Ron Howard Plays With Fire : With 'Backdraft,' He Just May Shake His Opie Cunningham Good-Guy Rep

James Greenberg's last story for this magazine was a profile of screenwriter Shane Black.

IT WON'T GO DOWN AS ONE OF THE great moments in rock-'n'-roll history. The band had just finished playing a selection of standards--"Mustang Sally," "Under the Boardwalk," "Twist and Shout"--when it was finally time for the mystery guest to appear. The lights dimmed and then, when the tension was almost too much to take, he bounded onstage, guitar in hand, and ripped into a searing version of "Wild Thing." Plying the strings with his tongue, dropping to his knees screaming, "Sock it to me," Ron Howard electrified the crowd.

OK, so what if his voice was a little thin and his moves a little clumsy? He was there to entertain the cast and crew at the wrap party for his latest film, "Backdraft." The drama about firefighters had just finished shooting in Chicago. He didn't care if his performance was embarrassingly bad; he was having fun sending up his image as the quintessential boy next door.

Few faces carry a clearer message than Ron Howard's. He is mom and apple pie, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, a home run in the ninth and a basket at the buzzer. He is an American icon. Andy Warhol wanted to paint him. Eddie Murphy called him Opie Cunningham, combining the names of the two television characters that have planted him in the nation's consciousness for more than 30 years. He is a vision of the American people as we want to see ourselves--loyal, cheerful, friendly and hopelessly optimistic.

Upon first glance, his personality and demeanor resemble the characters he's played. At 37, his face still has some of the little-boy charm it did when he portrayed Opie Taylor on "The Andy Griffith Show." His red hair is thinner now, usually covered by a cap; his slight frame is youthful, draped in casually rumpled clothes, and his high-pitched voice makes him sound younger than his years. He exudes what one friend calls "wholesome hipness."

But his image is not something he woke up one day and was stuck with. As Howard has grown up in the public eye, he has chosen a life that happens to be consistent with the perception people have of him. He married his high school sweetheart and lives with her and their four children in suburban splendor outside Greenwich, Conn. Howard may seem ordinary, but his success has been so singular, his good fortune so pervasive and his attitude so relentlessly positive that he has become something quite rare. He is not a media creation of a good guy; he is a good guy.

As a figure in American pop culture, Howard probably resembles Jimmy Stewart more than any of today's antiheroes. He accepts the comparison only after pointing out that Stewart is more than his unassuming persona; he's also a savvy businessman who managed to sustain a lengthy career. "You can't do those things by aw-shucksing your way through life," says Ron in his Oklafornia drawl. "There has to be a drive, and ambition has to move you to do that."

If anything separates Howard from the sweet child actor of his youth, it's his ambition as a director and drive as a founding partner of Imagine Films Entertainment. In a recent rating of the 100 most powerful players in Hollywood by Premiere magazine, Howard was ranked 25th. He established his credentials with his hit comedies "Splash" (1984) and "Cocoon" (1985). The disappointing performance of "Gung Ho" (1986) and "Willow" (1988) did little to damage his reputation, and the box-office success and mature themes of "Parenthood" (1989) enhanced his standing in the community. Now, he is expanding his range with "Backdraft" (opening May 24), a gritty drama about firefighters, starring Kurt Russell, William Baldwin and Robert De Niro.

But is there really more to Ron Howard than what he appears to be? "That's a hard one," says friend Bob Dolman, who wrote the script for "Willow" and for Howard's next project, "Distant Shores." "Isn't that the mystery of Ron? I've been trying to figure that out for years."

THE ONLY TWO THINGS RON HOWARD THINKS HE'S ANY GOOD AT are show business and being a father. He can't repair his car (an AMC 4x4), he isn't handy around the house, and he says his cooking repertoire consists of scrambling eggs and popping something in the microwave. It's no surprise, then, that he's trying to give his children the skills he feels he's lacking. "I guess I'm trying to project something onto them that I feel I don't have. I'm a good problem solver within this arena, but outside of it, I feel kind of lost."

Thirty-three years in the business can do that to you. Movies have functioned as a classroom for Howard. He was not intellectually inquisitive as a child, and even now he doesn't consider himself well-educated. The thing that interested him the most then, as it does now, is looking through a camera and seeing how a movie gets made. Acting and directing have been a means for him to experience the world and have forced him to explore new situations, usually as potential movie material. Before shooting "Splash," he was afraid of the ocean, but to direct the underwater scenes he had to learn to scuba-dive. "I've learned to research and study and get out there and spend time with people," Howard says earnestly. "I would never have gotten started traveling if I didn't feel I had to. I wouldn't have left Burbank."

