It was low-budget movie king Roger Corman who gave young Howard his escape opportunity, by hiring him to direct "Grand Theft Auto" in 1977. "I loved it that the director kind of got to play with everybody," says Howard. "I liked hanging around with the crew, and I loved being around the actors." After departing "Happy Days" in 1980, he would never again take on a major TV or movie role.
By then, Howard had married his childhood sweetheart, Cheryl Alley, whom he met during his junior year at John Burroughs High School in Burbank. The pair never really dated anyone else. "I think it's kind of magic," Howard says of his 34-year marriage.
"Through high school and into college, I think we knew how much we meant to each other and what we could do for each other. She brings out the best in me." His secret to marital bliss? "At the end of the day," he says, chuckling, "my expectation is not that I'm going to have the last word!"
In the early years of their marriage, Cheryl—who published a novel, "In the Face of Jinn," in 2005—concentrated on caring for the couple's four children: daughters Bryce Dallas, now 28, and twins Jocelyn Carlyle and Paige Carlyle, 24, and son Reed Cross, 22. The family moved from Los Angeles to Connecticut in 1985, then settled in Westchester County in 1994. Neither Ron nor Cheryl wanted to raise the children in a Hollywood environment, and, though Bryce and Paige are now pursuing acting careers, they were not allowed in "the business" until adulthood.
Howard seamlessly melded work and family. He brought the kids along on location, letting his actors bring their kids to the set if they needed, allowing the making of his films to become family affairs. "I'm really most comfortable on a film set or with my family," Howard explains. "I'm not a very adventuresome person. People say, 'You love space. Would you want to go on the shuttle?' Well, no, I wouldn't. At the end of my life, I'd rather have made another film or spent time with my family."
While the family grew, Howard steadily built his directing career. After "Grand Theft Auto" he directed the dark comedy "Night Shift." Then came the movies "Splash," "Parenthood," "Apollo 13," "A Beautiful Mind," "The Da Vinci Code," and "Frost/Nixon." For each project Howard had a definitive vision. "He knows what he wants," says Winkler, who is Bryce's godfather. "He is big enough to include the people he's working with, but ultimately he'll say, 'That's really, really good, but if you do it this way, I'll print it.' "
Because of his style, Howard engenders tremendous loyalty. He works with many of the same actors again and again: Winkler, Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe. His dad and brother have appeared in nearly all his films, and in 1986 he started his own production company, Imagine Entertainment, with partner Brian Grazer. "I'm a little shy," says Howard, "so if I know that I work well with somebody, that's meaningful. I create an environment where people feel they can collaborate. But I also need people who, in crunch time, are going to be loyal and responsive to my decisions. You can't go shoot it 18 ways."
Intensely personal in his beliefs and causes—he quietly supports the Boys and Girls Clubs—Howard certainly is not the type of celebrity who'll chain himself to the fence of a nuclear reactor to make a point. "I generally feel that show business people, unless they really make themselves learned in an aspect of government, ought to be cautious about using their visibility to sway people," he says. Still, late last year, he felt the urge to do something to support Barack Obama's presidential campaign. He contacted Henry Winkler and Andy Griffith and proposed that the three of them, playing their old roles from "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days," film an online endorsement video. After it generated both positive and negative comments, Griffith reassured Howard: "Ronny, once in a while you gotta be ready to ruffle a few feathers."