Movie directors have a special place in our culture. But while they are generally lionized and discussed with great gravity, they are not a universally admired species. Producers hate their profligate habits, actors think they are blind to human truth, and screenwriters fume that directors hog all the credit. One well-traveled entertainment writer I know once declared that he hated interviewing directors, whom he said were all just a lot of control freaks.
That last part is mostly true—movie directors usually know how to get their way. They are not all, however, snarling wildebeests who dominate their crews with the hauteur of Sherlock Holmes and the intensity of Lucifer. There are the few who are actually swell folks, lovely, charming and utterly disarming.
Ron Howard would be the poster boy of the latter sort of director. Should you bump into him on the street here in Greenwich, you would get a crinkly, blue-eyed smile, and he would start talking in the easy voice of an old friend, and you’d feel instantly that you’d known him for a very long time. In a sense, you have known him your whole life, as he grew up before our eyes, as the child actor playing Winthrop Paroo in The Music Man and then Opie for all those years in The Andy Griffith Show, followed by his young-man self in Happy Days.
Besides his familiar face, what wins you over is his calm demeanor—he has the wry voice and dependable manners of a Midwestern rancher. That would be the genetic coding of his Midwestern parents coming through. Before moving to Greenwich thirty years ago, Howard grew up in Burbank, California. Actually, he grew up on movie lots. As he bicycled across the studio lot to the set of The Andy Griffith Show, he pedaled past the farmhouse from The Real McCoys, then through the still-standing train station from Gone With the Wind, then over to the marketplace from The Ten Commandments. And when he arrived at work, there waiting for him was the broad, happy face of Andy Griffith, who was just about to tell a funny story….
Wearing beat-up jeans, sneakers and a work shirt, Ron Howard leads you through his workplace. It’s a house near downtown Greenwich that has been converted to an office and post-production facility. On the second floor, teams of editors sit at digital editing stations going through the final tune-ups on Howard’s holiday-season movie, The Dilemma. Things were humming.
Howard’s career could be summarized by the motto of his adopted state, The Land of Steady Habits. He has directed twenty-one movies in thirty-three years. Some of them were larky fun-fests like Splash, Parenthood and Cocoon. Some were extremely ambitious, such as
Apollo 13 (the 1995 movie that put the expression “Failure is not an option” into the language); or the heartbreaking movie about a schizophrenic professor played by Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind (2001), which earned four Oscars that included Best Picture and Best Director. There were plenty of other Oscars and awards scattered across his CV, not to mention the simple reward of having a great reputation in a business in which you don’t always hear, as you do of Howard, that he’s a hell of a great guy to work with. And so the work keeps coming; in addition to the movies, he and partner Brian Grazer have put their names down as producers of a seemingly endless slate of movies and TV shows.
“One reason it’s important to do post-production here in Greenwich,” he says, climbing the stairs, “is that it’s a good reason to settle down here for three months at a time. And it’s really fun to be home because I do count this as home.”
He sits down in a small dining room, an assistant brings him a plate of steamed carrots and broccoli rabe. “I moved here at thirty-one. I just like the feel and texture of this part of the country. It’s a choice I made because I like the four seasons. I like driving in the backcountry. It’s the stone walls, the trees, the colors, the way the air feels.”
With his wife Cheryl he raised their four children on a sprawling estate in Conyers Farms that doubles as a farm. “I don’t know any of the names of the animals,” he grins. “Cheryl is the zookeeper. I pretend to be curmudgeonly about the whole thing but enjoy waking up and looking out at the sheep and ponies and stuff. I do like all the cats. We basically have an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical going on in our barn.”
He was twenty-one when he married his high-school sweetheart, Cheryl Alley. Armed with a degree in geriatric psychology, she spent many years working as a writer before stopping to raise the kids.
“She’s very unassuming and unpretentious, but very strong, with a hard mind, very bright. Loves life,” he smiles, “and loves movies! She loves stories and she writes—she always helps me on my stories. She’s like a consultant and a muse, all those things. She’s a great mom.” His sunny smile turns frank. “Hey, she’s no pushover, she’s got a bit of a temper.” His brightness returns. “But talk about having someone in your corner, she’s pretty remarkable that way.”
Since everyone knows the Howards to be one of Hollywood’s great couples, it was pretty devilish of his partner Brian Grazer to use the relationship as a springboard of The Dilemma. The story is about infidelity.
