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When a 16-year old Ron Howard was hanging out on set with Henry Fonda (as one does), Fonda gave the young actor a bit of advice: If he loved acting, he should focus on theater, but, “If you love movies, become a director.” Ron Howard loved movies.
The Oklahoma-born son of two actors, his earliest memories are of memorizing dialog from his dad’s summer stock plays as a 3-year old. Walking unaware into an MGM kids’ casting call in 1959, Howard senior mentioned he had a son who was a fine actor. They called young Ronny in, had him do a scene, and asked his dad if he could do anything else. “I really don’t know if he can.” Ron Howard entered our living rooms a year later as Opie in The Andy Griffith Show, and didn’t leave for the next 25 years when Happy Days ended in 1984. That’s when we really saw what else he could do.
He started directing in 1977 by convincing producer Roger Corman to let him helm Grand Theft Auto (Howard agreed to act in Corman’s Eat My Dust! in exchange). Next came Night Shift, and then, at a point where most directors are still paying off film school debt, he delivered Splash, Cocoon and Parenthood. They were all charming, funny, well reviewed and commercially successful; and yet we still hadn’t seen the extent of what he could do as a director.
What Howard excels at is telling stories that tell us something about ourselves; real tales of real people – albeit writ large – whose lives and worlds double as themes he wants to explore: family, teamwork, hubris and adversity, to name a few. Another particular genius is his ability to translate those worlds visually, forging a direct connection from our eyeballs to our gut or heart, as the story demands. Consider a tale that takes place largely inside the head of a brilliant but unstable mathematician. In its review of A Beautiful Mind, The New York Times called his technique “as simple as it is inspired,” adding, “Mr. Howard has found an accessible cinematic way to present this insight: Schizophrenia does not announce itself as such to those it afflicts. Mr. Howard leads us into its infernal reality without posting a sign on the door.” The film, an unexpected success, earned him an Academy Award for Best Director.
When he took us into Formula One racing with Rush, a lot of people went along reluctantly, only to be surprised at how one tight shot of a violently vibrating tire could make their heart race as fast as the motor shaking it. That shot signaled danger more effectively than any deadly crash. Variety thought so, too. “To witness this level of storytelling skill (applied to a subject only a fraction of the public inherently finds interesting) is to marvel at not only what cinema can do when image, sound and score are so artfully combined to suggest vicarious experience, but also to realize how far Howard has come since his directorial debut.”
He was able to make equally dramatic cinema from two men sitting across from each other, talking. “You expect something dry, historical and probably contrived. But you get a delicious contest of wits, brilliant acting and a surprisingly gripping narrative,” said the Washington Post about Frost/Nixon. “Howard’s cinematic treatment deftly exploits very conventional narrative techniques without one ever being quite aware of them.”
But of course the film that feels closest to his core as a filmmaker is Apollo 13. It has it all: exploration, heroism, history and the compelling factor of being true. Noting that the subject matter demanded Howard’s reverential treatment, the Los Angeles Times called it his most impressive film to date in a 1995 review. “Howard’s willingness to be straight ahead with his directing, the film’s derring-do aspects have the advantage of showing the men simply being heroic as opposed to acting like heroes.”
If some critics have made cynical dismissals of a perceived gee-whiz, all-American, hero-worshipping aesthetic, Howard makes no apologies. “I’m drawn toward celebratory stories. I feel that they are every bit as valid and useful as the darker, cautionary tales. And my favorite thing is when the celebration is not up front and in your face, but something that evolves. It’s something you can understand, that flawed characters can be a part of moments that are worthy of celebration and respect.” That’s sounding pretty good to us these days.
Howard’s work continues to follow his fascinations, from the depths (In the Heart of the Sea) to music (Made in America, The Beatles: Eight Days a week) to boxing (Cinderella Man). We explore along with him again in National Geographic’s first-ever scripted series Genius. His new anthology drama chronicles the world’s most brilliant innovators, kicking off with the famous physicist Albert Einstein. In it, and all of his work, Howard approaches his subjects with eye of a historian, a fan, a geek, and a loving adherent to detail.
So, how to summarize the life’s work of someone whose 63-year career spans two Golden Ages of Television and some of the most acclaimed and successful movies of every genre? Fortunately we don’t have to; it’s still very much in progress.