The Curious Case of Ron Howard
How many times have we heard child actor story? Ultra cute kid gets to be a phenomenon, push out a string of hits, then getting picked up for _____________ (insert criminal activity here), then losses all of their fame and spirals into personal and professional demise. We hear about them on a TV special entitled “Whatever Happened to So and So” and the story always involves drugs, rehab, acting in porn, or (most unfortunately) death. The earlier the actor starts, the quicker the drop into obscurity. Except for Ron Howard.
Ron Howard first showed up on screen at the age of 5 in ‘The Journey’ a 1959 drama starring Yul Brynner (for those under the age of 60, google it). At 6, he was cast as Opie Taylor, the son of Andy Griffith in the iconic “The Andy Griffith Show”. It ran for eight seasons, winning six Emmy’s and being ranked by TV Guide as the 9th Greatest Television show in history. So iconic on our culture that I can go into a coffee shop right now, pull the ear buds out of any nineteen year old that would have been born 40 years after the show was on the air, and say “Opie”, or “Barney Fiff”, and “Mayberry” – and they would know exactly what I’m talking about. While not a vehicle to feature him as an actor, it made him a part of TV history – and his character was household name.
Roles of the 70’s
Coming out of “The Andy Griffith Show”, Howard bounced around as a guest star on MASH and a few other programs off the day until 1973 when George Lucas cast him in ‘American Graffiti’ – a coming-of-age film that also starred Richard Dreyfuss and had a fun side role for Harrison Ford. (If you ever wondered why Ford was cast as Han Solo, he and Lucas met on the set of this film). His role in that throw back teen film is what led him to be cast in the second iconic television series of his career; ‘Happy Days’. Like with Andy Griffith, most everyone has some familiarity with ‘Happy Days’ You know The Fonz! “Aaaaaeeeehhhh” As Richie Cunningham, he developed from button down teenage to life ready adult. As America grew up with Ron, he was asked to take on a more dramatic project with 1976’s ‘The Shootist’. In John Wayne’s final performance, Howard is asked to go dark in the role of a troubled teen being mentored by a dying gunfighter. So dark in fact, the movie ends with him shooting and killing a man. (Spoiler Alert). The turn earned him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Splash into Directing
After seven years on “Happy Days” Howard made his feature directorial debut with “Grand Theft Auto” – a comedy starring himself in 1977. It would not be until 1982’s “Night Shift” that he cemented himself as a director. The comedy featuring pre-fame Michael Keaton and “Happy Days” co-star Henry Winkler was a critical and commercial success and began a string of successes for the next decade. ‘Cocoon’, ‘Willow’, and ‘Backdraft’ were all recognized for their visual style and Howard kept his wit in critically acclaim comedies ‘Splash’, ‘Parenthood’, and ‘The Paper’. Numerous nominations for awards and sporadic wins dotted this period of his directorial career.
Apollo 13 and the Oscar Win
In 1995 Howard released his most ambitious project to widespread acclaim and success. The film would win 2 out of 7 Oscar nominations for it’s visual effects. It was the historical docudrama – Apollo 13. In pre-production, Howard insisted that no shots in the film would be of stock mission footage. This meant building massive replicas and created models to simulate the rocket. In order to believably film in zero-gravity a set was constructed on a KC-135 NASA plane that can create spurts of zero-gravity twenty-seven seconds at a time. For the film shoot, the plan made 612 parabolas which created three hours and fifty four minutes of weightless footage. Let me re-stress – that is three hours and fifty four minutes of footage, twenty three seconds at a time. The effects would be heralded as some of the best ‘space accurate’ scenes in the history of cinema, still talked about in comparison to last year’s ‘Gravity’. He would make three more films in the next six years (included in the live action adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas that earned him another Oscar for make-up effects) and then released the next critical monster of his career. ‘A Beautiful Mind’ earned him the Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture. Overall the film would win four out of eight categories it was nominated for, including a nomination for Film Editing. This film cemented him as a full time director, with his credits behind the camera matching (if not surpassing) his roles in front of it.
New Millennium Works
The last thirteen years have been filled with eight films consisting of biopic docudramas and adaptations of the Dan Brown ‘Robert Langdon’ books. ‘Cinderella Man’ staring his leading man from ‘A Beautiful Mind’ Russell Crowe was a critical success, though disappointing financially, but his follow up would be one of his highest grossing and most controversial. ‘The Da’Vinci Code’ was a smash box office success, earning nearly $760 million dollars, while also being banned in fifteen countries for it’s tone on religion and the Catholic Church. Following this, ‘Frost/Nixon’ brought him the next closest to a second Oscar for Best Director and Picture. The film was met with rhapsody for its acting and editing as the crux of the film revolves around two men talking in a dark room. Skipping over ‘Angels and Demons’ and ‘The Dilemma’, Howard’s next critical darling came in 2013’s ‘Rush’. The biopic docudrama (seems to be Howard’s strongest genre) involves Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as an open wheel race car driver and his rivalry with a fellow driver in the 1970’s. It tripled its modest budget and holds a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes among its Top Critics. The upcoming year 2015 will feature Howard’s work twice in another historical drama ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ and another Dan Brown adaptation, ‘Inferno’.
Ultimately, Howard is a triumph of success. The man turned an even 60 this year and has been on our television screens and movie screens for fifty-five of those years. So rare it is for a child actor with a single iconic role to continue into success, but to have two pieces of television history attached to his career, only to move on to a 37 year career as a director. Twenty-three directed features, a Best Director Academy Award (along with 100’s of other awards for his films) and oh yeah… he was an Executive Producer and Narrator of ‘Arrested Development’. He’s won the National Medal of Arts, has been inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, and has AN ASTEROID NAMED AFTER HIM! I don’t typically hear him mentioned in the same circle as Clint Eastwood, or George Clooney – but he should be. He certainly was never a movie star, but he has one of the most unique and spotless careers of any creative in Hollywood.