Last week I was lucky enough to share an evening onstage
with Ron Howard. I knew it would be fun, because he was a great guest when I
screened Frost/Nixon at my USC class.
I also knew that we’d spend a lot of time discussing The Andy Griffith Show, because this engagement took place in
Mayberry country: Greensboro, North Carolina, to be exact. Our appearance was
part of a long-running Bryan speakers’ series sponsored by Guilford College. Past
and future guests range from Bill Clinton to Anderson Cooper. For Howard, this
was an unusual sort of homecoming: a visit to the location he and his
make-believe family made so real for millions of fans.
Fortunately, Ron is not only a nice man, but a savvy one. He
understood what the audience wanted to hear, although there was an audible sigh
of disappointment when he admitted that he and his cast mates never set foot in
North Carolina. The opening scene where he and Andy toss rocks into the lake
was filmed alongside the Hollywood Reservoir.
He has nothing but happy memories of working on the show,
and says Andy Griffith fostered a collaborative tone that made it especially
rewarding. He credits his father Rance (who’s still acting today) with
preparing him for the job, when he was just six years old, and keeping him
grounded during the series’ long run.
We also discussed his directing career, of course, although
we only had time to touch on a few highlights. For the high-profile TV movie Skyward (1980) he had to deal with the
formidable Bette Davis, who insisted on calling him “Mr. Howard” until she
decided if she liked him or not. Noting that her favorite director, William
Wyler, always wore a suit and tie in the photos he’d seen, Ron decided to dress
accordingly for their first day of shooting in Plano, Texas, even though the
temperature rose to 100 degrees. Toward the end of the afternoon, he offered
the actress a bit of advice on timing her exit from a scene so she would
deliver her last line at the doorway. She tried it and thanked him for the
suggestion. When they wrapped, he said, “Miss Davis, great first day.” She
responded, “OK, Ron, see you in the morning,” and, he recalls, “patted me on my
ass. That was a big day.”
Given the attention Michael Keaton has drawn for his bravura
performance in Birdman, I said I’d never forget his explosive entrance
in Howard’s first theatrical film, Night
Shift (1982). Ron says it was his Happy
Days costar Henry Winkler signing on that made the movie possible, but
every contemporary comedy star they approached (Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Bill
Murray) turned them down. Keaton filled that void and became an overnight star.
In a similar vein, Howard steered Tom Hanks toward genuine
stardom in Splash (1984) but
remembers that when he was first announced for the leading role in Apollo 13, skeptics wondered why a
comedic actor was being cast as astronaut Jim Lovell. By the time the
space-mission movie was shot and released, Hanks had proven himself in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump.
We didn’t have a chance to talk about Ron’s first
behind-the-camera adventure, making Grand
Theft Auto for the legendary B-movie meister Roger Corman. On the other
hand, he invoked the spirit of low-budget filmmaking when discussing his recent
film Rush. With a limited timetable
for capturing scenes on an auto race track, he finished a shot and started
jogging toward his next set-up, with a young assistant breathlessly following
behind. She asked why he was running and he explained that if he managed to
squeeze in two extra shots that day, and continued at that pace, he’d not only
stay on schedule but possibly get ahead. Roger Corman would have been proud.
As Ron and I stood backstage at the huge arena where we
appeared, with an audience of 3,500 awaiting our entrance, I heard a speaker
thank Wells Fargo Bank for being a series sponsor. It triggered a thought that
I withheld until we were seated onstage. I then asked if Ron thought that the
bank was participating in order to pay tribute to his vocal debut in The Music Man, more than fifty years
With that, he burst into a rendition of “The Wells Fargo
Wagon,” complete with lisp, that had me (and many in the crowd, I’m sure)
beaming from ear to ear. Ron Howard may be a world-class filmmaker, but it
seems he’s still a performer at heart.