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This Clint Makes His Own Day : Movies: The younger brother of actor-director Ron Howard has achieved his own level of success. ‘When you’re a character actor you take them as they come,’ he says.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You’d expect a certain amount of professional jealousy between the Howard brothers. After all, the older Ron segued from a youth as TV pal to millions--first as Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show” and later as Richie on “Happy Days"--to his current status as one of Hollywood’s top directors, with such films as “Cocoon,” “Backdraft” and the new “Apollo 13” to his name.

Younger brother Clint also had his moment in the prime-time sun as the child star of the late-'60s series “Gentle Ben.” But his career now largely consists of character roles in TV series and B-movies, with the occasional star turn in the likes of “Ice Cream Man,” a blood-drenched straight-to-video horror flick.

Yes, Clint admits, there is some sibling envy--but not the way you’d guess.

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“Ron calls me when I’m making something like ‘Ice Cream Man’ and asks me for all the details,” says the younger Howard, 36, sitting with his fiancee, Melanie Sorich, in the Burbank home they share with their two cats, not far from where he was raised.

“He wants to hear about all the set-ups, all the chances we take, all the hands-on elements of making a film like that. I think he misses it. He talks about wanting to sneak off some day and make a little movie.”

Ron admits to that.

“It’s more guerrilla filmmaking,” he says, wistfully, in a separate phone interview. “You’re working on raw energy and idealism, and when you do something that’s really good--or even just kind of good--it’s exhilarating. There’s something liberating about not having the world watching every day’s dailies. Of course, at the same time it’s fantastic to have the resources to let a project evolve and to work with actors the caliber of [“Apollo” star] Tom Hanks.”

OK, so that latter element is something Clint envies in his older brother--so he in turn calls director Ron about his movies. Last year, space buff Clint could hardly contain himself when Ron started work on “Apollo 13.”

“I more than asked to be in the film--I told him,” Clint says. “I knew I was perfect to play one of those NASA guys. I told him, ‘I’m one of those faces and I’m the right age.’ ”

Ron agreed and cast his brother as Cy Libergot, a key figure in the Mission Control staff trying to get the astronauts back home from their ill-fated voyage. It’s a meaty, if secondary, part that Clint plays to a T.

The director already had a pretty good idea of what Clint could do. He had, in fact, already employed that face in a variety of character roles in most of his films, from a bullying orderly in “Cocoon” to an autopsy technician in “Backdraft” (alongside coroner Robert DeNiro) to a befuddled reporter in “The Paper.”

“I have to lobby him, because I’m an actor trying to get work,” Clint says. “It’s nice when you can call a director directly and say, ‘Hey, Bud!’ But there have been plenty of parts I wanted that he just hasn’t seen me doing. If Ron says no to me, I’m no more disappointed than if any director said it.”

But Ron doesn’t say no often to Clint--even if that means having to deal with charges of nepotism. But, Ron says, any doubts among cast or crew are always gone by filming’s end.

“I remember in ‘Far and Away,’ Tom Cruise said, ‘This is a big movie. Are you sure Clint’s the best for the role?’ ” Ron recalls. “But when he saw the dailies, he saw that Clint had done a great job. He’s one of those guys who, without holding up production or causing heartache, manages to make a role better. You barely have to direct him.”

Clint was the very first actor that his brother did direct--in a three-minute Super 8 reel that the then-15-year-old Ron submitted to a national Kodak youth film contest, winning second place. Ron had earlier been on hand for Clint’s first acting job, when at 2 he was given a role as Opie’s precocious friend Leon, ultimately making five appearance on “Andy Griffith.”

That both have successfully parlayed childhood careers into adulthood is remarkable. Clint credits their parents, who made sure they kept a good perspective.

“My dad grounded Ron and me so well in basic life lessons,” Clint says of father Rance Howard.

These are lessons Rance learned in a journey from Oklahoma farm boy to stage and screen--he was in the original Broadway “Mr. Roberts” and still appears regularly in TV commercials, as well as also finding the odd role in Ron’s films, including a brief appearance as a priest in “Apollo 13.” (“Apollo 13” also marks the first appearance in a Ron Howard film by his mother, Jean, a part-time actor herself who plays the mother of astronaut Jim Lovell.)

“At the earliest age my father taught me the fundamentals of acting,” Clint says. “He made sure show business was nothing unusual and explained that acting was just entertaining folks by playing make-believe.”

Even apart from his work with his brother, Clint has an impressive resume. Trekkers remember his childhood role as the youthful-appearing space lord in the original “Star Trek” series episode “The Corbomite Maneuver” (he still has an original communicator prop), bookended this past season with a brief cameo as a street person on “Deep Space Nine.”

Over the course of 25 years he’s been on everything from “Love American Style” to “Seinfeld” (he was the Smog Strangler in the Kramer-goes-to-Hollywood episodes). His non-Ron film credits run from “Evilspeak” to a small part in “Forget Paris” to the upcoming Pamela Anderson vehicle, “Barb Wire.”

Sure, his aren’t roles that the academy will be considering come Oscar time. But a growing legion of movie and TV fans are paying notice, with Clint starting to take on cult-hero status in some circles. A Chicago radio station with whom he became acquainted during the filming there of “Backdraft” held a “Clint Howard Film Festival” earlier this year, screening “Ice Cream Man” and two other of his horror movies.

And as a career, it’s steady--last year he worked in nine movies--and personally satisfying. That, he says, makes him part of a great Hollywood tradition.

“Strother Martin was a veteran character actor and he just worked and worked--he did all those Satan movies,” he says. “When you’re a character actor you take them as they come. No point in trying to orchestrate a career. If anyone saw some of these movies, they’d realize my career wasn’t being orchestrated by anyone sane.

“But it’s fun. Things like ‘Ice Cream Man,’ cutting the heads off two policemen and placing them on ice cream scoops and doing a puppet show for the neighborhood kids--how much better does it get?”


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