Ron Howard learned early on, when he was just a kid actor on "The Andy Griffith Show," about the inseparable nature of art and life. After a read-through of each episode's script, cast and crew would gather on the back lot of Desilu Studios to talk about what worked and what didn't. Griffith would be there, with all his fatherly wisdom, along with costar Don Knotts. Little Ronny, just six when he became Griffith's TV son, Opie Taylor, his red hair capping that fresh face of innocence, would listen to them discuss the characters, and how humor should never come at the expense of others. "Andy Griffith was a big factor in shaping my sense of the way an adult male, and particularly one in authority, handles himself," Howard says. Years later the father of four would find himself standing in the kitchen of his home in Westchester County, New York, lecturing his teenagers as only a devoted dad and passionate movie lover could: "If they were doing something I didn't think made sense," Howard says, "I would say, 'What if you saw a character doing what you're doing in a movie? Would you agree with that character? Would you like that character?' "
Now 55 and on the eve of releasing his 20th film, "Angels & Demons"—based on the prequel to Dan Brown's epic novel, "The Da Vinci Code"—the actor turned director says that family and film have made him one very satisfied man. After all, he won an Oscar for directing A Beautiful Mind (which also won Best Picture), and his screen version of "The Da Vinci Code" raked in $200 million at the box office. He enjoys a long-term marriage and has a close-knit family. Yet his films don't shy away from life's dark side: kidnapping, mental illness, religious heresy. One of his earliest movies ("Night Shift") was a comedy about a prostitution ring run out of a city morgue. "He's not just a clean, happy guy," says his friend and longtime producing partner, Brian Grazer. "He has edge—but no anger. He understands darkness."
Still, through it all, Howard has remained at heart the freckle-faced boy from Mayberry, whose worst retort to his onscreen dad, when asked to do something he didn't want to, was: "Aww, Pa!"
"He is Opie grown up," says Henry Winkler, who co-starred with Howard on the television series "Happy Days" in the 1970s and still counts Howard among his closest friends. "He's wise. He was wise when I first met him. I think he's an old soul. There is this wonderful sense of fairness in Ron."
Howard's boy-next-door face currently sports a mustache and beard, and his hairline is now drastically receded. Sitting at a farmhouse-style table in his Beverly Hills production-company office surrounded by photos of himself with Stephen Spielberg, actor Frank Langella in character as Richard Nixon (from Howard's previous film, "Frost/Nixon"), wife Cheryl, his kids, and, yes, even a two-year-old grandson, Howard is self-deprecating, quick to offer a laugh at his own expense. When asked about his enduring popularity, he deadpans, "I've just been around a long time." Then his ears seem to perk up, his lips part to reveal that gap-toothed grin, and he bursts out in hearty laughter. He reacts in like manner when asked about a recent YouTube interview series on his filmmaking: "Was it getting, like, 5,000 hits per minute?" he asks in mock optimism, following the question with a loud guffaw.
It's hard to spend time with Howard and not be reminded of that uniquely American film classic "It's a Wonderful Life": He's refreshingly unassuming in a Jimmy Stewart kind of way, and his outlook has an upbeat, Frank Capra-esque quality. He infuses folks with a belief in people's goodness because that's what he genuinely seems to believe in himself.