BACK IN SPLASH OF THINGS WITH 'COCOON'

Times Staff Writer

Ron Howard is nervous. Seated on the jump seat of a Cadillac stretch limousine, his knee bounces up and down like an oil pump as the car snakes its way through midtown Manhattan traffic. En route to one of the first public screenings of his new movie, "Cocoon," Howard's mind still seems locked in the editing room. "Maybe we should have jacked up the music in that dance scene," he says, unwilling to let go of his just-completed film.

"That's cornball stuff but you gotta give 'em some of that," he tells producer Richard Zanuck, remarking on another scene. As the car arrives at the Gotham Theater, Howard quickly adjusts his lucky hat, a well-worn checkered cloth cap that belonged to famous winning British horse-racing trainer Harry Wragg. "I wear it before every new movie," he says, bounding out of the limousine. "I just hope it works tonight."

Howard's uncharacteristic anxiety--when was Opie ever wired?--is understandable. A lot is riding on the $17.5-million fantasy-drama that centers on the lives of half a dozen senior citizens who experience their own close encounter with friendly aliens on a mission of mercy. "Cocoon" could provide a much needed revenue booster for 20th Century Fox's sagging bottom line. "Fox needs a hit and it needs it right away," says Zanuck, co-producer with David Brown and Zanuck's wife, Lili Fini Zanuck.

For director Howard, "Cocoon" represents another turning point in what has already been an astonishing second career. With the success of "Night Shift" and "Splash," he has earned the respect of a community generally cynical about actors who move behind the camera.

Thanks largely to "Splash" (which has brought Fox $34 million in revenues to date, according to Variety figures), Howard earned more than $1 million as a director's fee for "Cocoon" in addition to his participation in the film's profits. Should "Cocoon" perform at the box office as well as insiders expect, Howard's career would move up a sprocket into the rarefied ranks of A-plus directors who can effectively pick and choose projects with little interference from the studios.

"If 'Cocoon' is a big hit, I'll have the chance to be one of those guys everyone is just bonkers over," he acknowledges, picking at a chef's salad in Suite 1220 at the Hotel Carlyle in New York. "Then life could get really scary."

Ron Howard scared? That would represent a genuine sea change in a career that has been almost too perfect. Howard, who will forever be perceived as Opie Taylor, has already starred in two long-running No. 1 TV series, "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days," and has been in show business for 29 of his 31 years. Freckle-faced, with that familiar gap-toothed grin, he is a bulletproof version of the boy next door.

A product of Hollywood, he steadfastly refuses to adopt its trappings. He lives in Encino with his screenwriter wife Cheryl (his high school sweetheart) and three children. He has no visible enemies. His movies come in under budget, on time and consistently make money. Success has given Ron Howard the ultimate status in Hollywood: the security to be a nice guy. "He gets the most out of people because he goes into every relationship thinking it's going to work," says producer Brian Grazer ("Splash"). "He's the most secure person I've ever met."

At least for now.

"Cocoon," a film that was in development for four years (see accompanying story), is set to open June 21. With an ensemble cast composed of Steve Guttenberg ("Diner"), new faces like the stunning Tahnee Welch (daughter of Raquel) and Tyrone Power Jr. (he has one speaking line) and old faces like Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Wilford Brimley and Maureen Stapleton, "Cocoon" is a sentimental, feel-good fable aimed at a broad audience. It will be difficult to sell. In a marketplace dominated by so-called "high-concept" movies whose story lines are instantly recognizable from their titles, "Cocoon" is an anomaly: a film that brazenly attempts to appeal to all age groups rather than just one and gives little hint through its title of what it's about.

Fox marketing executives have decided to downplay the extraterrestrial elements of the story, perhaps concerned that audiences may be ODd on ETs. In trailers playing at about 2,500 theaters and in TV spots, Fox marketing strategists have decided to play up the human side of the film ("Beyond the innocence of youth and the wisdom of age lies the wonder of 'Cocoon' ").

"This is not a science-fiction or hardware film," says David Weitzner, president of marketing for Fox. "We don't hide the fact that there are aliens, but we have concentrated more on the human drama between them."

