A Classic TV Retrospective
“It was always my dream to be a director. A lot of it had to do with controlling my own destiny because as a young actor you feel at everyone’s disposal. But I wanted to become a leader in the business.” — Ron Howard
The television generation watched Ron Howard grow to maturity — first as little Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show and, in his teen years, as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. But rather than attempting the difficult transition from child star to adult actor, Ron went behind the camera to become one of the preeminent Oscar-winning directors of our time. Perhaps one could have anticipated his later enormous success as a filmmaker of taste and intelligence by his pedigree. Like an early version of Jodie Foster (whose brother Buddy Foster took Ron’s place on Mayberry RFD, the Griffith sequel that CBS aired from 1968 to 1971), Howard always seemed to know how to deal with the vicissitudes of longtime success in Hollywood by being well-grounded in a supportive family, filled with love and respect. As such, he is a rarity in Hollywood.
Entertainment journalist Peggy Herz observed in 1974, “It’s hard to figure Ron Howard. He seems too nice to be real. He isn’t obnoxious about it; he’s just a pleasant, level-headed young man who happens to be a veteran actor at the age of 20. He’s been working regularly since he was four years old — yet he seems to have no ego problems or big-shot complexes.”
That analysis, of course, took place over forty years ago, just as Howard’s then-new series, Happy Days, was enjoying its second full season on ABC, a few short months after it concluded its first half-year (the series originally aired from January 1974 to May 1984).
It All Began With “Love”
On Happy Days, Howard played fresh-faced teenager Richie Cunningham, a role he originated on an episode of Love, American Style, titled “Love and the Happy Day,” which served as a backdoor pilot for the show that went on to introduce the mainstream audience to another male icon in the guise of Henry Winkler as Arthur “The Fonz” or “Fonzie” Fonzarelli.
In retrospect, that was exactly Herz’s point. Days was originally envisioned as a star vehicle for Howard who, a few years before, had finished his lengthy run as little Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. Viewers had become so familiar with both Opie and Richie that when Howard hosted Saturday Night Live on October 9, 1982, then Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Player Eddie Murphy referred to Ron in a sketch as “Opie Cunningham,” combining the first and last names of the actor’s most famous roles.
Although Howard found great success as an actor, his career aspirations reached behind the camera — as a director. Howard has since excelled in his chosen endeavor, at the helm of major motion pictures ranging from Cocoon (1985) to A Beautiful Mind (2001). His first directorial effort on screen was a TV-movie titled Skyward (1982), starring none other than cinematic legend Bette Davis.
It was clearly a good start to what has become an amazing second career.
The Writing On The Big-and-Small-Screen Walls
Today, Ron Howard is respected and regarded as an equal among colleagues like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the latter of whom directed him as an actor in the 1973 feature film, American Graffiti, which many mistakenly believe served as a big-screen pilot for the small-screen Happy Days. While Ron portrayed a high school senior of the 1960s in Graffiti, he started out playing a high school sophomore in the 1950s on Days. As Ron said in 1974, “American Graffiti is about…kids making a decision…Happy Days is about a family. Graffiti is about the end of an era; Happy Days is about the middle of an era.”
Ron was born in Duncan, Oklahoma, on March 1, 1954, to Rance and Jean (Speegle) Howard, both actors. His family later moved to Los Angeles, where he attended high school and later the University of Southern California, which he had to leave when Happy soared to success.
But years before Days, Ron made his stage debut, if ever so briefly — and without pay — at a mere two years old when his parents were performing in a live production of The Seven Year Itch in Baltimore. His first professionally paid gig transpired when at four, he appeared alongside Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr in the 1959 feature film The Journey.
Two years later, he was cast as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. As he once recalled, “I was in that series until I was 14. I’ve always enjoyed working. If I hadn’t enjoyed it, I wouldn’t have done it — and my parents wouldn’t have let me. I always had the option of turning down work.” But when he wasn’t working, he missed it. “That’s when I knew for sure I wanted to be in the [entertainment] business.”
Ron Was Henry’s Son For A While
Between the Griffith Show and Happy Days, Ron Howard appeared in a few films for Walt Disney and had a regular role on ABC’s short-lived Henry Fonda series, The Smith Family, in which he played the eldest son. Howard also did TV guest appearances on shows like Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, The FBI, The Waltons, and Gentle Ben, the latter of which starred his younger brother Clint Howard.
Through it all, life for the young Howard brothers was kept in balance by their father, Rance Howard, who along with his wife, made sure their sons retained a life beyond Hollywood. “I owe my Dad an awful lot,” Ron said. “He helped me a great deal with my acting; then he took [the] time to come to the set when I was working and help me understand what the director wanted of me. I’m always interested in watching other people’s acting techniques — and here again, my father has been tremendously influential. That’s one reason why I think I did well in this industry as a kid. Having someone like Dad who knows the [ropes] and who will work with you is invaluable.” Both his parents, Ron said, helped keep set priorities for his life and career. “They believe in simplicity to the hilt.”
The Bosley Effect
Actor Tom Bosley, Ron Howard’s TV father on Happy Days, also helped the young actor keep things in perspective when their show was in its infancy: its hit infancy, but its infancy nonetheless. According to Howard, Bosley believed Days’ success transpired because over thirty million viewers were ready for a series that dealt in a humorous way with subject matter beyond the life and death scenarios that were running rampant on television at the time. “We deal with happy days,” Howard said, “not with the problems of the 1950s. We call back times that people remember as being pleasant.”
While playing Richie, Howard didn’t mind being typecast as a high school student in the ‘50s. As he told Peggy Herz, “I can relate to those days. I’m not convinced the 1950s were much different from the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was in high school. The problems are basically the same — first cars, dating, getting a job, trying to do well in school.”
However, Howard didn’t believe that Happy family life or the peer group as portrayed on Days by Winkler, and other fellow cast-mates like Anson Williams as Potsie or Donny Most as Ralph Malph, was as important when he attended high school in real life. “Peer pressure did exist,” he said, “but it didn’t carry the power that it seemed to have carried in the 1950s.”
He later made this prophetic assessment and ultimately an affirmation to Herz about his career:
“Someday, I’d like to be a director. Writing, too, has become more of an interest to me. A director has to be able to write. Half of making a film is rewriting and restructuring — that’s why writing is so important.”
The Big Picture
It’s abundantly clear just how important Ron Howard has been for nearly five decades as a male icon not just of television but in every aspect of the entertainment industry. What’s more, he has retained the family values and priorities that were instilled in him years before by his real-life parents and TV dad. He’s been married to the same woman, Cheryl Howard, since 1975, and they are the proud parents of Paige Carlyle Howard, Reed Howard, Jocelyn Howard, and the eldest, Bryce Dallas Howard, an accomplished actress in her own right.
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This article is edited material from the book, DASHING, DARING, AND DEBONAIR: TV’S TOP MALE ICONS FROM THE ’50s, ’60s, AND ’70s. For more information, visit www.HerbieJPilato.com.