Despite a career spent immersed in the Hollywood maelstrom, Ron Howard's life in Greenwich seems a lot like, well, Mayberry.
Columbia/The Kobal Collection/Mein, Simon
Chances are, whether you're 8 or 68, you're quite familiar with Ron Howard. Maybe you've marveled at the Greenwich resident's evolution as an actor, from the days he sang "Gary, Indiana" in The Music Man through his seminal role as Opie Taylor on "The Andy Griffith Show," his understated work as Richie Cunningham on "Happy Days" and his star turn in the 1973 feature American Graffiti. He even held his own with "Duke" Wayne in the classic Western The Shootist.
Then, there's the little matter of his film directing. Could anybody who saw Howard's directorial debut Grand Theft Auto back in 1977 have guessed that the young man who helmed it would go on to make some of the most renowned Hollywood movies in recent years, from the hilarious, poignant Splash and Parenthood to his Academy Award-winning A Beautiful Mind and this year's exquisitely nuanced Oscar nominee Frost/Nixon? Despite his many accomplishments, the 55-year-old Howard is strikingly grounded and engaging. There's an old line that if you strip away Hollywood's tinsel and glitter, you'll find more tinsel and glitter. With Howard, it's just the opposite. The more you talk to him, the more unaffected he seems.
As he spoke to us recently, he had two movies uppermost in his mind: Frost/Nixon, his most celebrated film since 2005's Cinderella Man, and this month's new release Angels & Demons, which features an explosive plot that could be box-office dynamite. Howard is enthusiastic yet calmly authoritative on the subject of both films. "I was a bit concerned about not using big-name actors for Frost/Nixon," he says. "You know you're in partnership with a studio that is putting up the money and you want to stay within your budget and, hopefully, give them a good return on their investment. We discussed all sorts of names. But in the end, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen were still the guys I wanted. After all, they had originated the roles on Broadway. I think it would have been karmically imprudent to use anyone else. The play had been so entertaining, those guys were so good, that I thought, 'If I don't mess this up, we can have a really good film.'"
He found doing research for the movie "great fun." It even included a trip to the Nixon Library to look at the disgraced late president's books and papers. "I'm so hooked on presidential libraries as a result," Howard says, "I'm going to visit as many as I can when I'm traveling now. In fact, I recently visited the FDR library in Hyde Park."
Like Howard's earlier film The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons is based on a novel by Dan Brown (again featuring the protagonist Robert Langdon, played by Tom Hanks). He enjoyed the challenge of following Frost/Nixon with a complete about-face, cinematically speaking. "Making Angels & Demons was like using a whole new set of muscles for me," Howard says. "I haven't done a thriller like this since Ransom. People should know that the new film is a completely stand-alone mystery. It will be informed by The Da Vinci Code, but it's really about a handful of hours in Robert Langdon's life. In the new one, Langdon has to find an assassin who has been murdering cardinals in Rome and also stop a terrorist attack. I'd like to think the new movie has an edgy, paranoid feel to it, with some of the tone of '70s political thrillers like The Parallax View. Langdon is tougher and more worldly-wise than in our previous outing together. Also, importantly, we gave Hanks a haircut in the new one," he adds, a reference to some of the weirder criticisms of Da Vinci, which seemed to be written by disgruntled members of the hairdressers' union.
"I think the critics went a little overboard," Howard says. "Generally, though, I don't have any axes to grind with them. If reviews of my work occasionally seem without nuance, I think it's because with so many media outlets now, each critic is just trying to get people to pay attention. This sometimes means a sensational opening line or review. I think they've been pretty fair with me overall."
Howard's enthusiasm for the new film is most apparent when he discusses the hectic matter of filming in the Eternal City. "We knew the film would be controversial, but a month before we were to start shooting, a new mayor was elected in Rome. There were a bunch of last-minute meetings and they decided to revoke our permits to shoot in certain parts of the city. So, we had to do some scrambling and change locations. We actually did some guerrilla-style shoots in places where we probably shouldn't have been. That was hard, logistically speaking. But I think it helped give the movie the anxious tone I wanted it to have," he says.
