Ron Howard Talks 50 Years of Opie
By Pat Gallagher Posted Sep 22nd 2010 04:10PM
Ron Howard has no doubt made a name for himself as the A-List director of big-budget films including 'Apollo 13' and 'A Beautiful Mind.' Television fans also remember Ron Howard "the actor" for his role as aw-shucks teenager Richie Cunningham in 'Happy Days' in the 1970s, but no doubt his most lasting role will forever be Opie Taylor on 'The Andy Griffith Show,' which he played with earnest simplicity from 1960 to 1968.
When PopEater summoned Ron's input in support of the 50th Anniversary of 'The Andy Griffith Show' (aka, TAGS), this very busy director was happy to oblige. He called from the editing room where he was doing some work on a new film, 'The Dilemma.' He was delighted to go down memory lane with us, recalling how he got the role of Opie, his special bond with Andy Griffith and how his experience on the show helped cultivate his desire to become a director. The 56-year-old father of four (and grandfather of one!) began the role at the age of six, ending it barley into his teens at 14.
'The Andy Griffith Show' is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. How excited are you that the show has been on the air for so long?
Well, I wouldn't call it excitement, but it's a real [source] of gratification. And it's also a testament that all creative people can learn from, and that is if you create something -- a program, an idea, a story that is truly fresh and original -- and then you work on it and you execute it with the kind of commitment and dedication that Andy inspired from everybody on the show, then you have a chance to have something that really endures. So every project has a little bit of magic involved, there's some indefinable, chemical something, and 'The Andy Griffith Show' certainly had it, but I was there and not too young to witness a tremendous amount of dedication and hard work, and an acknowledgment that there is no other show like 'The Andy Griffith Show' then, and there still has never been one. That's just a huge testament to the creators of the show.
How did you get the role of Opie?
'ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW' FAVORITES
'Opie the Birdman'
I didn't really audition for it. I was in an episode of 'General Electric Theater' which Ronald Reagan was the host of, and it was for its own television pilot, a fantasy called 'Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley,' and I was playing Barnaby -- it was a great role -- and Bert Lahr, who was the cowardly lion in 'The Wizard of Oz,' was playing Mr. O'Malley. At the end of the episode, Ronald Reagan went out of his way ... went off the cue cards and basically said, "And wasn't little Ronny Howard exceptional? Let's give him a special thank you," ... or something like that. And the next day, Sheldon Leonard called my agents and said, "I'm doing a show with Andy Griffith, and if 'Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley' doesn't sell, we'd like him to play Griffith's son."
You played Opie with Andy on 'The Danny Thomas Show,' originally, then it became a spinoff?
That was only known to be a pilot. And I remember very well, even though I was only five years old, I have vivid memories of doing it in front of the audience. I was supposed to have a little turtle that had died, and I remember that little prop turtle, it was just a little mechanical thing, and almost everything about that show remains in my memory.
Most adults can barely remember what we were doing at six, even up to the age of 14. You played that role from six to 14. You're 56 now. Do you have vivid memories of playing Opie from the very beginning?
I really do. You know that pilot that I talked about [I remember] and the first day of filming on the series, but then it becomes like typical childhood memories. I don't really remember individual episodes. I remember things like my 8th birthday party on the set where Andy and Aaron Ruben gave me my first 8 mm camera. Or I remember riding my bicycle around the back lot where Mayberry was [taped] but also they had sets from TV shows like 'The Real McCoys' or the great religious classic 'The Ten Commandments,' where Cecil B. DeMille had built this set. So, for me, it was more of a kind of a way of life that was fun, but also I was really learning a lot about creativity and how it takes a lot of diligence and hard work to actually be good in a creative field and be successful.
After you left the show how hard was it for people to stop calling you Opie?
They still do. You know, it used to bother me because everybody wants to continue to grow beyond the work that they've done. But somewhere around the time that I won an Academy Award, I noticed that even people that wanted to talk to me and refer to me as Opie, they'd kind of laugh about it, and they'd say, "I really enjoyed 'Apollo 13," or "I really liked 'A Beautiful Mind,'" (laughs) They were letting me know that they were aware of my other career. They just found that [Opie] as a nickname, irresistible. I kind of understand that. I have so many great memories of it, and it had such a great deal of good fortune in the business as a result of the great start that I got on the show that I really feel like that it no longer bothers me; I no longer feel threatened by that as a reference. It's really gratifying to me.
