also branched out into making feature documentaries, the latest of which is a moving, immersive portrait of the late Luciano Pavarotti.
He was inspired to make the film, he says, by the singer’s ‘honest life spark – this journey that he was on to experience the world with a kind of joy’. But there are moments of tragedy, too, and perhaps the film’s most inspired conceit is its use of the tenor’s highly-charged, emotional performances to illustrate the storm and stress of his own story – such as the late-career final aria from Tosca in which he almost appears to be foretelling his own death.
‘That was a real lightbulb moment,’ says Howard. ‘When I began reading the actual lyrics, the themes were so human, so urgent, so emotional, I realised we could make an opera about Pavarotti, aligning these great arias with events in his personal life to tell the story. He was an amazing performer, and when I look at the close-ups… as a director, I just know he’s feeling what he’s singing.’
The film also includes candid testimonies from key players in Pavarotti’s life, from his widow, ex-wife and former mistress to musical collaborators like Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Bono. ‘There was a courage and grace in their interviews, in terms of their ongoing love for Luciano, even if at some point they’d been heartbroken by some aspect of their relationship,’ says Howard. ‘They’re forgiving but not forgetting. It’s kind of an object lesson in understanding what makes up a man.’
That said, if someone breaks down on camera, then chances are it wasn’t the director who was asking the questions. ‘I’m not tough enough to really push people,’ the 65-year-old admits. ‘I can be the good cop, but never the bad cop.’
That won’t really come as a surprise to many, the one constant of his career being his all-American, nice guy image. The Los Angeles Times once described him as the embodiment of ‘mom and apple pie, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, a home run in the ninth and a basket at the buzzer’, and many of his biggest film successes, from Apollo 13 to A Beautiful Mind (which earned him the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars), display a resolute faith in the human spirit.
‘I’m an optimist,’ explains Howard. ‘I think you have to acknowledge the difficulties of life – the disappointments and the darkness – in order to appreciate the outcomes that we all strive for. I’m inclined to want to celebrate those moments; to remind people, in as honest a way as possible, that they really can happen. But to do it, you have to accept that life doesn’t always work out.’
His daughter, the actress Bryce Dallas Howard, said in a speech a few years ago she thought her father was sometimes underestimated as a filmmaker, because he’s ‘dorky and earnest’, not cool and cynical. ‘I know what she meant,’ he says, chuckling at the slightly back-handed compliment. ‘I don’t really present myself, or describe my work, in a classically auteur-ish way.’
Most Brits' first introduction to Howard was via his role as teenager Richie Cunningham in Happy Days, the hit 70s sitcom about life in 50s Milwaukee. Were they happy days?
‘I had a lot of fun with the show, I really did,’ he says. ‘But I was also very frustrated because at that time I was really ready to become a director. The money was great, the show was wildly successful and I really, really loved the people I was working with – it was a tight-knit group, and we had a blast. But I was impatient to move on to the next stage of what I was doing. I was grateful, but I did have this sort of undercurrent of impatience that sometimes made certain periods a little frustrating for me. But that’s what fuels ambition.’
With his cute freckles and letterman sweater, Richie was another clean-cut Midwestern boy. Be honest, Ron: would you secretly have preferred to be The Fonz?
‘Well, I couldn’t have been The Fonz,’ he says of the cool, leather-jacketed greaser, played by Henry Winkler, whose iconic image adorned a million pin-ups and button badges. ‘Henry was born to play that role. I remember when he came in, in the very first episode, and he only had five lines, he just did them and blew all our minds. There were some business ramifications there that were a little frustrating for me. As his popularity swelled and the network was more interested in building up his character, I did have some financial contract issues with them. But that was a good bit of growing up for me as well.’
It was the great Henry Fonda, no less, who told the 16-year-old Ron Howard ‘if you love movies, become a director’. ‘Outside of my parents, who were always very supportive of that idea, he was the first adult who didn’t blink when I said that,’ Howard recalls. ‘He didn’t pat me on the back or the head or smile or say, “Well, maybe someday…” He just said, “That’s a good idea. You could do that”. It was, as you can imagine, incredibly influential.’
It turned out to be sound advice. As well as those telephone number box office receipts, there are the Academy Awards (nine for his films in total), two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and even an asteroid named in his honour. Factor in executive producer credits on hit TV shows like 24 and Arrested Development (for which he also serves as a brilliantly deadpan narrator), and one of Hollywood’s most rock-solid marriages – 44 years, to teenage sweetheart Cheryl Alley, with whom he has four children – and it’s fair to say Ron Howard’s first six-and-a-half decades have been… pretty swell.
‘Aw man,’ he says. ‘If I ever complain, somebody should roll up a newspaper and bat me over the head with it.’
This, Weekend imagines, is as shocking an act of violence as Ron Howard is prepared to contemplate. But surely even he can’t be the good cop all the time: is there a dark side to the nicest guy in Hollywood that’s just waiting to break out?
‘You know, I try to deal with people with respect and dignity at all times,’ he says. ‘I don’t always succeed. When I’m directing, I have my moments of frustration and anger. But fortunately they’re few and far between.’
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend, 11 July, 2019
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