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."
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. □
Nationality: American. Born: Duncan, Oklahoma, 1 March 1954; son of Rance (an actor, writer, and director) and Jean (an actress; maiden name, Speegle) Howard. Education: Attended the University of Southern California and Los Angeles Valley College. Family: Married Cheryl Alley, 7 June 1975; children: Bryce Dallas, Paige Carlyle, Jocelyn Carlyle, Reed. Career: First appeared on the Lassie TV series at age one; appeared in TV series beginning in 1960, including The Andy Griffith Show, 1960–68, The Smith Family, 1971–72, Happy Days, 1974–80, and as voice on Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, 1980–82; president, Major H Productions, 1977; producer and executive producer of TV series, including Maximum Security, 1985, Parenthood, 1990, Sports Night, 1998, and Felicity, 1998; founder (with others), Imagine Films Entertainment, Inc., 1986. Awards: Director of the Year, National Association of Theatre Owners, 1985; Louella Parsons Award, Hollywood Women's Press Club, 1985; American Cinematheque Award, 1990; Directors Guild of America DGA Award, outstanding achievement in motion pictures, for Apollo 13, 1996; DGA Award, outstanding miniseries, 1998, and PGA Golden Laurel Award, television producer of the year
award in longform, 1999, for From the Earth to the Moon.Office: Imagine Films Entertainment, Inc., 1925 Century Park East, Los Angeles, CA 90067. Agent: Bryan Lourd and Richard Lovett, Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
Films as Director:
Deed of Derring-Do
Grand Theft Auto (+ sc)
Cotton Candy (+ sc)
Skyward (for TV) (+ exec pr)
Through the Magic Pyramid (Tut and Tuttle) (for TV)
Gung Ho (Working–Class Man) (+ exec pr)
Parenthood (+ sc)
Far and Away (+ sc, pr)
Apollo 13 (+ music exec pr)
Ed TV (+ pr)
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Films as Actor:
Frontier Woman (uncredited bit part)
The Journey (billed as Ronny Howard) (as Billy Rhinelander)
Door-to-Door Maniac (Five Minutes to Live) (as Bobby)
The Music Man (billed as Ronny Howard) (as Winthrop Paroo)
The Courtship of Eddie's Father (billed as Ronny Howard) (as Eddie)
Village of the Giants (billed as Ronny Howard) (as Genius)
A Boy Called Nuthin' (for TV) (as Richie "Nuthin"' Caldwell)
Smoke (for TV) (as Chris)
The Wild Country (The Newcomers) (billed as Ronny Howard) (as Virgil)
Happy Mother's Day, Love George (as Johnny); AmericanGraffiti (billed as Ronny Howard) (as Steve Bolander)
The Spikes Gang (as Les Richter); Locusts (for TV) (as Donny Fletcher); The Migrants (for TV) (as Lyle Barlow)
The Shootist (as Gillom Rogers); The First Nudie Musical (for TV) (as Actor at Audition); I'm a Fool; Eat My Dust! (as Hoover Niebold)
Grand Theft Auto (as Sam Freeman)
More American Graffiti (as Steve Bolander)
Act of Love (for TV) (as Leon Cybulkowski)
Bitter Harvest (for TV) (as Ned De Vries); Fire on theMountain (for TV) (as Lee Mackie)
When Your Lover Leaves (for TV)
Return to Mayberry (for TV) (as Opie Taylor)
The Magical World of Chuck Jones (for TV) (as himself)
Frank Capra's American Dream (for TV) (as Host/Narrator)
The Independent (as himself); Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens, a Life in Animation (as himself)
Films as Executive Producer:
Leo and LoreeWhen Your Lover Leaves (for TV)
No Greater Gift (for TV); Into Thin Air (for TV)
Take Five (for TV); No Man's Land
Clean and Sober; Lone Star Kid; Vibes
Films as Producer:
Inventing the Abbotts
From the Earth to the Moon (mini, for TV)
Student Affairs (for TV); Beyond the Mat
Eye See You; How to Eat Fried Worms
By HOWARD: articles—
Interview in Playboy (Chicago), May 1994.
Interview in Time Out (London), no. 1380, 29 January 1997.
Interview in Radio Times (London), 8 February 1997.
Interview in Premiere (Boulder), April 1999.
On HOWARD: book—
On HOWARD: article—
Landrot, M., "Ivre de contes," in Télérama (Paris), no. 2312, 4 May 1994.* * *
Ron Howard is the rare Hollywood success story—a child star who became one of the film industry's most successful and prolific directors. As little Ronny Howard, the sweet-faced redhead spent the better part of his childhood in front of the cameras playing easygoing Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show (1960–68). His small-screen success playing the personable son of the widowed Andy Griffith earned Howard numerous film roles similarly playing good-natured father's sons. In The Music Man, he made his musical debut singing "Gary, Indiana"; in Vincente Minelli's The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Howard starred as another sweet son of a widower opposite Glenn Ford.
