Opie Taylor lives. Ron Howard knows. Twelve years after television's "Andy Griffith Show" ended, the actor who grew up on it in the role of Opie is still identified as Sheriff Taylor's son. In fact, in a recent celebrity softball game at Chicago's Wrigley Field, Ron Howard's appearance in left field was heralded with a big "Opie" banner, unfurled by some fans in the bleachers who chanted, "O-pie! O-pie! O-pie!"
Today, two decades after getting his start in that show, Ron Howard still gets a bang out of the fans' devotion to the character. "I love the fact that after 20 years they still remember the show," he says. "When I ran out on the field at the softball game I felt like I was in the World Series. It was great!"
Since age 2, Ron Howard has had a busy acting career. The younger generation now knows him as the star of TV's "Happy Days," and of such films as "American Graffiti," "Grand Theft Auto," and "More American Graffiti."
"I didn't ever really think of it as work at all," he recalls of that first TV series. ". . . I think I enjoyed acting with the grownups because I could hold my own. My dad made sure I was well prepared, so I wasn't a bratty little kid blowing all the lines. And I got a lot of really great positive reinforcement from the adults. I've always been proud of that.
"I always understood responsibility and was willing to work on lines. The only thing I didn't like about acting was that there weren't a lot of kids around all the time. But on 'The Andy Griffith Show' . . . there were lots of weeks where I had a lot of time off. When an hiatus came I used to love going back to public school, and, once we moved to Burbank, there were lots of kids on my block.
"Really I was getting the best of both worlds. I was learning something and developing well, putting money away for college. . . . But i was still pretty unrestricted and could be a real kid stumbling around at the playground."
He says his family tried hard to keep him from being swept up in the star treatment.
"I remember one time . . . a manufacturer wanted to put out on 'Opie line' of children's clothing. It probably would have meant a lot of money, but my parents turned it down for me because they didn't think I should be going off to shopping centers, modeling clothes and signing autographs all weekend just to try to get people to come down and buy Opie clothes. They figured I worked five days a week and that on Saturday and Sunday I ought to be able to play ball. There was always a division between show business and real life. Show business was never really supposed to detract from real life -- it was never deemed to be the most important thing."
It still isn't, and Ron Howard's lack of pretention is still apparent. His office on the Paramount lot is comfortable but far from ostentatious, with its Leroy Neiman painting of a baseball player showing one of his real loves. As we talk during a mealtime break in his schedule, he pulls out his homepacked brown-bag lunch. After asking for my assurance that his eating won't be a distraction, he digs in to a sandwich, cookies, and fruit, ignoring the crumbs dropping in his lap.
Today the one-time star says he still enjoys acting but is happier directing. He has had the opportunity to do both; his directing credits include the movie "Grand Theft Auto" (in which he also co-starred), and several films for television. His most recent productions include "Tut and Tuttle" (about a young boy who finds himself transported back to the time of Egypt's Prince Tut), and "Leo and Laurie" (which stars Happy Days" co-star Donny Most).
"It's just something that I've always wanted to do," he says, waving his sandwich. "I started by doing Super-8 movies and letting directors around town know I was interested. A lot of directors have been helpful. I never found them to be the least bit resentful then -- when I was certainly no threat -- or now that I'm directing a little bit."
Ron Howard says being young presents problems for a director, not from actors and film crews who are usually supportive, but from studio executives. They admit he can direct, but they don't think of him immediately when looking for a director. In fact, he has formed his own production company -- Major H Productions -- so that the studio powers-that-be will take him more seriously.
"No one says, "Aw, kid, you can't direct,' because I've directed, and everyone acknowledges the fact that probably eventually I'm going to be a good director," says Ron with a shrug. "But it's still a problem getting those opportunities to fall into place. Studio executives simply don't come to me much. And when they do it's generally a car-crash picture or a high school picture.
"So I've gotten into the producing side, not because I want to be a producer -- that's never been a dream of mine -- but because you need to package your own things. The property is what sells the whole thing, not the fact I'm directing. But if I'm delivering a [complete] project and say I want to direct it, if they like the project they're willing to let me direct."
Ron's father, Rance Howard, is vice president of Major H Productions, while his younger brother, Clint (who in addition to writing has also acted in several films and starred with Dennis Weaver in the TV series "Gentle Ben"), is the company secretary. It's not merely a case of nepotism. According to Ron, they simply work very well together.
