Times Staff Writer

When director Ron Howard was recruiting Michael Keaton for the auto-plant comedy "Gung Ho," he ultimately hung his pitch on a personal request.

"I said, 'The last couple of movies--"Splash" and "Cocoon"--have been good experiences, but they weren't always fun because they were so hard to do,' " Howard recalls telling the star of his comedy "Night Shift."

" 'I'd really like to do this movie, and I'd like to do it with you because I think we'd have a lot of laughs. If it means anything to you, I'd appreciate it.' "

How could anybody turn Howard the Fair down? It would be anti-American, or at least anti-Americana. It would be like kicking Huck Finn out of your yard.

It would be hard enough to say no if it was just Ronny Howard, the child actor, all grown up. Opie Cunningham--as Eddie Murphy dubbed him--is still high on life and, despite a mustache and thinning hair, looks boyish as ever at 32.

But Howard is also one of Hollywood's hottest-hitting directors. Before "Gung Ho," he had three hits in three at bats in a game where one in five will keep you in the majors. And with an opening weekend box-office take of more than $7 million, "Gung Ho" looks as if it may go over the fence too.

Four years ago, when Howard was starting "Splash," he said his goal was to get the industry to take him seriously as a director and that the movie would facilitate a transition from TV acting to feature-film directing.

The success of "Splash" accelerated his plan, and "Cocoon," which he took over from Robert Zemeckis (who went on to direct the even more successful "Back to the Future"), put him near the top of the A-List of directors-in-demand. Howard acknowledges his new status with the usual balance of humility and awe.

"It's an exciting time," he said, during a recent breakfast at the Bel-Air Hotel. "I'm getting great offers, I'm having great conversations with people I never thought I'd get to meet. It (success) has been almost paralyzing."

With the exception of one brief 10-month period in high school, Howard has been working steadily since he was 5 years old, growing physically and professionally before our very eyes. He once described his acting childhood as the educational equivalent of a candy store; he could pick up a handful of knowledge on any flavor of film making that he wanted.

No wonder he is so sanguine about the business.

"I really can't harbor much animosity for the system because I haven't had any problems with it," Howard says. "My experiences were good doing TV and they have been good with films."

Howard's only acting dry spell came when he turned 16, which is often the finish line for child-acting careers. Producers don't like to use kids 16 and 17 because they can hire older actors to play the same roles without having to pay for state-mandated supervision of minors.

"I was so frustrated because I wanted to work and couldn't get a job," Howard says. "I was going out on interviews, reading the trades, calling casting directors. But nothing was coming my way."

He finally landed a role on Henry Fonda's "Smith Family" TV series (which took him up to the movie "American Graffiti," which led to the role on "Happy Days," etc.), but the job panic, plus some advice actor Van Heflin had once given to his parents' acting class, convinced him to broaden his range beyond acting.

"My dad is always quoting him (Heflin)," Howard says. "He told the class that if you really love the business, you can find a way to survive in it. You may not be an actor, but you can do something. . . . I love the business and I felt like acting and producing might be a way for me to stay in."

Howard learned as much about the craft sides as he could while working on TV series and movies, then directed his first film, "Grand Theft Auto," a low-budget teen-age action film, for Roger Corman when he was 23.

His first three major films have been as easy to sit through as episodes of "Happy Days," but each one took risks.

"Night Shift" was a comedy about two morgue attendants who turn their workplace into a profitable all-night brothel. "Splash" was a cute mermaid fantasy, but nonetheless the first Disney movie to display bare breasts. And "Cocoon," in its lighter moments, got laughs out of geriatric sex.

It is as if Richie Cunningham were directing with the Fonz serving as a technical consultant.

"Gung-Ho" may risk even more. It is a broad farce about a group of superdisciplined Japanese auto execs who take over a failing American assembly line and try to boost production by running it like a Samurai boot camp.

Even Howard expects some reaction from offended Japanese.

"I assume that there is going to be some (complaints)," he says. "The Asian community is very active. . . . You have to figure that any special interest group takes itself very seriously and that it will will react. That comes with the territory.

"We just hope they take it as it was intended. We were making fun of the Japanese a little bit, but we were making just as much fun of the Americans. 'Gung-Ho' is about the weaknesses that both sides share and the misconceptions about each side. If you're going to make that movie (contrasting American and Japanese auto industries), you have to show those weaknesses."

Howard says he had planned to take a break after "Cocoon," but he went into "Gung-Ho" immediately when Keaton became available. In fact, Howard was scouting locations and casting "Gung-Ho" while dubbing "Cocoon."

"I didn't even have a long weekend between movies," he says. "I won't do that again."

Howard says his nomination for the Directors Guild of America award for "Cocoon" was a slightly mixed blessing. He didn't expect the DGA nomination, but once he had it, it raised his hopes for an Oscar nomination as well. Like fellow DGA nominee Steven Spielberg, he didn't get one.

"I don't feel I was robbed or anything," he says, "but when I got the DGA nomination, I thought I might sneak in (for an Oscar nomination). I didn't and that was disappointing. . . . I got a kick out of being mentioned in some articles as a candidate."

Howard just finished acting in a two-hour TV movie reuniting the cast and scenario of "The Andy Griffith Show" for the first time since the series ended in 1968. Playing Opie again, and being around his first TV family, was like a family reunion itself, he says.

"I didn't have a lot of relatives when I was doing the show," he says, "so they (the cast) became family to me. They still remember Opie and Richie Cunningham, but they know what I am doing and they seem to support it. They are proud of me and I appreciate that."

Howard, who has moved his family to a Connecticut suburb where life seems more firmly rooted in reality than it is in Hollywood, is understandably proud of himself. But he is keeping a clear head.

"It (success as a director) has come a lot faster than I ever thought it would," he says. "I have already reached a level that is the highest level I dreamed of reaching. Now, to me, the whole thing is to just hang on."

BEAST STREET: A $6.5-million King Kong attraction will be added to the Universal Studios Tour beginning in June, the studio announced Tuesday.

The King Kong attraction, originally designed for a facility that Universal Studios had planned to build in Florida, will feature a 30-foot-tall animated replica of the giant ape who, for the love of a minuscule, usually hysterical woman, got himself killed--twice!--in "King Kong" movies made in 1933 and 1976.

The exhibit, a New York street scene with buildings ablaze, will be housed in one of the Universal sound stages where tour trams will enter and get caught in the middle of a fight between the computer-operated Kong and a laser-firing squad of helicopters.

According to a tour spokesman, tram riders will come within three feet of the beast's 10-foot head, which will be snarling and sparking and spraying a gaseous spray called S15-HB on the tourists.

Is this Hollywood or what? S15-HB is the studio's code name for banana breath.

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