Burbank was a white-bread town dominated by studio technicians, police officers and Lockheed employees when Howard was growing up. He likes to go back every few years to see how things have changed. The city has been built up with condos and office buildings, but, driving around it now with Ron, the small-town feel is still there. Passing Mayberry Lincoln /Mercury, I wonder if we've made a wrong turn into the Twilight Zone. We stop for dinner at Marie Callender's--one of the first of the chain, he tells me. He has a slice of strawberry pie and vanilla ice cream for dessert, and we press on. Past the house that Annette Funicello grew up in and Bob's Big Boy, a real-life "American Graffiti" spot where Ron would hang out on the weekends, to the house where he lived until he was 13. He's appalled at its rundown condition. "This looks like a drug addict owns this house," he squeaks. And then he can't believe what he sees parked in front. "A biker, he's a biker! A biker owns my house!"

Recovering from the shock, we continue on to Ron's alma mater, John Burroughs High School, which, he says, didn't have a single black student when he went there. At Burroughs, he didn't do drugs and he didn't drink, but he wasn't a total nerd, either. Although other students occasionally poked fun at him because of his acting career, the last thing he wanted was to be a novelty item on campus. "I made a few friends and kept to myself. My group ran the paper and played sports, so we had a little position," he recalls. "We were sort of socially acceptable, but we never really got invited to parties or anything."

Ron has good memories of high school but one thing irks him. "I was always pissed that I didn't get Most Likely to Succeed. I figured I had a pretty good leg up."

By high school, Ron's family had moved to Toluca Lake. And it wasn't far from Ron's house to where his girlfriend, Cheryl Alley, lived. He shows me the route he would run every morning to rendezvous with her. It seems that his parents had restricted Ron and Cheryl to dating twice a week. Ron's solution was to pretend to go out for cross-country and instead race over to see her. "We would just go out for breakfast or fool around a little if her father was gone." Afterward, Cheryl would drop him off a few blocks from home and Ron would sprint the rest of the way and come in panting. "I never thought to ask if they bought that," he says.

If there is a fairy-tale ring to Ron's life, it starts with his parents. His mother, Jean, hurried from a children's theater performance to her wedding, still wearing her Cinderella ball gown. The seven dwarfs dropped by from another production to be witnesses. Ron's father, Rance, had met Jean in college in Oklahoma; they hooked up later in New York, where they were gypsy actors, working in the burgeoning television industry and in summer stock.

Ron first appeared onstage at age 2 in a Baltimore production of "The Seven Year Itch" directed by his father. He had a talent for absorbing lines he heard and would often entertain family friends by doing scenes from "Mr. Roberts" with his father. But his parents never had any intention of a show-business career for Ron until, on a lark, his father told a casting director he had a son who was "a very fine actor." The boast proved prophetic. Young Ron landed a role in Anatole Litvak's Cold War drama, "The Journey," starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, shooting for four months in Vienna. He was 4.

As Rance and Jean packed up their Plymouth for a move to Los Angeles in search of more roles for themselves, they thought their son might be able to work enough to sock away money for college. He soon made his reputation in Hollywood as a kid who could remember his lines. After guest spots on "The Red Skelton Show," "Playhouse 90" and "General Electric Theater" (hosted by Ronald Reagan), Ron, at 6, began an eight-year stint on "The Andy Griffith Show" as the son of Sheriff Andy Taylor. His younger brother, Clint, followed in his footsteps, later starring in "Gentle Ben." Rance and Jean still work as character actors, often in Ron's movies, and live in the same house in Toluca Lake.

Although "The Andy Griffith Show" was a big hit and Ron became a star, his parents made sure that success didn't go to his head. In the show's later years, Griffith said that his relationship with Opie was based on that of Ron and his father. Rance didn't think there was anything exceptional about being an actor and passed that attitude on to his sons. "You prepare, do it, and go home. It's a job, same as a paperboy. You're both doing a service," he told them.

While Ron was out-earning his father handily, Rance made sure that the family lived on his income. "When kids become the breadwinner, they're quick to realize their power over the family and have a tendency to exercise it."

Rance also kept Ron in line the old-fashioned way. "I was raised so that if I made a mistake, I got punished on the spot, and that's the way I treated our boys. If I caught Ron goofing around on the set, I would quietly give him a thump on the head and walk on, and hardly anyone would notice."

