"If he has a dark side, I've never seen it," says Winkler. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who has worked with Howard on his past five movies, is another Hollywood vet who can't quite get over the director's sense of humility, despite his remarkable success. He draws an image of Howard from the location of 2003's "The Missing," shot north of Los Alamos, New Mexico. "It would snow at night, but during the day it would melt, and by the end of the shoot the area was very, very muddy," Totino remembers. "The last day, we were carrying all the equipment out. I turned around and there was Ron, carrying cases with the rest of us."
Totino insists he has never seen Howard lose his temper. Which isn't to say he's a milquetoast. During a recent appearance on "Real Time With Bill Maher," Howard all but admitted that early on he familiarized himself with what a "lid" was, after being offered an ounce of pot in junior high school. His wife has said he once danced naked on the living room table for her. And he has a randy sense of humor—he gave his children middle names in honor of where they were conceived: Dallas, for the city; Carlyle (the middle name of both his twins), for the hotel in New York City; and Cross, for a road in London. When asked if he and his wife had pulled over on that road, for that particular conception, Howard replies, "It could have been." Then he laughs, and notes they were living on that street when the event took place. Has he ever done things that left him disappointed in himself? "Of course," he responds. "They're embarrassing enough that I won't say [what they are]. But I really do try to live by this pretty simple principle: my folks weren't formally very religious, but they taught us to follow the golden rule."
Howard's father, Rance, was an Oklahoman who took an interest in acting as a kid. He married Howard's mother, Jean, also an aspiring actor, whom he met in college, at the University of Oklahoma, and the two, soon with little Ronny in tow, followed the industry to Los Angeles. They settled in Burbank in 1958, where Ron's younger brother, Clint, was born, and acting became a family affair. (Rance and Clint still work steadily as character actors; Jean continued to find roles in television until her death in 2000.)
Before he reached his teens, Ron had more than a dozen TV and film roles under his belt—perhaps most memorably as the lisping child who sang "Gary, Indiana" in "The Music Man." He clearly had star potential, but his parents wouldn't allow any of it to go to his head. The Howards lived a middle-class, suburban lifestyle. When Ronny wasn't filming, he attended the local public school.
While he was still on "The Andy Griffith Show" (from 1960 to 1968), Howard says his directing seeds were being sown. "I definitely try to run my sets as a director in a way that mirrors what I remember feeling on the show," he says today. Those seeds took root when Howard was in his early teens, about the time "The Graduate" came out. "That's when I fell in love with movies," he says. "Even though I had worked in them, I didn't quite understand what an experience it could be to have a movie really wash over you."
Howard took on the role of Richie Cunningham on "Happy Days" when he was 20, interrupting a course of study at USC's film school, which he never completed. His six years on "Happy Days" were among the least satisfying of his life, because he hated being typecast. Still, his turn as the squeaky-clean teen from the 1950s brought him international recognition. Ayelet Zurer, an Israeli actress who plays the female lead in "Angels & Demons," experienced the character's worldwide popularity firsthand. "We went to the Piazza Navona one night when we were filming in Rome," she says. "There was a small orchestra performing. As we approached, they saw Ron and shifted to the theme from 'Happy Days.' "