The emphasis on emotions over pyrotechnics is a distinct Howard trademark. "In doing a broad comedy or a fantasy, you've got to earn the right to be able to do the incredible thing," he said, abandoning his chef's salad for half a tuna sandwich on whole wheat. "You've got to draw people in through something they can relate to."

Perhaps because of his acting experience, Howard's strength as a director lies in his ability to work with and understand human character.

"Ron brings heart to his movies," says producer Richard Zanuck. "In this movie he proves that he's not just a comedy or fantasy director, but that he can deal with human emotions and he can deal with action."

If the transition from actor to director seems like a bridge too far, Ron Howard is probably the person least surprised by his own success. Although enormously successful as a child actor--his father Rance is an actor and director as well--Howard has wanted to direct since childhood. As a teen-ager, he placed second in a national contest sponsored by Kodak for his one-reeler "Deed of Derring Do." He got his first directing break working for Roger Corman, who paid him $5,000 to direct "Grand Theft Auto" (1977) on a budget of $602,000 in return for Howard's starring in "Eat My Dust" (1976), an equally lowbrow yarn about two youngsters who love to race cars.

"Grand Theft Auto" and several well-received TV movies he directed opened doors for Howard at the major studios. Warners decided to give him his first major shot with "Night Shift." The assignment came none too soon. After quitting "Happy Days" in 1980, he felt burned out on acting and needed a new challenge. The success of "Night Shift" quickly elevated his status and gave him confidence in his own abilities.

Moving from being one of the cattle to one of the cowboys has had its effect on him. "Cheryl says I'm a lot more assertive these days," Howard says. "But I think I've always been pretty assertive as a director. I had to fight this urge to try and make puppets out of the actors and get them to do it the way I'd do it, in my rhythm. Fortunately, I learned early on that was a mistake."

Does he ever want to act again? "I'm just beginning to miss it," he says. "Seeing Steve Guttenberg with this ensemble cast made me a little envious, but no, I'm not available."

Howard's directing has earned him plaudits from some of Hollywood's biggest names. After "Splash," Steven Spielberg sent him a telegram and Howard excitedly had his secretary read it to him twice over the phone. " 'He said, just as "Jaws" had sent so many people running from the ocean, he was sure "Splash" would bring them back,' " says a proud Howard.

A few weeks later he and Spielberg had lunch together, but even such heady meetings don't seem to have radically altered his seemingly viceless life style. Howard insists he'll raise his children in the Valley (Bryce Dallas, conceived in Dallas, is 4 and 4-month-old twins Paige Carlyle and Jocelyn Carlyle were conceived at the famed hotel).

Although he did test-drive a Porsche two years ago, Howard continues to drive his unwashed Volvo 760 (he recently installed a cellular car phone, the closest thing to a visible bauble of his seven-figure success). "I don't smoke, I don't drink much and I don't do drugs--I guess you're right, I'm not a very adventuresome character," he says with a hearty laugh.

Howard's approach to directing is equally unaffected. He reduces directing to two basic principles: "Is it believable and is it telling the story? In comedy, is it funny and do I buy it?"

These are happy days for Ron Howard because Hollywood is indeed buying it. In New York, he was busy juggling promotional appearances for "Cocoon" with pre-production details on his next feature, "Gung-Ho." Set to start filming later this summer, "Gung-Ho" stars Michael Keaton in the story of a dying American auto plant that is saved, at least in part, by the Japanese.

If Howard seems intent on returning to the set as quickly as possible, there's a good reason. "The atmosphere on a movie set is the one I'm most comfortable with outside of my home," he says. "I don't really have any other dreams."

Surprisingly, he does have some nightmares. One in particular keeps coming back and waking him in a mild sweat. "The dream is I'm on a set and something is just not clicking. I'm scrambling around trying to make it happen, but I don't really have the answers. All of a sudden two key figures come up and say, 'Ron, you don't know what the hell you're doing. That's it. The movie stinks and we're leaving.' "

And then, just like in the movies, Ron Howard always wakes up.

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