After graduating from high school and attending the University of Southern California, Howard returned to acting in George Lucas's milestone 1950s film, American Graffiti, playing Steve, the clean-cut, All-American boy about to leave for college. The film spawned the TV sitcom Happy Days, in which Howard played the lead role of the straight arrow, good-natured Richie Cunningham for six seasons. It was time put to good use as Howard learned everything he could about the business.
Howard directed his first film while still acting on Happy Days. Like so many first–time directors, Howard received an early break from the low-budget, independent film king Roger Corman. Howard's Grand Theft Auto (1977) is rather unsophisticated car crash-filled action fare. His next film, however, made much more of an impression. Night Shift is a wacky but endearing comedy about two morgue attendants who double as pimps. The unlikely premise succeeded due as much to Howard's brisk direction as to Michael Keaton's effective acting in his screen debut.
Howard's next film catapulted the young director to the Hollywood A-list. Splash, a romantic fantasy about a man and a mermaid starring Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah, proved a hit with 1980s audiences, who welcomed Howard's wholesome values. Howard brought the same feel-good ethos to 1985's Cocoon, a sci-fi fantasy about senior citizens who discover the fountain of youth. The respect accorded Howard by the film community gave him the ability to attract some of Hollywood's best veteran performers, such as Jessica Tandy, Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Wilford Brimley, and Maureen Stapleton, bringing the film a heavy dose of class. Although the film was a huge hit with audiences, some critics, such as Pauline Kael, felt that Howard "overwork[ed] his ecumenical niceness—his attempt to provide something for all age groups and all faiths." But Hollywood and American audiences couldn't get enough of Howard's family values, and he followed up with Cocoon II as well as Willow, another lavish but far less successful fantasy.
In 1985 Howard joined forces with producer Brian Grazer to form Imagine Films Entertainment. Their company, with Howard as executive producer, oversaw such popular 1980s fare as Clean and Sober and The 'Burbs. But whenever Howard took the helm as director, audiences came to expect comforting, sweet, and often humorous films such as Parenthood (1991).
In the early 1990s Howard began to expand his vision, bringing more ambitious fare to the screen—-from the firefighting romance-adventure Backdraft (1992); to the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman Irish-American epic Far and Away (1992); to the comedy-drama about tabloid journalism, The Paper (1994). But Howard's somewhat sentimental, all-American values continued to permeate his cinematic vision.
In 1995 Howard assembled an all-star cast led by Tom Hanks to take on his most challenging film to date. Apollo 13 depicts the near-disastrous lunar mission in April 1970. But the film is as much about the heroism of the men and women of NASA, and about America's space program in general. Roger Ebert wrote, "Ron Howard's film of this mission is directed with a single-mindedness and attention to detail that makes it riveting. . . . He knows he has a great story, and he tells it in a docudrama that feels like it was filmed on location in outer space." Hailed by critics and audiences alike as one of the year's best films, Apollo 13 earned Howard the Directors Guild Award for 1995.
Howard followed up his success on Apollo 13 with the rather mindless Mel Gibson adventure Ransom. But his next film, Inventing the Abbotts, brought Howard back to more familiar territory—the 1950s. This time the mature Howard delved beneath the happy veneer of small–town America. Blessed with what one critic called "the most beautiful cast in the world," Howard examined repressed teenage angst and explored crises of sex, love, and identity at the intersection of rich and poor in Middle America. Though the fresh, crisp, and pretty feel of the film was very Howardesque, the themes ran deeper than many of his previous efforts.
The same held true of his 1999 comedy, Ed TV, a satire about late twentieth-century celebrity. Starring Matthew McConaughy and Jenna Elfman, Howard tried to use humor to skewer America's obsession with fame. Though the picture was moderately well received, it demonstrated the increasing depth of Howard's thematic interests.
Ron Howard once remarked that he became a director in order to avoid being typecast as an actor. He has also refused to be typecast as a director. Although all of his films are explorations of the human experience, he has ventured into many genres—science fiction, fantasy, epic adventure, romance, comedy, drama, satire—as well as into countless worlds. Ultimately, Howard sees himself and his directorial career as a work in progress. He has said, "One of the great things about being a director as life choice is that it can never be mastered. Every story is its own kind of expedition, with its own set of challenges."