Howard's family-including his wife of 34 years, Cheryl, and their four children (eldest daughter Bryce Dallas Howard is a successful actress)-came to the preppy paradise of Greenwich on a whim. "I like Los Angeles-I grew up there," says Howard. "But you can't help but feel, what with the TV and movie industries, that it's something of a company town. When Cheryl and I were ready to start a family, we wanted our kids to meet all sorts of people, not just those in show business."
While working in New York in the '80s on the movie Splash, he got a tip from star Daryl Hannah. "Cheryl and I liked New York, but it wasn't really for us," Howard says. "Daryl told us there were lots of great towns in nearby Connecticut. So, one weekend, Cheryl and I got on the New England Thruway and said, 'We're just going to drive and get off at the first town in Connecticut.' It was Greenwich. We fell in love with it. When our kids were young, we loved doing all sorts of regular things. One of our favorite places was the Stamford Nature Center. But we also really liked shopping on Greenwich Avenue, going to movies in town, just strolling around. I used to even enjoy going to Woolworth's.
"It's funny, when I thought I'd discovered this place, I said to Henry Winkler"-his co-star as the unforgettable Fonzie on "Happy Days"-"'Hey, Cheryl and I found this in-credible town. It's called Greenwich. Have you ever heard of it?' Henry looked at me like I had just said the stupidest thing ever. You see, he went to Yale, so he'd been in and around Greenwich for years. It was pretty funny."
When reminded of this exchange, Winkler contradicts his old friend somewhat. "Believe me, I've never thought there was anything stupid about Ron," says Winkler in his warm, un-Fonzlike voice. "I've known him for about 35 years now and virtually nothing about him has changed, except his hairline. That includes his intelligence. When we first knew each other on 'Happy Days,' I used to think he was a very wise old soul trapped in a young man's body. His smarts and strength just seemed to come off him in waves. He actually said back then, 'You know, I really want to be a director. Do you think I can do it?' I told him, 'Ron, I think you can probably be a brain surgeon if you want to.' I have that much belief in his intelligence and drive."
The feeling seems to be mutual. The much-acclaimed Howard-produced sitcom "Arrested Development" featured a sidesplitting Winkler as the astonishingly incompetent attorney Barry Zuckerkorn. It seems that Howard is not only loyal to former co-stars, but he also knows what actors such as Winkler are capable of, no matter how they might have been typecast previously.
"When you're on the set with Ron, it's like that old E.F. Hutton commercial," says Winkler, who is about to lend his voice to the FOX network's eagerly anticipated animated series, "Sit Down, Shut Up." "No matter how quietly he speaks when giving directions, the minute he does talk, everybody automatically just shuts up and listens. It's amazing to see."
David Koepp-a screenwriter and director whose credits include Panic Room, Stir of Echoes and Spider-Man as well as Howard's 1994 film The Paper-was brought in to finish the script for Angels & Demons when original writer Akiva Goldsman had to leave for other commitments. He makes clearer still the effortlessness with which Howard seems to command his troops.
"The thing that's so great about working with Ron is, he doesn't micromanage you," says Koepp. "If he thinks you have a good idea for the film, he's up for it and lets you run with it. It's confidence that allows him to do that. Also, like Spielberg he's a hands-on director, and he's just as confident when he tells you he thinks something doesn't work. He really sees the whole movie in his head, and if your contribution dovetails with that, he's confident enough to say, 'Let's try it.'"
You can count Cheryl Howard (who Winkler praises as "Ron's bulwark, a very formidable woman") as one of her husband's biggest fans. She's more than qualified to comment about his on-set demeanor, having had a small role in every single film he's made since his high-school short features Old Paint and Deed of Daring-Do. "I'm not just saying this, but Ron really dazzles me when he's directing," she says. "He's completely prepared and in control on the set. Plus, he has such great respect for everyone from the actors to the crew. That's why he's had a number of the same people working for him since the '80s. I'd say, as good as he is to have around, I think he's most at home when he's making a movie. I know he's my husband and everything, but I have to say it: He is just so talented."
