When the much-anticipated return of Arrested Development takes place in May — with more than a dozen new episodes debuting simultaneously on Netflix — the span of Ron Howard’s work in television will have reached a length of 54 years, stretching from the early era of live television to the cutting edge of the medium’s online evolution.
Amid the final days of postproduction on his latest movie as director, the Formula-One racing drama Rush, Howard took time out in February to perform the narration for the cult favorite television series — as he had during its original three-season run on the Fox network. It’s a sign of his continued investment in TV, which he declares himself more excited about than ever.
“I really, really love where television has gone and where it’s going,” says Howard, the ginger-haired cofounder of Imagine Entertainment, where he’s involved in the development of several new TV series still under the radar. “It’s not just a business idea or a fun lark for me — more than ever now, I creatively want to be a part of it.”
Via Imagine, he and cofounder Brian Grazer have not only been executive producers on Arrested Development, but also on a raft of other influential series, from Sports Night and Felicity to Parenthood — a spin-off from a feature film Howard directed.
But long before he became a leader in the entertainment business, Howard was ubiquitous as a child actor. It’s fair to say that few performers in the annals of television grew up as visibly in the public eye as he did. At four and five years old, he was appearing on programs such as The Red Skelton Hour, The Twilight Zone, Dennis the Menace, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and many others. That some of these shows would become iconic mattered little to young Ronnie Howard, as he was then known. As he recalls, “The guest spot that seemed important to me was getting to be on Romper Room — that was just where I wanted to be.”
His coach was his father, actor Rance Howard, who had moved his young family from New York to Los Angeles to follow the evolving television business. From their home in Burbank, California, Ronnie could walk to the studio lots where he worked. When he was five, he appeared in an episode of Make Room for Daddy, starring Danny Thomas, that became a backdoor pilot for a new series about a country sheriff; he subsequently signed a seven-year contract to appear on The Andy Griffith Show.
First aired in October 1960, the black-and-white CBS sitcom about life in Mayberry, a rural hamlet in North Carolina, became a hit. At six, Howard was soon a fixture in living rooms across America playing Opie, the whistling, rock-flinging, motherless tyke who enlivened the daily routines of his Pa, Sheriff Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith), his Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and the hapless deputy sheriff Barney Fife (Don Knotts).
So popular was the wholesome program in its first season (it ranked fourth in the nation and averaged a 27.8 share) that young Ronnie learned cursive writing in order to more handily sign autographs. When he was seven, he was given his first 8mm camera, as a birthday present from Griffith and producer Aaron Ruben. For a future film director, the show’s set proved an ideal classroom.
“The atmosphere on that set was incredibly inclusive, and they extended that to me, which really made a difference,” says Howard. “It was collaborative in a controlled, responsible way, without a lot of egos. On Thursdays, after a read-through, the cast was invited to stick around for an hour and offer any suggestions they might have, and they included me in that. Week in and week out, I got to hear people asking tough creative questions, and solving creative problems. That was fantastic for me.”
Something else made an impression, too. “Early on, I noticed that pretty much all of our directors, at least the ones we loved the most, had been actors. I liked playing with the camera, and I began to be fascinated by that job.”
The Andy Griffith Show lasted for eight years, until Howard was 14. A nostalgic antidote to the strife and counter-cultural foment of the U.S. in the 1960s, it was more popular than ever in its final two seasons.
While filming The Wild Country, a 1970 Disney movie that co-starred his younger brother Clint (the star of the TV series Gentle Ben), Howard was influenced by its director, Robert Totten, who had wasted no time pursuing his filmmaking ambitions. “He’d directed his first feature when he was 21,” Howard remembers. “Everyone else was saying, ‘You’ll direct in your 30s and 40s,’ and he was going, ‘What are you waiting for?’ That was the summer I picked up my camera and started working toward my goals in a more focused way.”
Determined to avoid further series commitments, he set his sights on film school, but in those waning years of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, a major obstacle arose when he drew a draft number low enough to derail his plans.
It was for this reason, he says, that he made the fateful decision to do the pilot for a Garry Marshall sitcom set in the 1950s. “If I was on a series,” he says, “I figured Paramount and ABC would keep me from going to Vietnam with a work deferment.”
But the series didn’t sell, and a few months later, the draft ended. That might have been that — if not for a low-budget movie by a new filmmaker, George Lucas. The film, American Graffiti, costarring Howard and Richard Dreyfuss, was a huge box-office success, and landed a best-picture Oscar nomination.
Though set in 1962, it nonetheless kicked off a nostalgia craze for the ’50s, leading Paramount execs to declare they wanted a TV series set in that era. “You already have one,” Marshall helpfully pointed out, “with the same lead.” Howard had mixed feelings when he was offered a contract, but ultimately signed on. “It was too good to pass up,” he says. “The lead in a series. People die for opportunities like that.”
Happy Days revolved around high-schooler Richie Cunningham (Howard), his family and friends, including Fonzie (Henry Winkler), a high-school dropout, biker and cool cat who gets more or less adopted into the family. By its fourth season, it was ranked number one in the nation with a 31.5 average share.
Marshall remembers Howard as “a nice fella, very thorough and disciplined, very curious. He was always trying to figure out where the line was between making art, and the fact that you just gotta finish on time. We talked about that a lot.”
Happy Days lasted 11 seasons and spun off shows like Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy. But when his contract ended after seven years, Howard could no longer resist the call of destiny — he left to become a filmmaker, progressing from Grand Theft Auto, a low-budget Roger Corman production in which he cast Marshall as a gangster, to Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning features like Cocoon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Frost/Nixon.
“He’s done so many great movies that people forget what a presence he was in television,” says Marshall. “If anybody belongs in the Television Academy Hall of Fame, it’s Ron.” He cites Howard’s family as central to his success. “They were solid, caring people who were always there for him, and I think that’s helped him throughout his life.”
Those years on the Paramount lot making Happy Days, Howard says, influenced him throughout his career, even later as an executive producer on shows as different as Parenthood and Arrested Development.
“Paramount at that time also had [writer-producer] Jim Brooks, and shows like Taxi and Cheers. It was there that I began to understand what comedy could mean to an audience, and how damn smart a person had to be to consistently stay ahead of audiences and make them laugh.”
Considering his many later achievements in film, it’s still his touchstone roles in television that, for years, caused people to refer to him as “Opie” or “Richie.” “I used to tolerate it, but also sort of resented it on some level,” Howard reflects, “until some years ago when it turned, and I began to wear it as a badge of honor that I’d been part of these characters that had some enduring meaning to people. I realize now that these are terms of endearment, and they don’t take away anyone’s desire to see or appreciate my latest feature film as a director. I used to feel maybe a little threatened that I wouldn’t be taken seriously if people thought of me as those characters. Now I know that’s simply not the case.”
He adds, “Whenever I’ve been in a casting meeting, or any creative conversation, I’ve always reminded people that good work in television is a huge feather in anyone’s cap. Because TV schedules are so demanding, if individuals can do excellent work in that medium, it means they have a lot to offer.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Ron Howard's induction in 2013.