Ron Howard – the feelgood kid
All-round nice guy Ron Howard – whose new movie, Rush, a souped-up treatment of Formula One’s 1976 season, is on our screens now – explains the secret of his five decades of success
It would require a spectacular effort, one feels, to fall out with Ron Howard. Long after he played winsome against Henry Winkler’s Fonzie and John Wayne’s The Shootist, he still retains enough residual onscreen niceness to get away with jerked-up versions of himself in The Simpsons and Arrested Development. He’s been married to his high-school sweetheart Cheryl, a psychiatrist, since 1975. As a director, his films are defined by big Hollywood riffs and punch-the-air denouements: check out the feelgood beats on Cocoon, Parenthood, Willow, Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man.
He laughs and smiles about everything, including, as fans of Arrested Development can attest, himself. When Jessica Chastain’s resemblance to Bryce Dallas Howard, Howard’s award-winning actress daughter, prompted a spate of speculative supermarket tabloid headlines, Howard Sr, who essays a nasty version of himself on Development, dutifully played along. A self-deprecating storyline featuring Isla Fisher as Ron Howard’s Secret Love Child included Howard’s habit of naming his kids after the locations where they were conceived: the show’s illegitimate Chastain-alike was called ‘Alley’. Which happens to be his wife’s maiden name. Ha.
“That’s right,” he grins. “My other daughter. Mitch [Hurwitz, Arrested Development’s creator] loves gently tormenting me.”
Howard seems genuinely thrilled to learn that the show featuring the ‘other’ Ron Howard has a following in the UK and Ireland: “Oh wow. I love that. Really? I’m so happy. We appreciated it even more after that seven-year break. We always knew it was a great show and a great opportunity but it was always a struggle. It was always hanging on by a thread. It’s so great the fans kept it alive. Netflix are not a network. They weren’t sitting with their arms folded. The numbers told them this would be doing a service for their customers. So it was a really joyous experience and Mitch – who is one of those brilliant hypersensitive Woody Allen or Albert Brooks kind of guys – just flourished doing it. You haven’t heard the last of the Booths.”
Aside from Mitch, who had changed the most over the extended hiatus?
“I had. I forgot how to act. I was so rusty. I couldn’t even do jokey Ron Howard. Thank God most of my scenes were with Jason Bateman. He’s one of those guys like Tom Hanks who can carry everyone else along.”
Today, in London on promotional duties for the thrilling racing drama Rush, Howard isn’t quite as carrot-topped as he was during his Richie Cunningham period. He has, however, with the assistance of Cheryl, his flame-haired wife of almost 40 years, managed to produce four more redheads for the cause.
“There just aren’t that many redheads in the business,” he says. “But between Cheryl and me, my kids never had a chance. They’re all red. It’s great. It’s a shame there aren’t more of us around. Because we’re all wired a little differently, right? We’re a fun group.”
Fun is precisely where Rush is at. A pimped-out, souped-up condensation of Formula One’s 1976 season, this Peter Morgan-scripted drama – the men worked together on Frost/Nixon – pitches Chris Hemsworth’s beery, leery, rapscallion James Hunt against Daniel Brühl’s Mittel-European control freak Niki Lauda.
“I went to meet Niki before we started shooting,” says Howard. “He still teases me about some of the little simplifications and the details we had to collapse and mash together. But he is very appreciative of the movie and very appreciative that we took care with the story. I know he was moved by it, particularly the parts of the film that deal with his accident. He barely remembers it. He was so myopic and focused on getting back in the car. So even what he could see – and he could barely see – he wasn’t really seeing.”
Hunt and Lauder were rather better chums that Rush lets on, though, right?
“We do focus on the rivalry,” nods Howard. “They all knew each other very well. They all hung out. There was a mutual admiration and an adversarial thing. They came up through the ranks together. But if you watch interviews from that 1976 season, they were definitely playing for keeps. Whatever that might mean.”
It’s surprising, given the film-maker’s cheery disposition and love of underdog heroes, to think that Rush is only Ron Howard’s second sports movie. It’s even more surprising that the sport in question is F1, a pursuit we are repeatedly told, can’t compete with Nascar or, say, log-rolling and tiddlywinks, on US soil.
“I do love sports and they’re greatly dramatic, so it does surprise me that I haven’t done more,” says Howard. “I’ve been to some Formula One races because George Lucas is a huge Formula One fan. He wanted to be a race car driver before he became a director. And he has always characterised it as the premiere elite motor sport. I also knew that the Grand Prix was a great sporting event that might be exotic for Americans but still accessible.”
As it happens, he’s right. To date, Rush has tested to record positive audience response on both sides of the Atlantic. And unexpectedly, for the film’s backers at Studio Canal, female audiences are returning 100 per cent scorecards.
“It’s great because women are really outspoken about how much they love it,” nods Howard. “I think it might be because they’re surprised. And everybody loves a surprise. And I think everyone is responding to the emotional territory that we mine. What makes a guy like that tick? I hope we can get people who aren’t interested in the sport to give it a try. I hope it turns out like Chariots of Fire. When that was a breakout hit in the US people weren’t going for the Track and Field. They responded to the uniqueness of the story and situation.”
The rules of film releasing have, Howard admits, changed radically since he starred in American Graffiti, a film that played for a year in US theatres. Is it still possible for Rush to ‘grow’ an audience like Chariots of Fire once did?
“I think so. It’s harder. I mean, reporting box-office figures does make it fun, almost like a sport, but it does make it more difficult for people to discover a film. People see a film came in third and they think ‘It must be no good’. When, in fact, that’s more a reflection of the marketing budget and the number of screens. But audiences do still find things. It happened with Black Swan. It happened with The King’s Speech. It happened with Moneyball. All those films grew.”
And he does have Thor in his corner.
“I know. But poor Thor couldn’t get in the car for weeks. He had to lose 30 or 40 pounds of mass to get even close to James Hunt’s size.”
Howard’s unbridled optimism is all the more infectious when one considers he’s been in the ‘biz’ for almost six decades. The son of Buffy the Vampire Slayer regular Jean Speelgel Howard and Gentle Ben star Rance Howard had already appeared in The Twilight Zone when, in 1960, aged five, he became a regular on The Andy Griffith Show. Does he remember his first time on a movie set, I wonder.
“I do. It was in Vienna, Austria. I remember stopping off in Shannon Airport in a propeller plane and the refuelling crew waved at my parents and pointed at me and shouted ‘He looks like one of ours!’ Yul Brynner starred in the movie. But I oddly I never got to go back to Vienna until I went to meet with Niki. And on the way I got them to take me to the ferris wheel in the park – the same one from the movie The Third Man – because I remember playing at that park and having a really good time. I recogised the iron works around there right away. And I was having a nice nostalgic flashback when I turned to go back to the car and there was a giant billboard of Niki smiling and holding up shoes. And I thought: ‘Wow, there is my past and apparently this is my future’.”
He jumps to his feet and mimes it all out with aplomb. Does he ever miss acting, I wonder? He was pretty good at it before he decided to become an Oscar-winning director.
“I don’t really have a performers’ personality,” he says. “I enjoyed acting. But I don’t really yearn to be in the spotlight in that way. That aspect of it is not the fulfilling for me. Directing was more natural for me. And as a child actor, growing up, there was a fascination with what was going on around the set and then with the whole media. I used to think that the director was the person that got to play with everybody. And it’s great to play with everybody.”