“I’m really enjoying it,” says legendary actor-turned-director Ron Howard as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast and I ask him what keeps him working so hard after spending almost all of his 63 years working in Hollywood. “I’m able to get more of what’s in my head onto the screen, whether that’s a television screen or a movie screen. I’ve gone digital. And I don’t really care too much about the distribution platform; I care about the story and I care about what it can mean to audiences.” Adds the famously genial gentleman, “I plan to do it for another 15 or 20 years.”
This year alone, the Oscar and Emmy winner has no fewer than three projects in Emmys contention: the TV documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, which he produced (with longtime Imagine Entertainment partner Brian Grazer) and directed and which Hulu is streaming; the limited series Genius, National Geographic’s first foray into scripted entertainment, on which he served as an EP (also with Grazer) and directed the pilot (his first time directing episodic TV); and Nat Geo’s documentary/non-fiction series Mars, on which he also served as an EP (again with Grazer).
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 150+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Emma Stone, Harvey Weinstein, Natalie Portman, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Taraji P. Henson, J.J. Abrams, Helen Mirren, Justin Timberlake, Brie Larson, Ryan Reynolds, Alicia Vikander, Aziz Ansari, Jessica Chastain, Samuel L. Jackson, Kate Winslet, Sting, Isabelle Huppert, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Michael Moore, Lily Collins, Denzel Washington, Mandy Moore, Ricky Gervais, Kristen Stewart, James Corden, Lily Tomlin, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Beckinsale, Miles Teller, Sarah Silverman, Bill Maher, Claire Foy, Eddie Redmayne, Olivia Wilde and Andy Cohen.)
Howard was born in Oklahoma, but when he was just four his father, actor Rance Howard, moved the family to Burbank, Cal. to pursue his career. His boy had already made his big screen debut at just 18 months of age as a crying baby in a movie, and now began to land more substantial opportunities, the earliest of which came on live TV. An appearance on General Electric Theatre brought young “Ronnie” to the attention of producer Sheldon Leonard, who recruited him to CBS’s The Andy Griffith Show, on which he appeared in 209 episodes between the ages of six (1960) and 14 (1968) as Opie, the son of a sheriff in the fictional small town of Mayberry. During the show’s run, which he recalls as “so formative for me” — “I learned how to work and how to create,” he says — he also appeared in a few movies, including The Music Man (1962) and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963).
By the end of Andy Griffith, Howard knew that he wanted to one day become a director, and he eventually enrolled at the USC film school. One summer break, he agreed to appear in a “1950s nostalgia film” by USC alum George Lucas, which became 1973’s seminal American Graffiti — Howard calls the experience “revelatory on a lot of levels,” offering “a new way of thinking and working” — and then, starting a year later, on an ABC series that dealt with similar subject matter, Happy Days, on which he played all-American teenager Richie Cunningham in 171 episodes spanning 1974 through 1980. After the first season of Happy Days, the show transitioned from single-camera to multi-camera, meaning it would now tape in front of a live audience of 300, stirring in Howard a sense of stage-fright that expedited his pursuit of directing opportunities.
B-movie king Roger Corman asked Howard to act in one of his films, and Howard told Corman that he wanted to direct, so they made a deal that resulted in Howard making his directorial debut with 1977’s Grand Theft Auto, which he followed shortly thereafter with several TV movies (including one in which he directed Bette Davis). In 1979, Howard met another up-and-comer, producer Brian Grazer, and the two became fast friends. Howard went off and made his first major motion pictures — among them 1982’s Night Shift, 1984’s Splash (his first of five times working with Tom Hanks) and 1985’s Cocoon, all critical and commercial successes — which put him firmly on the map. Then, in 1986, because of “a little entrepreneurial bent,” he and Grazer established Imagine Entertainment, a production company that gave them greater control over the creative process and profits of their projects. They have been a team ever since.
1989’s Parenthood marked Howard’s last “light” film for awhile, as he embarked on a deliberate effort to tell weightier kinds of stories — the most successful being 1995’s Apollo 13, which was a blockbuster and garnered nine Oscar nominations, including best picture (albeit not best director). “With Apollo 13, I felt the creative community embrace the idea that I really could tackle these subjects, and that was as exciting as hell for me,” Howard reflects. “It really informed a lot of choices down the line.” Those included 1996’s Ransom, 1998’s edTV and, most memorably, 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, which was awarded the best picture Oscar and for which Howard won the best director Oscar. He calls the latter “incredible validation” after years of conspicuous snubs, during which, he confesses, “I just began to feel like, ‘Is this some sort of sitcom curse?'” He continues, “It really was pretty heartbreaking for me on Apollo 13. So when it happened on A Beautiful Mind, it was incredibly gratifying.”
The years since have been hit or miss for Howard. He followed his Oscar with a number of films that were derided by critics, some of which also performed poorly at the box office (2003’s The Missing and 2005’s Cinderella Man) and one other which proved a massive blockbuster (2006’s The Da Vinci Code, which he followed with two sequels of decreasing profitability). But he righted his ship with 2008’s Frost/Nixon (which was nominated for five Oscars, including best picture and best director) and 2013’s Rush (though not his next collaboration with Chris Hemsworth, 2015’s In the Heart of the Sea). And he also has been a prolific producer of some of the best TV of the 21st century, including From the Earth to the Moon (for which he won a best miniseries Emmy in 1998), Felicity, Parenthood, Arrested Development (for which he won a best comedy series Emmy in 2006), as well as being partially responsible, through Imagine, for many other acclaimed shows including 24, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood and Empire.
“I’m incredibly excited by what television has become,” Howard says. Genius, which delves into the life and work of Albert Einstein (played as a young man by Johnny Flynn and as an older man by Geoffrey Rush), “wound up being a fantastic creative experience,” he says, adding, “I’m very proud of my contributions and the work I was able to do on the first episode — setting the style, creating an aesthetic. I found it very creatively rewarding.” Meanwhile, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week explores the four years spanning 1962 through 1966 that the Fab Four spent touring before deciding only to make studio albums. It came about because Howard — “a Beatles fan” who met all of the band’s members except John Lennon — previously had made the impressive 2013 doc Made in America about a Jay Z music festival, prompting an entreaty from Beatles reps about a doc focused only on the very specific period of their lives, for which new soundtracks and footage had been located, partly through crowd-sourcing. “It was a huge challenge,” Howard acknowledges. “It kind of evolved from them wanting a concert movie to a little bit more of a study of the band.”