From his earliest days in the business, Ron knew exactly what he wanted to do when he grew up. In press notes for the movie "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," which he made in 1963 when he was 9, he was quoted as saying, "I can't wait until I get old enough to be out of college. I'm going to be a producer, director, actor and writer. I've already written a six-page story called 'A Boy and His Friends.' " Ron was always observing the filmmaking process and asking the crew how things were done. Griffith and Aaron Ruben, producer of the Griffith show, gave him his first camera for his 10th birthday. When he was 16, he bought his own super-8mm camera to enter a Kodak contest. Using Rance, Clint and Cheryl as his cast and Jean as the script supervisor, he wrote and directed a three-minute film, "Deed of Derring-Do," which took second prize in the national competition.

Henry Fonda, who played Howard's father on the short-lived series "The Smith Family," praised the film and gave Ron some books on directing, but it would be several years before Howard got a real shot at making movies. He made the transition from child star to teen star with "American Graffiti" in 1973. He was impressed with George Lucas' freewheeling style of shooting on location. At Lucas' suggestion, Ron enrolled at USC and began to think of film in more artistic terms. "There really wasn't too much discussion of metaphor in film on 'The Andy Griffith' set," he jokes. But after a few terms at USC, he was back in television in 1974 for a six-year run as Richie Cunningham on "Happy Days," one of the most unhappy periods of his life.

Howard was becoming increasingly restless with the vagaries of acting and wanted more control over his career. "I was borderline miserable. The job was good and the money was good, but I wasn't happy with the way the network perceived me and I wanted to become a director. I'd be driving to work and instead of turning off to the Hollywood Freeway, I'd think, 'What if I just keep going to Tijuana?' "

Things picked up when he used his leverage as a star to get his first directing assignment. B-movie king Roger Corman needed a young recognizable face to star in a cheap chase picture, "Eat My Dust!" Ron agreed to do it in exchange for a possible shot at directing. After "Eat My Dust!" became Corman's most profitable movie to that point, Ron, with Rance, wrote, then starred in and directed "Grand Theft Auto." The film was shot for $600,000 in four weeks, and Corman assured Ron that if he did a good job, he'd never have to work for him again.

Although the film made money, the studios weren't quite ready for a 23-year-old director. Howard set up his own production company, Major H Productions, and continued to pay his dues directing television movies. He met a young producer at Paramount, and they started to have lunch together. "He was Opie and I was a twerp producer," recalls Brian Grazer, now his partner in Imagine. "He was very, very shy and didn't usually go to lunch with strangers. I said let's just pitch ideas as an exercise and told him a story about two pimps in a New York City morgue. I was afraid to pitch an idea this racy, but he loved it."

So Grazer shopped around the idea for "Night Shift" and it was well received, but not with Ron as the director. Executives who now clamor to work with Howard dismissed him as "the kid from 'Happy Days.' " But Ladd Co. president Alan Ladd Jr., now chairman and CEO of MGM-Pathe Communications, saw beyond that and hired him to direct his first studio film. "Just the way he talked about it and his ideas for the script and casting, I really didn't feel like I was dealing with a first-time director," Ladd recalls. "It was more like dealing with a pro who had been doing it for a very long time." Michael Keaton made his feature debut in "Night Shift," but, despite good reviews, the film was a box office disappointment.

"Night Shift" did help change Hollywood's perception of Howard, and when his next film, "Splash," grossed more than $60 million, he was welcomed as a talent who could deliver a hit comedy. He expanded his range further with "Cocoon," for which he received a Directors Guild nomination as best director. "In those days, Ron was much more comfortable in letting things come to him. Now, with Imagine, he's much more aggressive, but he never showed that side then," says producer Tony Ganz, who was Howard's partner in Major H from 1981 until the formation of Imagine in 1986.

The creation of the publicly owned Imagine signaled a bold step for Howard. George Lucas advised him against the responsibility and bureaucracy involved in running a public company, but Ron felt that it would enable him to be more selective in developing his own projects. To date, the company has churned out a series of marginally profitable comedies such as "The 'Burbs," "The Dream Team" and "Opportunity Knocks." Imagine's most profitable picture was the Howard-directed "Parenthood," but its TV spinoff was unsuccessful and the company recently folded its TV division.

