SM: So you started acting at six on The Andy Griffith Show. Your dad, Rance, was also an actor.
RH: My dad was a good teacher. Hed never been to Strasberg, but hed taken enough classes to understand the fundamentalsjust to listen and really think about what the other person is saying and then talk. With Andy Griffith, there was an open, collaborative spirit. Andy created it that way, and Im forever grateful, because it shaped my entire creative life. One of the things he would allow is a conversation like this.
SM: Right. Yes, Andy...he doesnt have one dramatic moment to shine, just a solid consistency.
RH: For a kid, growing up in an environment where all the actors were allowed to actually witness the problem solving all around usand even be encouraged to participatewas spectacular. There were a lot of laughs, but nobody ever fumbled through a scene. Nothing was ever phoned in.
BEYOND HAPPY DAYS...
RH: I chose to do Happy Days because of Vietnam. I was a film major at USC, but I had a horrible draft number, and I felt if I was employed by Gulf + Western [then owner of Paramount], they would find some way to keep me out of the jungle. Then the draft went away, Happy Days went on to be a success, and I was happy to have the job. I went out and bought a 16mm Moviola and set it in our living room. [Then new wife] Cheryl and I had a little apartment in Los Feliz. She thought it was crazy, but I thought soon I would start making a movie on the weekends. When Roger Corman wanted me to do Eat My Dust, I had some film to show him.
Happy Days turned out to be vital in a number of ways. Its success gave me the leverage and profile that was invaluable in making people listen no matter what I wanted to sayeven the uncomfortable reality that I wanted to talk about directing. It made Roger Corman want me to direct for him. It exposed me to Garry Marshall and his style of leadership and introduced me to Tom Miller, one of the shows executive producers who had actually been mentored by Billy Wilder. He was astute and articulate, and between setups, it was inspiring to talk to him. Garry is a natural teacherand I am a natural student. Every time he had a lull in his day, hed be making me laugh and teaching me something about the businessespecially the value of editing and the way comedy is like algebra and needs to be constructed, plus invaluable stories about pitching to the network and actually selling. I saw him as the consummate problem solver. If he needed to be forceful, he was. He would check his ego at the door and be charming. It was unbelievable to see him handle the success of the show and channel peoples energies in a most constructive way.
At one point, when the show was transitioning, my renegotiations with the network were kind of annoying. Garry was extremely supportive. He said that moments like this, when you are dealing with disappointment, is when you are defined as a person. He would just say, You are doing great, and pat me on the backreally one of the greatest compliments anyone has ever paid me. It was kind of an acknowledgment and a good piece of advice all at once, a show of respect. The choice to leave Happy Days was a big one, because the show was still top 10, and my contract was finally up, and the network was offering me a lot of money to stay. By then I was producing and directing TV movies. It was a real watershed moment, but creative opportunities and control were the driving considerations, not the financials.
SM: Those moments where you leave steady work to go out on your own are always frightening, but theyre always necessary.
THE ROGER CORMAN FACTOR...
SM: Im curious about the years just prior to Night Shift.
RH: Roger Corman gave me this deal I had to act in Eat My Dust in order to get a chance to direct Grand Theft Auto. He had seen a couple of my 16mm short movies and had read this script my father and I wrotekind of like an indie movie. And he said, Thats pretty good writing, but its about people, and its not a genre movie. Its not really what we do here. Then he looked at my short films and said, But I think you can direct. If you act in Eat My Dust, Ill let you write an outline for a script. If that works out, Ill let you direct it, but youll have to be in it. If none of that works, I promise Ill let you direct the car-crash unit in one of my films. Well, that was as close to a firm deal as Id come. I remember standing out on Sunset and telling my agent, Dont come to this meeting, because I was going to take his bargain. I didnt care how much I was getting paid to act in Eat My Dust if I was going to get a chance to direct. And it was a big hit.
SM: So you accidentally became a movie star?
RH: Well, it worked out!
BEHIND THE LENS...
SM: I ask myself, Why dont I direct? I dont think I have the stamina. I might shortcut something just to go home. Thats my biggest curiosity about directorsthis stamina.
RH: Well, I think you have to have it; otherwise, its too miserable. And Im finding it easier to direct. Im less tired at the end of a movie, even though I still wake up in the middle of the night. Thats why acting is a great jumping-off place for directing. I think most experienced, intelligent actors could probably do a very decent job of directing a television show or film if they chose to. But they might not like it. And if they are miserable, theyre probably going to make lousy choices, because the clock is ticking. Even if youre an A director with a lot of latitude and final cuts, you have to move through the day and get the shots. That means hundreds and hundreds of choices, and some are compromises.
SM: One time I directed two short episodes of this sitcom with Harvey Korman and Valerie Perrine [Leo & Liz in Beverly Hills]. It was the first time Id ever directed anything, and on day one, people said, How fast do you want the car to go? and I said, Uh...I dont know. Well have to see. Day two, they said, How fast do you want the car to go? and I said, Uh, 25 miles per hour?
The Right Direction
Ron Howard goes mano a mano with industry multitasker Steve Martin to recall his fifty remarkable years in the business
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