“Brian cooked up this idea. We were at this dinner of nine or ten people and he raised it as a talking point, just to have some fun. He was also testing the idea. The whole story that popped into his head was what it would be like if he saw my wife Cheryl wandering around
somewhere hanging all over some other guy. What would he do?
“There’s so much at stake. There’s our friendship and there’s also our business partnership. People who know Cheryl know that’s a pretty whimsical thought, but that’s where good ideas come from.
“Well, the dinner party just came alive. Everyone started laughing, saying what they would or wouldn’t do. It keeps coming back to, ‘How do you deal with anything that’s uncomfortable?’ You have to tell your girlfriend or your spouse something. There’s an element of risk. It’s always a little fuzzy.
“What was interesting during the casting period, was that a lot of people came in and started talking about the project and started telling me some pretty outrageous stories. Sometimes they admitted they were the cheater, sometimes they talked about what it was like to be cheated on. I didn’t know whether to believe any of it because they were all actors trying to get jobs! It was all pretty fantastic stuff.”
He pauses to consider that old actors’ trick. “‘Can you ride a horse?’ ‘Like the wind.’ Until you get out there on Day One.” He shakes his head with a wised-up smile. “So, ‘Are you a cheater?’ ‘Absolutely! Worst day of my life! Let me tell you about it!’”
For all that he was able to put together a fine cast led by Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Connelly and Wynona Ryder. “I love actors and I love vehicles where they get to shine. But this movie is really driven by the Vince Vaughn character’s view of things. It’s almost like a psychological thriller played for comedy. He’s never really certain what anybody else knows. He’s constantly feeling like he’s being checkmated or played, and that uncertainty is where a lot of the comedy lies.
“Vince is brilliant improvisationally, and we did a lot of improv, although it was well-scripted [by Allan Loeb]. Even actors who weren’t familiar with that mode of working, like Jennifer and Wynona, brought a lot of themselves to their characters.
“Everybody in the movie gets to do great stuff. Kevin James is really strong in it. The movie’s a comedy but it takes pain seriously. Channing Tatum is fantastic in it. Queen Latifah has a nice supporting role—it was nice to work with her.”
WIRING THE BRAIN
In Hollywood now, it’s almost preordained that any actor with a little power will get a shot at directing movies. Just ask George Clooney, Sean Penn, Ben Affleck, Ben Stiller, Kevin Costner…umm, the full list would actually take up this page. In 1977, when Ron Howard broke through with Grand Theft Auto, he was the exception. He was also just twenty-three.
The wiring of his director’s brain began early. His parents, Rance and Jean Speegle Howard, had left their native Oklahoma to act in Hollywood. When they weren’t doing small parts (Jean was eventually seen in the likes of Married…With Children), they hosted actors’ improv groups in the living room.
From the ages of six to fourteen, “Ronny,” as he was then known, played Opie, the son of a widowed father on The Andy Griffith Show. Griffith was more than an actor—he was a force. “What I learned there,” he recalls, “is that every choice, every creative idea, every challenge, really needed to be tackled. He threw himself heart and soul into that show. He didn’t coast through it, ever. That didn’t mean the work environment couldn’t be fun. So there was this loose feeling, and yet tremendous focus and discipline.
“There were moments when he would resolutely argue against a joke because he thought it was selling the characters down the river. At the same time he’d be intense about it, he’d turn around and start laughing and wind up telling a story about somebody from his childhood. There was a kind of joy in the process.”
Many of the show’s directors were also actors. One day, the comedian Howard Morris, who sometimes played the crazy hillbilly Ernest T. Bass, paused in the directing of a show, looked at the ten-year-old actor and said, “Seriously, I bet you’re going to wind up directing.”
He was lucky enough to find himself in television shows that provided what he calls “a healthy environment.” As the Griffith show ended in 1968, the American film business was going through a great artistic convulsion instigated by the likes of Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate. He seriously began to study the classic film directors such as John Ford and Frank Capra, and finally settled on Billy Wilder as the greatest director of all, simply because he put his stamp on such a dazzling variety of movies. He was eventually confident enough to call up retired masters like Wilder and invite them out for lunch.
After a significant role in the hit movie American Graffiti, in 1973, he was cast as the genial good boy in the series Happy Days, which ran from 1974 to 1980. The show, which was generally taped before live audiences, required not much of an emotional investment and he confesses that when the now-infamous “jump the shark” episode was proposed, he thought it was just another episode. (For the culturally deprived: In this episode, Henry Winkler’s “Fonzie” character shows off his water-skiing skills by jumping over a cage of sharks—all while wearing his trademark leather jacket—in a show that is now emblematic of clueless overreach.)
