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Ron Howard's Revenge

Think nice can't trump vice? The "Angels & Demons" director may take us to the dark side in his films, but his heart's still in Mayberry.

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.

"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.' "

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."

"I'm glad I did it," Howard says, "but I hope I never feel the need to do it again." Besides, he has bigger screens to fill: "I want to do this until I drop. When John Huston was directing his last movie, he was in a wheelchair and on oxygen. That's my idea of a good goal." For Howard, as for his audiences, every film takes him to another place. "And you discover something wonderful or troubling about yourself as you go along," he says. "I feel that it's important every so often to ask, 'How am I doing?' "

From this perspective, it appears Ron Howard is doing just fine.

West Coast editor Meg Grant profiled Dolly Parton in the May & June 2009 issue.