"We've always worked together. If I was making a movie, the family would offer to help, be in it, or help shoot it. Mom would make the costumes or something. And it's just carried over. Dad agreed to help me write a script for a low-budget movie designed so I could direct it. That script got us the assignment together for 'Grand Theft Auto,' and since I really felt like I needed his help he worked as an associate producer for that. Clint also acted in it, and it all worked beautifully."
He says that because the members of his family have great admiration for one another, ". . . we've been able to . . . deliver projects which really reflect the emotional, passionate involvement of those behind the camera -- that kind of seeps in there. Our company's growing, and people are beginning to take us more seriously because of the quality that's been there."
As he gets more directing experience, he says, he's looking for new kinds of projects.
". . . Now I think it's time to start focusing. The projects people have been willing to let me make have been very youth-oriented. However, if I keep making those, why I'm really going to get typecast -- directors get typed more quickly than actors. So it's imperative that I make . . . a grown-up picture. If it doesn't star adults it has at least got to deal with things on a mature level."
"I'm writing a war picture right now. It's not science fiction, but it's not really a war that we've had yet -- it's also kind of a political picture. I'm working on a baseball picture. It's a comedy, but it's going to be kind of like 'Slap Shot,' only dealing with major league baseball. My dad is writing a western and another picture, a comedy about a middle-aged hell's Angels who want to go for the gusto one last time."
"Leo and Laurie" might seem like a throwback to Ron Howard's earlier days, but he describes it as "a romantic comedy somewhat in the vein of a younger 'Goodbye Girl.'" Donny Most plays "the funniest fellow in his fraternity," who comes from Philadelphia to become a Phil Silvers or Jackie Gleason type sitcom star. His acting class partner is the daughter of a superstar actress. Obsessed with proving she is talented on her own, the girl has no sense of humor. Though the relationship revolves around a series of conflicts and reconciliations, they eventually find themselves helping each other.
Many of Ron Howard's projects seem to reflect a G-rated life style -- almost a reflection of his own. He and his wife, Cheryl, are more likely to be found at a baseball game than at a glamorous Hollywood party. They don't smoke, drink , or use drugs, he says, adding nonchalantly that he's simply never really felt tempted to do so. (He adds just as nonchalantly that he also doesn't eat much asparagus, but no one makes much ado about that.)
While his wholesome screen image is close to the real Ron Howard, he says he would not be unwilling to change it. If, for instance, he were offered a good role as a sadistic killer, he would probably take it. But when it comes to production, he feels an added responsibility.
"As a filmmaker, as a director, as a writer, why I have more of a sense of trying to make a positive point. Sometimes positive points can be made in negative ways -- a picture can have a sad ending, and everyone realizes, 'Oh, look, that person shouldn't have robbed that bank,' or whatever the story is. But I do feel that there should be some moral to the story. I don't believe I would ever make a picture saying, 'Hey, everybody should take drugs because that's the greatest thing,' because I don't believe that. . . . What I do has got to be consistent with just the way I feel."
And though most of his projects thus far seem to have been oriented to a family-type audience, he is not averse to producing an R-rated film.
"The war picture is probably going to be an R picture, and the baseball picture is an R picture, so we may be getting away from just family pictures a bit more -- certainly not [abandoning] that. Certain pictures should be family pictures. Other pictures, if you're going to do them fully, should be R. I have no qualms about that either way."
Lunch break is over, and we're about to head back to the "Happy Days" rehearsal at Sound Stage 19. I observe that at a taping of the show before an audience that included a large number of industry people, Ron Howard received the most steady applause, and seemed to be recognized as a real professional.
"Really? I never noticed," he responded. "If it's true, that's the way I would really like to be remembered. Professionalism is something that is really important to me.It probably goes back to that thing of doing a good job in front of the grownups. I've always prided myself on trying to be professional, behave myself and be a good, reliable worker.
"That's what I also hope to achieve as a director. I hope that some day people are going to say, 'Boy, he's a filmmaker. You give him a script, and he's going to really do it up right -- he's going to get every little nuance, and you're going to be pleased that you got him to direct because he's a pro.' I don't feel I'm really there yet, but I'm learning a lot, and hopefully i can achieve that."