Following the professional path of a parent isn’t always easy, especially if that career is acting. Brothers Clint and Ron Howard long ago escaped their father’s acting shadow, with Ron starring in two popular TV shows, “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days,” and going on to become one of Hollywood’s most respected directors.
At 85, father Rance Howard is a veteran of hundreds of film and TV roles. Together with his late actress wife Jean, the couple went to great lengths to ensure their sons didn’t fall victim to the temptations of early fame and fortune.
“We were well aware of all the traps that Hollywood parents and children fall into when the child becomes the breadwinner,” Howard said. “We were determined to live on what I could afford, and put the boys’ money away for them.”
But young Ronny, as he was known growing up, didn’t profit much from his first film appearance, which was also his father’s debut in a significant feature film role.
“It was called ‘Frontier Woman’ in 1956, filmed in Mississippi, and about Daniel Boone’s daughter, Polly,” Howard said. “Jean also had a small part and we wanted to somehow get Ron into the picture, too. He was only 18 months old, but we thought it would be wonderful for our parents to see their grandson in a movie with us.”
Howard approached the director with the idea, but was rebuffed. “He said he couldn’t be bothered,” he said.
That changed after Howard’s final scene.
“My character gets shot with an arrow then plunges off a balcony, and the director asked if I could do the stunt,” Howard said. “I did it, and he was so pleased he told me to bring Ron the next day and he would work him into the movie.”
The director decided to include baby Ronny in a scene where a politician was addressing a crowd.
“He wanted someone in the crowd to distract the political speech and asked if we could make Ron cry,” Howard said. “So I thought about it. There were a couple of Native-American boys from the Pearl River Reservation who were working in the film. Ron had become fascinated by one of their prop tomahawks and would bawl whenever it was taken away from him.”
As the shooting began for the scene, Ron was held by his mother off camera with the weapon in his hands.
“Just before the camera comes around to Jean and Ron, one of the boys snatches the tomahawk away and Ron begins to howl,” Howard said. “The politician stops, comes over to Jean and says ‘You’d better take that baby home lady. I think he’s sick.’ And that was Ron’s introduction to movie making!”
Years later, as a director, Ron Howard would “get even” with his dad by casting him in many of his movies. Rance played a minister in “Apollo 13” (1995) and was a cardinal in “Angels and Demons” (2009).
“I’ve played doctors, judges, sheriffs — as a character actor, I’ve run the gamut,” Howard said. “But someone checked and told me I’ve played more men of the cloth than any other actor!”
In the coming year, Howard and his sons have numerous film projects in various stages of development. Howard’s daughter-in-law, Cheryl, and two granddaughters, Bryce and Paige, have also acted. And the family added more talent with Rance’s second wife, Judy.
“She’s a journalist, playwright, screen writer, and author of two books,” Howard said. “We first met in 1987 when I was acting in a play she had written. So we’re all busy, although roles are harder to come by in your 80s.”
“On the upside,” he added “there aren’t too many people around to compete for those roles!”
Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns and interviews for more than 400 magazines and newspapers.