Howard's teaming with Grazer in Imagine is an unlikely partnership. On the face of it, they are two different personalities. "It's almost a good-cop, bad-cop kind of thing," says a screenwriter who appeared in an Imagine film. Grazer is known as an enormously energetic producer with a sometimes short attention span who relishes the deal-making process. "Grazer is a real Hollywood player who lives in the Malibu Colony and loves all the glitz," says agent Marty Bauer. "Howard has moved his family to Connecticut and seems more reclusive."

Ganz believes that Imagine gave expression to Howard's ambition. Ron loves to observe the sport of Hollywood from a distance, and Grazer has given him a window on the main event. As one actor who has worked for the company put it, "Brian functions as Ron's id." Grazer agrees that another dimension to Howard comes out in his professional life. "He is a tough, inquisitive, powerful person. You don't want to push him around because he'll dig in harder than anyone."

WEARING A CHICAGO FIRE DEPARTMENT CAP AND A BLACK NIKE sweat shirt, Howard directs traffic in and out of a Southside firehouse; on-duty trucks wait nearby in case of a real alarm. He calls for take after take, his voice going up an octave when he's excited. Howard has gone to great lengths to "get it right" and gain the cooperation of the Chicago Fire Department. He's even using a few firefighters as actors, making it hard to tell who's real and who's not among the men sitting around the station in firefighter gear, reading Variety.

The two places where Ron's intensity comes out are on the set and the ball field. As a youngster imagining a basketball career, he would get up at four in the morning to practice shooting free throws. Years later, he slid into home plate during what was supposed to be a mellow celebrity softball game at Dodger Stadium. When he describes a film in production, his conversation is full of sports metaphors: "It's a solid double now, and I think I'll be able to stretch it to a triple, but I don't know if it's a home run." He hates to lose, and he has no patience for anyone who is unprofessional. Grazer recalls him firing an actress on the spot when he saw she wasn't doing her job on "Night Shift." He can be a tough taskmaster. "When he's working, he's able to put aside his image and get down to business," says a former colleague.

At the same time, in the midst of a crushing schedule, when asked about his role in "The Music Man," he will stop to tell a writer the storyline or relate a plot from "Love American Style" to make a point. "Other directors don't do that," says a production associate. "He is a strange combination. He is both Opie and as ruthless as he needs to be to get the job done."

Howard is secure enough to encourage input from all quarters. "There has never been a collaborator like Ron Howard," says Bob Dolman. "If you write for Ron, you have to be prepared that he's going to give your script to anybody. If he's buying a chocolate bar and the guy across the counter looks like he might have an opinion, he'll give it to him. Then he'll say to me, 'You know, Bob, I got an interesting comment from the guy who sold me a chocolate bar the other day.' "

He is nothing if not approachable. One day on the "Backdraft" set, the production crew had a good-natured laugh at his expense. Preparing for the film's one risque scene (since cut from the movie) in which a firehouse moll hangs out of her second-story window topless, the crew substituted Cheryl Howard for the actress. When Ron went to shoot the scene, his wife, with a wig and a set of large rubber breasts, stuck her head out. At first he was so intent on the shot that he didn't notice. Then he turned beet red.

Cheryl insists that Ron is not a prude, recalling the time he danced naked on the living-room table just to entertain her. Having grown up with Ron, she maintains a healthy skepticism about fame and fortune. "The business is really hard on marriages. You're separated a lot, and it really plays with your head," she says.

Howard tries to keep his family with him as much as possible. Ten-year-old Bryce and the twins, Jocelyn and Paige, 6, are in Connecticut for the start of school, but at lunch break on the "Backdraft" set, his 4-year-old, Reed, is on his hip. Howard is calling the shots one minute, feeding his son mashed potatoes the next.

"The toughest thing," he says, "is going from an environment where I really have a lot of control to a situation at home where I have very little control. It's like going from being the boss, the director, to being basically a prop man."

Dolman recalls marveling at Ron's composure in the midst of a household that includes dogs, cats, sheep, goats, a snake and a Vietnamese potbellied pig named Fritz. "He describes himself as the goofball dad walking around in a fog. But underneath it all, he's totally focused, especially on his work. And then when he focuses on the children, he tunes out the other stuff." Howard is certainly friendly and engaging. But beyond that, it is difficult even for the people closest to him to know him. "He's warm to a certain, exact point," Grazer says. "It's a little impersonal and detached. I've known him 10 years, and he doesn't reveal everything."

In a way, Howard knows what people expect, and he doesn't disappoint. "Opie was certainly a very effective exterior, and it did express an essential decency in Ron, " says Ganz. "But it also comes in very handy because it deflects the world and people."

