Whatever became of Richie? Look on the other side of the camera

Viewers from the '60s remember him as Opie, the lovable kid on ``The Andy Griffith Show.'' Viewers from the '70s remember him as Richie Cunningham, the gullible high-schooler on ``Happy Days.''

Viewers from the '50s through the early '80s remember him in a long list of other TV shows and movies, as different as ``Playhouse 90'' and ``American Graffiti.''

Where has Ron Howard been lately, though?

On the other side of the camera -- out of public view, but fast earning a reputation as one of the hottest comedy directors this side of Woody Allen.

``I'm more comfortable there,'' he told me recently, explaining his new position behind the scenes. ``I enjoy acting, but I don't feel quite in balance when I do it. I feel at home when I'm directing. It's a good place for me.''

His acting background does come in handy. It helps him understand problems faced by performers in his movies. It puts him at ease when he goes public to promote a new picture.

And, he adds with something like a blush, it lends him authority on the set. ``It's not a bad thing for the actors to know I can do it,'' says the filmmaker. ``And I've done it!''

Still in his early 30s, director Howard has just released his third major feature, ``Cocoon,'' a mostly comic fantasy about a mission from outer space, a bumbling boat captain, and a trio of lively old codgers in a Florida retirement home. Along with young talents like Steve Guttenberg and Tahnee Welch, the cast includes a rich roster of Hollywood veterans: Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton, Jack Gilford, and Gwen Verdon, among others.

Howard decided to make ``Cocoon'' while looking for a follow-up to ``Splash'' and ``Night Shift,'' his previous projects. He doubted whether ``Cocoon'' could be a megahit, with its offbeat story -- about a ``fountain of youth'' in a swimming pool -- and its unusual number of aging characters. But he liked the story, and he felt the time was ripe for a change from the recent flood of teen farces and romances. He grew more optimistic about the film's prospects as its release date approached, citing ``very

positive response'' to advance screenings.

Chatting about his career in a pleasantly rumpled Manhattan hotel suite, Howard doesn't come across as a high-powered Hollywood director. Or a rising show-biz executive whose production company has -- in the words of a press release -- an ``aggressive development program'' of TV and theatrical films.

It's partly because his looks are even more youthful than his age. And partly because he so enjoys telling about his brand-new twin daughters. And partly because their four-year-old sister keeps tripping in and out of the living room, reprising a step she enjoyed the evening before at a Broadway musical.

And it's partly because he takes a modest view of his success. ``I'm just happy to be working at what I enjoy,'' is a typical comment -- hardly the words of a would-be mogul.

Howard doesn't feel his career is automatically propped up by his experience or connections in the entertainment world. He notes that a slump in his track record could halt his work as a director -- in which case his performing background might come to the rescue. Not many professionals think of Hollywood acting as something to fall back on. But it's a realistic thought for Howard, who plans to ``keep a hand in'' as a performer, just in case.

Howard made his movie debut at 18 months old, courtesy of his parents, both actors. He played summer stock at age 2 -- in a show directed by his father -- and hit prime-time TV by age 5. He started 8 years of ``Andy Griffith'' in 1960, doing movies on the side.

It was during his years of child acting that Howard got interested in the filmmaking process. ``I liked watching the technical side of things,'' he recalls. ``I was very impressed by the camera crew and the different kinds of men who worked on it.'' He also noticed that the director got to hang around with these interesting people, and take part in all the meetings and decisions -- which struck young Ron as an enviable position to be in.

Why was he so fascinated by the work behind the scenes? ``I got into acting because of my parents,'' Howard muses. ``I'm grateful for that, but I guess I wanted to do something I found on my own.'' Another key influence was a young ``Andy Griffith'' director who took an interest in Ron and explained things to him. Among other things, this taught Howard that ``you didn't have to be an old guy to make a film -- you could be pretty much of a kid.'' So he set himself a goal: ``to make a movie before I left my teens.''

He started to work with Super-8 equipment, like a home-movie buff, and then graduated to 16-mm. His acting career stayed hot -- one project was ``American Graffiti,'' the summer after he graduated from high school -- but he found time for two years in the University of Southern California's cinema studies department. His professional directing debut was an action comedy for producer Roger Corman, a frequent mentor of promising new talents. It grossed almost $20 million and played on network TV, despite a poverty-row budget and a frantic shooting schedule that called for dozens of camera setups in a single day.

Still acting (he started seven years of ``Happy Days'' in 1975), Howard also formed his own production company, and later signed a contract with NBC that allowed him to write, produce, and direct. His first big-time theatrical film was ``Night Shift,'' starring his ``Happy Days'' pal Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton, a discovery of his own.

Next came ``Splash,'' the mermaid fantasy that launched Touchstone Films, the PG-rated branch of the Walt Disney studio. A hit with audiences and critics alike, it cemented Howard's reputation as a comedy director with style and skill.

How does he evaluate the comedy scene today? ``It's in the best shape ever,'' Howard says. ``Lots of serious pictures are getting made, and that's great. But comedy is the bread-and-butter of the studios now. They're paying good attention to it, and that's healthy.''

His own goal isn't just to make people yock it up. In fact, he feels ``Cocoon'' is too complex to be labeled a comedy at all. Rather, he wants to tell a story that will communicate on different levels with a wide audience. Unlike some young directors, he shows little interest in film theories. Asked about artistic aspects of ``Cocoon,'' he refers often to his colleagues and co-workers, seeing himself as a collaborator and coordinator, not an auteur or artiste.

Much of filmmaking isn't self-expression at all, he says. It's simply doing the best you can to bring the script and performances alive on the screen.

He does have a vision of his future film career, though -- and it's a comic vision, not a gloomy or sober-sided one. ``I think I'll always make comedies,'' says Howard with an appropriate smile. ``I see things in a funny way. Sometimes they're serious or sad, but even then I see room for something to laugh at. And I have a feel for it. I'm a terrible comedy writer, but I know when something's funny, and I know how to shoot it.''

He also likes the popularity of comedies, and he is perfectly willing to bend his ideas for the sake of a large audience. ``I'm glad some people are making esoteric pictures that only 20 people understand,'' he says, ``but that's not for me. People have expectations from a comedy, and you have to fulfill them.

``I don't want to be conventional for the sake of being conventional,'' he adds. ``But I don't want to go the other way, either. It's nice to know there are rules, and you follow the rules. And sometimes you break them -- if it means a better movie. . . .''

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