It would be impossible to guess what the future will hold for Howard, other than that he will undoubtedly continue to make films at the brisk pace of roughly one a year, and he will explore the human condition with the all-American values and respect for Hollywood tradition inculcated as a child playing all-American boys beloved by all-American audiences.
Beginning his acting career before his second birthday, Ron Howard has represented an entire generation of baby boomers on film and television. American TV viewers watched Howard grow from the clean-cut, freckle-faced Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, into adulthood as the equally clean-cut Richie Cunningham on the popular Happy Days sitcom, after which the star left acting to work behind the camera as a film director. With such popular films as Apollo 13, Parenthood, and Cocoon to his credit, Howard has transcended his initial image as a naive farmboy and gone on to create sophisticated motion pictures that continue to reap major rewards at U.S. box offices.
With both parents working in the film industry, it was no surprise that Ronald William Howard would make acting and directing his life's work. The older of two sons born to actor and director Rance Howard and actress Jean Howard, Ron was born in Duncan, Oklahoma, on March 1, 1954. His screen debut occurred 18 months later, in the film Frontier Woman; it would be followed by several other professional performances throughout his childhood, arranged through the Howard family's connections to stage and screen. Remaining calm and composed even on the set, the young Howard gained a solid reputation with directors and was offered a succession of film and television roles. By the late 1950s, his career had become the focus of his family's efforts; when young Ronny got a job as a regular cast member on the popular Playhouse 90 television show, the entire Howard clan left their Midwest home for Hollywood. Howard's early fame instilled in the naturallyshy actor a strong element of self-confidence and also made it clear that a life in films would have to be an open book to both the press and the public. As Howard later remarked in an interview in Playboy, "I honestly can't remember when I was anonymous. I learned to write so I could give autographs."
Howard was soon a hot young commodity on television sets, as roles on The Danny Kaye Show, Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive, The F.B.I., The Big Valley, and I Spy came his way. Acting opportunities in films also materialized: a 10-year-old Howard appeared in 1962's The Music Man and a year later, in The Courtship of Eddie's Father. Such high-visibility roles attracted the attention of TV producer Sheldon Leonard, who cast the pre-teen as the son of Mayberry, North Carolina, sheriff Andy Taylor, played by veteran actor Andy Griffith, on the popular Andy Griffith Show. So successful was Howard in the role of Opie that viewers continued to identify him with the character throughout much of his adult career.
Although Howard grew up in a nontraditional manner, his parents attempted to instill whatever sense of normalcy they could in his childhood. Unlike other television stars, he did not have to travel the country to promote his series, and was able to attend local public schools, where the novelty of being an actor wore off and he soon became just another kid. By the time Howard reached high school in Burbank, California, The Andy Griffith Show had run its course, and he could settle down and concentrate on playing varsity basketball like an average teen. His role in the 1973 American Graffiti would change all that, however, as the George Lucas-directed film became a hit and Howard's face once again became a symbol of nostalgia to his generation. His role in Graffiti would be somewhat reprised in the hit television sitcom Happy Days, in which a then 20-year-old Howard played a middle class teen from Milwaukee, a straight man to a wide assortment of lovably eccentric characters. The series, which also nurtured the career of actor Henry Winkler, ran from 1974 through the last years of the decade.
Film directing had been a hobby of Howard's since his high school days; armed with a Super-8 movie camera, he had even won second prize in a film contest for high school students sponsored by Kodak. After his high school graduation, he enrolled in the University of Southern California's film school, but left before completing the course of study due to acting commitments. The rest of his cinematic education would come on the set, where he spent countless hours with other actors, directors, and producers. Howard's first significant non-acting work would be in 1977's Grand Theft Auto, a film he co-wrote with his father and which received production assistance from veteran producer/director Roger Corman. The film also received reviews that were encouraging enough to persuade Howard—now married to high school sweetheart Cheryl Alley and expecting the first of their four children—that he had a future as a film director.
The modest success of Grand Theft Auto allowed Howard to finance three films for television on which he could hone his directoral skills; the last of these in 1981 was Skyward, which featured noted screen legend Bette Davis. The following year, Howard would direct Happy Days' co-star Winkler in his second feature film, Night Shift, which focused on two night attendants at the city morgue who dream up an idea to make some extra cash by operating a prostitution ring out of their grisly place of business. While the film received mixed reviews, critics did approve of Howard's lighthearted comic touch, an approach that would become even more prevalent in his next film, Splash.