Ron understands the benefits of his public image--aside from Steven Spielberg, he is one of the few directors whose name and face are known to a mainstream audience. "To a very large extent, I will cop to the fact that I think it works," Howard says. "Some people actually go to my movies to see what I'm up to."

But according to Lowell Ganz (no relation to Tony), who, with his writing partner, Babaloo Mandel, has written four films for Howard, there is more to Ron than the kid next door. "He understands that life is not Mayberry, that Mayberry is just a show, a lovely fiction. 'Parenthood' is a good example of the real sense of anxiety he has," he says. "He is a person who worries; he lives an examined life." What excites Howard initially about a project is the story. He has a talent for taking extraordinary situations, in films such as "Cocoon" and "Splash," and grounding them in recognizable human emotions. "He looks for a kind of earthiness in everything he does, and maybe that's his vision," Dolman says.

"Parenthood" comes closest to Howard's vision of middle-class Angst , with an emotional depth that some may not have thought he was capable of. "He's kind of been protected in his life by his success, but somehow he's able to capture on film experiences he hasn't really had," Dolman says.

Howard is one of the few filmmakers who can get a project made just because he's interested in it, but artistically he is not always regarded among the elite American directors. The paradox of his career is that the sensibility that made him successful tends to pigeonhole him. Grazer believes that if Ron would reveal his darker side, "the moody dramatic actors he would like to work with would be attracted to him." Although Howard admires pictures like "The Elephant Man," he has not yet tackled the kind of personal film that enhances a reputation. "Some directors merchandise themselves in an interesting way," he says. "It's something I've never done. Perhaps I should. One of my big worries is being perceived as the Steve Garvey of film directors."

As much as Howard would like to be considered in the same category as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, he realizes that that would require choosing a certain kind of material. "I think for a filmmaker to succeed--I don't mean just commercially but artistically as well--the director has to choose material he fully comprehends. I don't think a good film can evolve out of intellect alone. The director has to respond emotionally on a gut level."

Howard does see his style evolving toward material with more bite. " 'Backdraft' is a little more cynical, a little darker in places. I don't think I would have made this movie this way five years ago. It doesn't really represent a conscious decision, but I don't want to reach back and do another 'Splash.' "

When the screenplay for "Backdraft," by ex-firefighter Gregory Widen, was first brought to Howard by Trilogy Entertainment, it was more of a straight action film. He saw in it the opportunity to fashion a story about brothers against a dramatic backdrop. The role of an older brother (Kurt Russell) who is more successful and sure of himself is something Howard drew on from his own experience.

During the arduous rewrite process, Howard became enamored of the fire department, which he sees as one of the last bastions of everyday heroism. "If you want to do something with heroic characters, it's either cartoons like 'Rambo' or heightened experience like 'Die Hard,' " the director says. "But there is something intrinsically heroic about firefighters. If they can save another human being, that's the ultimate. The riskier the better."

Although "Backdraft" contains more action, rough talk and male bonding than anything he has attempted, it is basically a Ron Howard movie. It represents, however, a stylistic leap and a marketing challenge. "Backdraft" was an opportunity for him to stretch out visually, and shooting some 40 days in burning buildings using real actors gives the film a newsreel-style immediacy. But does an audience that cheered the unabashed optimism of "Parenthood" and "Cocoon" really care what a Ron Howard film looks like? And, more important, will "Backdraft" move them in the same way?

His next picture, "Distant Shores," a turn-of-the-century love story about Irish immigrants starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, starts filming in Montana this month before moving to Ireland. It's recognizable Howard territory, but he considers it commercially precarious because of its mixed genre and period setting.

Howard says he just hopes to subtly drift in various directions, exploring a lot of different stories. Making movies is an excuse for him to go out and see the world and do things that other people aren't doing. No matter how exhausted he is or how remote the location, he always seems to be having the time of his life. He is still thrilled by the childlike power to turn whatever grabs his imagination into a movie.

" 'Look at all the interesting things you get to do and see, Bob'," says Dolman, imitating Ron's drawl. "Sometimes he'll say it about very simple things. 'Isn't this great, Bob? You get to ride in a helicopter. You get to go all around Ireland and see this beautiful country. Isn't this a great business?' "

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday June 23, 1991 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 2 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction Credits for the Ron Howard cover photograph should have read: Stylist: Lauren Ehrenfeld/Celestine; grooming: Bethany Karlyn/Celestine; denim shirt: Hugo Boss; jacket: Armani (both at I. Magnin).
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