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'|
... 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
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'|
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.