Cheryl, herself an accomplished novelist (her 2006 thriller set in Pakistan, In the Face of Jinn, garnered favorable reviews), is as crazy about Greenwich as her husband. "I know that 'Andy Griffith' was a TV show shot on a back lot, but I think Ron and I really wanted to try and replicate the sensibility of Mayberry in our own lives. What I love about Greenwich is the sort of old-timey feel it has downtown. The cop on the corner directing traffic, people strolling around, going to the bookstore-that sort of thing. Plus, the friendships I've made here have really lasted. I still have a bunch of women friends who I met because our kids all went to Greenwich Country Day. That's close to 20 years ago. We even formed a book club that continues to this day."
Of course, being a realist she knows that her adopted hometown isn't really Mayberry. When her kids were small, she joined with other concerned moms and kids to create a support network for any child who might be getting into trouble. It encouraged any youngster to tell his or her parents if one of the Greenwich gang was depressed, using drugs or sliding into serious problems. The grown-ups, while keeping the name of the "informer" a secret, would then alert the parents.
"There had been a couple of kids in Stamford, back in the '80s, who had committed suicide," Cheryl recalls. "It broke everyone's hearts. We knew, as moms, we weren't going to let things get to that point for our children. So, we had people watching out for one another as our kids became adolescents. I said to my friends and their kids, 'If you ever see any red-haired kids so much as smoking downtown, I want to know about it!' I think all our children got into a lot less trouble due to our system."
Similarly, husband Ron is not afraid to stir the pot and take a stand when he feels it's important. Take that funny, controversial Obama endorsement he created for the Internet last year, in which he donned a red wig and re-created his beloved TV characters of the '60s and '70s, Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham. "Like a lot of Americans, I'd been very concerned about the path we'd been taking, especially in the last few years," he explains. "I couldn't handle a continuation of the recent policies and I liked Mr. Obama. I'd never publicly endorsed a candidate before, but I felt so strongly about this election. In those final few weeks, with Florida, Ohio and North Carolina so close, I felt I had to try and do something. If Obama had lost in a really close election and I hadn't done a thing, I knew I'd regret it. Anyway, I had this idea."
Having no paucity of talented friends in show biz, Howard shopped his idea to the new king of comedy, Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up). Apatow in turn steered him to his friend Adam McKay, director of the Will Ferrell nutfest Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. "I hadn't really done any acting or lampooned my characters since I hosted 'Saturday Night Live' in 1982 and did a bit with Eddie Murphy. But it was fun. I asked Henry Winkler and Andy Griffith if they would do the sketch with me. I knew Henry would be up for it. I also knew that Andy was a lifelong Democrat, but that he'd been campaigning for the North Carolina governor, and I was worried he might feel overcommitted. But Andy came on board, too. I thought I might take some heat from people, declaring myself for Obama, but I was ready for that. Anyway, Adam did a really good job directing my idea [Opie talks to Pa, then Richie talks to The Fonz about the election]. I felt great when it was over, that I was actually participating in the democratic process. It was gratifying."
What's next for Ron Howard? "Once we cross the Angels & Demons finish line-including the press junkets in Rome, Tokyo and New York City-I will continue working with writers on a number of projects," he says, "including a couple of unique character studies, a sci-fi project I am fascinated by, a smart contemporary thriller and the adaptation of a very interesting graphic novel." In addition, a movie version of "Arrested Development" is reportedly in development for Imagine Entertainment, the production company Howard runs with longtime partner Brian Grazer. Howard hopes Dan Brown keeps writing Robert Langdon novels. "I'd love to do some more of them, too," he says.
For now, quality time with Cheryl, his kids and his 2-year-old grandson Theodore (by daughter Bryce) are No. 1 on his agenda: The word from this workaholic is that he's going to be taking "at least part" of the summer off. "Maybe I'll get to some Mets games," he says. "I've been missing that."Ron Howard