The secret to Ron Howard’s success: taking risks. “I’ve been more ambitious as the years have gone along,” the director, producer and onetime actor says in the new issue of Us Weekly. He shot scenes for Splash 50 feet underwater. He commandeered a NASA plane to film Apollo 13 in zero gravity. And for National Geographic Channel’s Mars (November 14, 9 p.m.), he blended a drama about colonizing the Red Planet with expert interviews (Neil deGrasse Tyson!) to create a hybrid genre of storytelling. Ahead of that miniseries’ premiere, the Oscar winner, 62, reflects on a few highlights with Us.
The Andy Griffith Show (1960–1968)
Howard learned to speak his mind early on. As a child actor, he played the always-curious Opie, son of the sitcom’s small-town sheriff (Andy Griffith). “It was a very warm environment,” says Howard.
Higher-ups encouraged input from the cast, so in season 2, the 7-year-old successfully pitched a rewrite when a line he had to deliver didn’t ring true. “I felt elated,” Howard recalls. “Andy Griffith said, ‘What are you grinnin’ at, young’un?’ I said, ‘That’s the first idea of mine they’ve taken.’ He said, ‘It’s the first that was any damn good. Now let’s rehearse!’”
Happy Days (1974–1984)
While starring in the 1950s-set sitcom, Howard discovered — and overcame — his paralyzing stage fright. In 1975, the reformatted show began shooting in front of a live studio audience. “I wanted to throw up before every episode,” says Howard, a.k.a. clean-cut teen Richie Cunningham. But costars such as stage vet Henry Winkler (The Fonz) “guided me through,” says Howard.
Another Happy outcome: He learned the mechanics of making a comedy, thanks to the late Garry Marshall, the series’ creator. “We had a running dialogue going,” says Howard. “Best boss I ever had.”
“‘You oughta look at that Tom Hanks.’” Howard, who directed the mermaid rom-com, hadn’t considered casting Hanks until his assistant suggested him. Then known for his two-season stint on the sitcom Bosom Buddies, Hanks “had no chance in hell” of getting a greenlight from studio execs, Howard thought.
But the future two-time Oscar winner, then 28, nailed his audition for the role opposite Daryl Hannah. “I was so excited to tell this young sitcom veteran that he was the lead,” says Howard, who says Splash has a special place in his heart: “It’s the first movie I had a frickin’ blast making.”
Apollo 13 (1995)
Who can say no to Ron Howard? Certainly not NASA. For his tense drama about the 1970 lunar mission, the director lobbied the aeronautics agency to let him film scenes aboard the KC-135, a plane that re-creates zero gravity. “We were flying around like f‑‑king Superman!” he enthuses.
Shooting midair also posed challenges. “We had a limited number of people who could go on a flight, so the actors had to be their own prop people, do their own makeup,” says Howard. “It was an incredibly challenging experience, but with this incredible sense of excitement.”
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Howard found a kindred spirit in Russell Crowe, the star of this drama about schizophrenic mathematician John Nash. Though he admits the Aussie actor is “a mercurial guy as an individual,” he respected Crowe’s work ethic. “He’s a true artist,” says Howard. “The emotional space he had to put himself in to create the character had to be a huge burden.” (Crowe was famously moody during production.) Their collective commitment paid off: The movie won Howard Oscars for best picture and best director.
Arrested Development (2003–2006; 2013– )
Though his voice is instantly recognizable, Howard never intended to narrate the cult comedy he produces. But before creator Mitchell Hurwitz turned in the pilot (about the dysfunctional Bluth family) to Fox, Howard laid down a temporary voice‑over. “The narrator was the highest-testing element,” says Howard, who got stuck with the gig. “My only beef is that I never got a raise!”
This six-parter about astronauts on Mars began as a documentary. But as Howard and longtime producing partner Brian Grazer interviewed expert after expert, they realized “it’s hard to really feel the drama of somebody saying, ‘We should colonize Mars,’” Howard explains. They opted to weave in a story, set in 2033, about the first manned mission to Earth’s neighboring planet. “It lends narrative power to what the big thinkers are saying in their talking-head segments,” says Howard, who admits the move is “a gamble.” But that is, after all, what he does best.
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