Splash was considered the film that established Howard as a serious director. Starring Darryl Hannah, Tom Hanks, and John Candy, the film not only boosted the budding careers of its young co-stars, but also captured the hearts of critics and viewers alike. In a review for Newsweek, film critic David Ansen called Splash "a romantic comedy that is truly romantic and truly comic, a deft blend of hip satire and fairy-tale charm." Howard continued this positive rapport with viewers through his next film, Cocoon, which featured an impressive lineup of more mature acting talent—Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Don Ameche, Brian Dennehy, Maureen Stapleton, and Wilford Brimley among them—in the story of a group of retirees who become physically recharged after sharing a pool in their Florida retirement community with a group of alien beings.
By the late 1980s, Howard had left behind elements of fairy tale and fantasy and become slightly more earth-bound in his films. The 1989 film Parenthood, for example, presents a more realistic view of child rearing. Howard and the three other men who sat down to write the film's screenplay had the experience of raising 15 children between them and developed these experiences into a hit script. Starring popular comedian Steve Martin, Keanu Reeves, Jason Robards, and Mary Steenburgen, Parenthood was an immediate success with both critics and viewers, grossing $135 million at the box office.
Through the 1990s, Howard has expanded his subject matter. Backdraft, an action film about Chicago fire-fighters, starred Kurt Russell, and the quasi-historical motion picture Far and Away starred Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. Far and Away has been the only Howard film to lose money, and the director's 1994 return to comedy in The Paper drew critical sighs of relief, although reviewers were still cautiously wondering whether Howard had lost his sure touch. It would take Apollo 13 to reassure them, and reassure them it did. The 1995 film, which covers the tense moments during the 1970 manned mission into space, received high marks for its sophistication and restraint, and was hailed as among Howard's best directorial work. Howard saw Apollo 13 in terms of its human drama. "The bittersweet quality of astronaut Jim Lovell's experience definitely drew me in," Howard explained 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."
In addition to his work as a director, Howard's partnership with producer Brian Grazer has resulted in the success of Imagine Entertainment. Introduced by a friend in 1977, the two men quickly realized that they made a good team; by the mid-1980s they had decided to take their film production partnership public to further finance both Howard's pictures and those of other directors. Imagine produced several television series and pilots as a public company, until Howard, realizing that his responsibilities to company shareholders were beginning to conflict with his goals as a director, chose to return the company to private ownership.
Social and Economic Impact
Howard's approach to his task as director seems to be as down-to-earth as the characters he once played on television. His films, which are tinged, rather than saturated, with warm-hearted messages of compassion and caring, are driven by the characters that they portray. While his first few directorial efforts were constrained by budgetary considerations, Howard consistently assembles a strong cast for each of his films, making his works strong box office draws.
Chronology: Ron Howard
1955: Made film debut as an 18 month-old toddler in Frontier Woman.
1959: Cast as a regular on the television series Playhouse 90.
1960: Starred as Opie Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show.
1973: Starred in the nostalgic hit film American Graffiti.
1974: Starred in the television comedy series Happy Days.
1977: Directed his first film, Grand Theft Auto.
1981: Received Emmy Award nomination for television movie Through the Magic Pyramid.
1986: Cofounded production company Imagine Entertainment with Barry Grazer.
1995: Directed Tom Hanks in blockbuster Apollo 13.
Unlike many child actors, Howard successfully transcended the image of Opie Taylor that shadowed him throughout his career. But he has still retained a "nice guy" image as a director. While that image makes him popular to work for, Howard has also recognized that critics could see it as a handicap if it appeared to constrain his subject matter in any way. As he told Playboy, the nudity in his first film, Night Shift, was included partly to erase any vestiges of his "goody two shoes" image. As a director, Howard has a reputation for being reasonable but very much in control. He can be credited with jump-starting the careers of actors Michael Keaton, then an unknown doing stand-up comedy whom Howard featured in Night Shift and The Paper, as well as Tom Hanks, whose first major film role was in Splash.
Howard consistently strives to create films that reach audiences on an entertaining and accessible level. Unlike some film directors whose more mature work has evolved along experimental or philosophical lines, Howard has preferred to maintain a mainstream cinematic standard. "I know I carry a sensibility born out of the kind of popular entertainment I grew up being a part of," he told Playboy. "That's part of my outlook. Likable characters. And there's the celebration of the human spirit. I look around, I talk with people, look at their lives, read the paper, and notice even with my own life that there are those moments when a person feels victorious. They feel they've achieved something very difficult. That's the stuff of memories, what makes life worth living . . . . I find those moments rewarding as a moviegoer." Such an approach has resulted in films that earn consistent approval from audiences.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Imagine Entertainment
1925 Century Park E., Ste. 230
Los Angeles, CA 90067-2701
Bizoni, Piers. "The Film Director Ron Howard Is Riding High on the Back of Apollo 13." Independent, 18 September 1995.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television. Detroit: Gale, 1994.
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