Saturday, May 25, 2013

Ronny Howard and the Golden Age of television

The Children in Film Blogathon is an event examining the great child stars of film and television, hosted by Comet Over Hollywood. For a complete list of participating blogs, visit the website.

Today Ron Howard is known as an Academy-Award-winning director, responsible for such huge critical and commercial hits as A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13 and Splash, among many others. Long before that, however, Howard achieved fame as a television actor, in a career that stretches all the way back to his early childhood, at the dawn of the television era.

Naturally, I remember growing up watching him on Happy Days, the lead-off program on one of the all-time great prime time television lineups, which included Laverne & Shirley, Three's Company and Too Close For Comfort. I was too young to appreciate the nostalgia factor of Happy Days; like most kids, I watched it for the Fonz. Still, Howard was an integral part of the show, too - and the path that led him there was a long and prolific one. 

Born in 1954 as the son of two actors, Rance and Jean Howard, Ron and the family moved to Hollywood from Oklahoma in 1958, and at the age of five, Ron scored his first credited film role, in the Deborah Kerr/Yul Brynner Cold War drama The Journey, billed as "Ronny Howard" (he has also been credited as "Ronnie" during his childhood). A number of small television appearances followed, including shows like Dennis the Menace, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, and The Twilight Zone.

Howard w/Andy Griffith in 'The Andy Griffith Show'
In 1960, Howard would appear on Danny Thomas' sitcom Make Room For Daddy (aka The Danny Thomas Show) in an episode set in a rural North Carolina town called Mayberry. He played Opie Taylor, son of Mayberry's sheriff, Andy Taylor, played by rising star Andy Griffith. Griffith had already made a name for himself through various comedic appearances in variety shows, as well as a dramatic role in the Elia Kazan film A Face in the Crowd, and this episode of Daddy was looked upon as a possible vehicle for a spin-off TV series starring Griffith...

... which is exactly what happened. The Andy Griffith Show debuted that fall, featuring Griffith as Sheriff Taylor and Howard as his son. In an essay about the show, my pal Ivan describes Howard's role:
In Griffith’s debut episode, we’re re-introduced to Taylor, a widower who’s just married off his longtime housekeeper to her fiancé — a situation that does not sit well with his young son Opie (Ron Howard), who’s even more chagrined to learn that Andy’s “Aunt Bee” (Frances Bavier) will be replacing her as head of the household. Aunt Bee tries everything to ingratiate herself with Opie but he rebuffs her at every turn — it is only as the episode comes to a close that the boy changes his mind and begs his father to make her stay, concerned that she’ll be venturing out into the world without being able to function without him. 
Child actor Howard had played Griffith’s son in the Danny Thomas Show pilot and did such an incredible job that he continued on for the full series. In a world where sitcoms often featured children a little too precocious for their own good, Opie was a breath of fresh air. He was decent to the core, but every now and then he get into mischief and wander off the path before his stern but kindly father would steer him back on the straight and narrow.
Griffith lasted for eight seasons and 209 episodes, filmed at Desilu Studios, and it would go down as one of the finest sitcoms in television history. Howard would go on to briefly reprise his role of Opie thrice, in the Griffith spin-offs Mayberry RFD and Gomer Pyle USMC, and again in the 1986 TV movie Return to Mayberry.

Howard (second from left) in
'The Smith Family' w/Henry Fonda
As he got older, Howard continued to make appearances in other shows in addition to Griffith, and the list reads like a compilation of the greatest 60s TV shows: Route 66, Dr. Kildare, The Fugitive, The Big Valley and I Spy, among others. He also made a few more movies, such as The Music Man.

In 1971, when Howard was 17, he appeared in another, shorter-lived series called The Smith Family, starring cinematic legend Henry Fonda at the tail end of a long career. He played a cop, and Howard was one of his sons. The show only lasted two seasons, and little has been written about it.

Howard in 'Love American Style'
In 1972, Howard appeared in a ABC anthology show called Love American Style, in a episode called "Love in the Happy Days," about 50s teenagers. It was a failed sitcom concept by producer Gary Marshall that was re-packaged for this show, and due in part to the success of the musical Grease, 50s nostalgia was suddenly in. When George Lucas' film American Grafitti, also featuring Howard, hit big a year later, ABC went back to Marshall's pilot and turned it into a series in 1974, called simply Happy Days. Howard's role as Richie Cunningham lasted throughout the series' eleven-year run and led to bigger and better things... but that's another story.

Ron's younger brother Clint has also had a long career in Hollywood that began in childhood. He appeared in several episodes of Griffith, as well as other notable 60s shows as The Fugitive, Bonanza, Please Don't Eat the Daisies and Star Trek. In 1967 he was a regular on the series Gentle Ben, as Dennis Weaver's son, and he'd go on to appear in other shows and movies, including many of those directed by Ron.

10 comments:

  1. I know everyone knows him now as a director, but I still think of him as a little kid. He was so adorable!
    Excellent post on the career of Ron Howard. I had never heard of the Henry Fonda television show.
    Thank you for participating!

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    1. I hadn't heard of that Henry Fonda show either. Didn't even know he appeared on television! So that was an interesting find for me.

      Thanks for having me.

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  2. Sometimes I think I'm the only person on the planet who watched "The Smith Family". They used the song "Primrose Lane" for their theme song.

    No matter how many movies he directs or how many show's he's acted in, for me Ron Howard is always Winthrop in "The Music Man". Then he's Opie.

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  3. "Music Man' is a real good movie. Haven't watched it in awhile.

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  4. Love him as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. Excellent post!

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  5. My first experiences withn Ron were in American Grafitti and later in an award show in which he presented the In Memorian segment, the year Ady Griffith died.
    Very good essay! It's an interesting show business family, since Ron's daughter, Brice Dallas Howard, is an actress, too.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!

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    1. I thought about mentioning BDH too, but I don't think she began making movies as a kid.

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  6. He really was an exceptional actor. He was so heartfelt and genuine - so nice that he grew up so talented and humble. Great post and choice for the blogathon.

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  7. That's true. Lotta people in Hollywood respect and appreciate him.

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