What was it like working with Andy Griffith as an actor and how did he treat you on the set?
He treated me really well, but he made it a learning experience, not in a stern, taskmaster kind of a way, but I was really allowed a real insight into creativity and how things work and why some scenes were funny and others weren't. That insight has served me really well over the years. Andy was really kind to me, always playful and fun, but, by the same token, he wanted to get the work done. I think on 'The Andy Griffith Show' I learned that you could have a lot of fun being involved with something that was creative, but the stakes were high. The expectation there was to do work that would mean something to people and not take the audience for granted, ever.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Nabors and George Lindsey last week about the show. They spoke so highly of you.
I loved those guys, and look, that was a big part of my childhood. One of the greatest compliments that I can pay everybody who was involved with the show ... at 14 when the show ended, at the wrap party, I cried inconsolably as embarrassing as it was to be that age and to be that emotional. I felt like things weren't going to be the same without these people in my life even though I was always blessed with a great, strong family. Then years passed, and my career went on, and I did 'American Graffiti' and 'Happy Days,' and I went to USC film school, I became a director, and stopped acting and continued directing, and one day I got a call from Andy. He said, "We're going to do a two-hour television movie – a Mayberry reunion, 'Return to Mayberry.' Would you do it?" I said, "Of course." I agreed immediately. But there was a part of me that went into it with tremendous trepidation. Because by then I was in my early 30s, and I had transitioned into a career ... I was involved with Imagine Films already, and I worried that my view of these people might somehow be altered or tainted even. The greatest compliment I can pay is that when we wrapped up 'Return to Mayberry,' (1986) I didn't weep as I had when I was 14 years old, but I felt another pang of sadness having to leave everyone, and I felt a tremendous amount of respect for them, and I was so grateful, that as a young guy they had actually let me know who they really were and that they were these good, talented people and all these years I had not been diluting myself or looking at that experience through rose-colored glasses. They really were that wonderful of a group of people.
Everyone really wanted Mayberry to be a real town. (He laughs in agreement.) I'm from a small town in Alabama, so watching TAGS, I know that Andy was true to the flavor of a small southern town.
Andy really was adamant about it, and I remember him many times talking to the writers and talking about a particular joke, and saying, "Sure, I understand that it's funny, but it's not true to these characters, and I don't want to be making fun of these people. We're a comedy, but I don't want this to be about making country bumpkins out of everybody. It's a show about real people." I always respected him for that, and it's another reason that the show has endured. It has a kind of a relate ability and integrity that isn't about people looking down their nose at a region, but it's about people acknowledging the particulars of a region.
Right now you're editing 'The Dilemma.' You must love directing.
I love it even more than I thought I would 30 something years ago when it was my dream to get into it. It stays very interesting and exciting to me which is something that you can never predict when you start working in a field.
When did you know you wanted to be a director?
We had so many directors on the show who had been actors. My father who never directed film or television used to direct theater so it occurred to me when I was about eight that I might be interested in that job because I saw that people like Bob Sweeney and Lee Philips, they were the ones that got to interact with everybody, and I became fascinated by the whole process of the storytelling experience. It became clear to me that a lot of actors could become directors, and directing looked pretty interesting to me. Then about probably four years later or so, I started to really fall in love with the movies. I was kind of blessed to be coming of age at a time when the movies were particularly brilliant ... things like 'Bonnie and Clyde,' and 'The Graduate,' and 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,' and 'Heat of the Night.' They were just a number of really, really remarkable, break-though films ... a kind of a renaissance of the medium in a way. That's when I fell in love with movies and began to see what film-making was all about.
"Mayberry Days" has been going on for 20 years in Mt. Airy, N.C. Have you ever thought about attending, and how do you feel about that event?
I think it's fantastic that that exists. I've never been able to work it into my schedule and go, but it means a lot to me that the fan base exists and that the show is the catalyst for that kind of festivity. It's another aspect of it all that is really gratifying to me.
You played Richie Cunningham in 'Happy Days.' Did you enjoy playing that role as much as you did playing Opie?
As much fun as I had on 'Happy Days,' nothing would ever replace the Andy Griffith experience because I really grew up there, and by the time I was doing 'Happy Days,' I was already a professional. It was a great, great job but 'The Andy Griffith Show' was kind of a way of life.
'The Andy Griffith Show' ran from Oct. 3, 1960 to April 1, 1968 and has never been off the air in 50 years. It is currently being shown on TV Land. Check your local listings for days and times in your area.
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