In the midst of this, he struck a deal with film producer Roger Corman, a maker of cheap movies (often called “exploitation flicks”) that proved to be the springboards for young, ambitious directors with no credits, such as Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme. “Roger was a pivotal figure,” Howard says. “At the time, actors weren’t getting a lot of chances to direct. There were no videos, no cable outlets. The studios and networks controlled everything.”
Corman’s lesson was that you could take a genre movie and find some way to creatively express yourself. Howard’s quick-and-dirty enterprise, Grand Theft Auto, needs no explanation. He drew upon a lifetime’s worth of work experience.
“I don’t look back much. I try to follow Satchel Paige’s advice: ‘Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.’ But when I think about lifetime highlights, even before Academy Award experiences pop into my head, my mind goes back to the wrap party at the end of filming Grand Theft Auto. There was something so gratifying about getting through my first movie. The wrap party was in a biker bar out in Barstow, California, just shots and a bar band. But for me it was reaching a peak that I’d been viewing from a distance for a long, long time, even though I was only twenty-three.
“I remember telling Cheryl, who was catering because the crew was gonna rebel if they got one more bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, I remember saying to her, ‘I can’t believe it, babe. I like directing more than I’d dreamed I’d like it.
“From that point forward, I really never was an actor again. I did act, but I knew what I wanted my job to be.”
That he had a natural touch with actors became clear a couple years later when he was directing a TV movie called Skyward with the combative screen legend Bette Davis. “I had some sleepless nights,” he recalls. “I was more tense than I probably had ever been in my life. You know, living up to her standards. I don’t like conflict, so I was hoping for the best.
“My dad said, ‘I know you’re worried but all good actors want to be directed. They know they need it. Don’t be afraid.’
“She kept calling me ‘Mr. Howard.’ I was twenty-five or so at the time, and I kept saying, ‘Miss Davis, just call me Ron.’ She said, ‘I’ll call you Mr. Howard until I decide whether I like you or not.’ And on the first day of filming she did test me a few times, but I stuck to my guns. She tried my idea and found that it worked. And when that first day was done, I said, ‘Thank you, Miss Davis, great first day, you can go home.’ And she said, ‘OK, Ron, see you in the morning,’ and literally patted me on the ass.”
By the end of the sometimes confrontational shoot, she decreed that he had what it takes to be among the best. Armed with such a confidence builder, he was able to direct a cast of wily veterans to big success in Cocoon a few years later, topped off with an Oscar for the beloved old pro Don Ameche.
In recent years he has touched on history with Frost/Nixon and creepy conspiracies in Angels and Demons, but he is about to embark on a three-year voyage into the phantasmagorical. His next project after The Dilemma will not be just ambitious, it will also be something that’s never been done before: a long-form movie project made simultaneously with a concurrent television series. Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic western fantasy series The Dark Tower will be the basis for Howard and Grazer’s gigantic production, The Tower. Howard will direct the first film and then the first season of the TV series that follows. There will be no shortage of material as King’s seven-volume saga follows Western gunslinger Roland Deschain across a fantasy landscape in search of a tower that is supposed to be the nexus of the universe.
“We can make the movies big, exciting, cool cinematic experiences, and a lot of King’s character ideas that he writes so brilliantly will have a home in all that action. In our fevered minds, it’s at least three movies and a couple of TV series.”
It will be a hell of a lot of work, but The Tower will also be an effort at staying fresh, which is something he worries about. “For me as a filmmaker, it’s important that it never feels like manufacturing. I love the medium and don’t want to feel constricted. I’m pursuing a way of life more than I am a career.”
His and Cheryl’s life is different now that their four kids have left the farm. The youngest, Reid, just graduated from college and is trying to make it as a golf pro. Eldest daughter Bryce and the twins Paige and Jocelyn are hunting for work in Hollywood, and so the folks took an
apartment out there to make it easier to check up on them.
But home is still the farm in Greenwich, feeding the menagerie and doing local things like helping out the Bruce Museum fundraisers. Sometimes they even have date night.
He grins affably and pushes away his vegetables. “Still, for us, a date is just going to the movies. We don’t screen movies at home or go to that trouble or expense. We always go out to the movies.”It is, after all, the way of life he has pursued.