I am a writer of fiction. I know that reading books within my genre is important. I often resist, but the efforts always spark insights, ideas, and observations. Sometimes though, it’s a struggle. I’ve always, since childhood, loved a good biography or autobiography. I enjoy finding the connective tissue between people, their craft, and those in whom they rub shoulders. If they’re a celebrity, musician, or athlete, more’s the better.
At Christmas my family gifted me The Boys, an autobiography by Ron and Clint Howard. Any Baby Boomer or Gen-Xer – any generation – in the USA knows Opie of The Andy Griffith Show AND little Leon, the peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich-toting cowboy. I’m a super-fan – 85 percent of the time I can tell you the episode within five seconds. Which comes in handy now. I don’t actually have to watch the show to enjoy the high spots in my mind. I guess that’s just like remember albums in their original order, or all the lyrics to thousands of songs, deeply in your subconscious.
We all know Ronny went on to co-star in the movie American Graffiti before landing Happy Days, and most know that Clint, after the short-lived Gentle Ben series became a fairly-sought-after character actor, appearing in Ron Howard films as well as many others. Their beginnings in the ’60s and ’70s was a long, long time ago but was an extraordinary foundation.
I was aware of more of Ron’s acting, but admittedly forgot some. He played memorable episodic roles in The Waltons, (having not won the John-Boy role he auditioned for) as a dying family friend, and in M.A.S.H., as an under-aged wounded soldier Hawkeye touchingly rats out. I vaguely recalled Henry Fonda’s The Smith Family (’71, year-and-a-half-long) series but didn’t remember Ron was the elder son. These roles were just the tip of the iceberg for both brothers.
It’s only human nature to wonder what Ron Howard’s childhood was like. Parents Jean and Rance’s grounded approach was obviously successful, though Ron would spend but short portions of spring in actual school for the eight-year run of the series (excluding the first year, in which he took the spring to make The Music Man.) His schooling at Desilu (Desi and Lucy) Studios was taught by the same lady for the entire run of the show.
Most questions you’d have about those times are answered. Rance, as Ronny’s original agent, took five percent, and Ronny’s earnings ($1,850 per episode in season six) were banked in trust for adulthood (15 percent by California law). It helped the family’s finances, since Rance had to notch-down his own acting pursuits, that he was paid as Ronny’s dialogue coach – since he couldn’t read in the beginning – and, usually on set, Rance appeared in a number of episodes himself, most notably as the Governor’s chauffer, who is ticketed by Deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), setting off – after Otis spikes the spring water – drunken worry by Barney concerning the Governor’s impending return visit.
Ron’s realization of his high earnings began as pencil-to-paper curiosity. In ’66 his Los Angeles Dodgers pitching heroes Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were holding out for more than the $85,000 and $80,000 they were earning. Ron, with rerun residuals, was making more than the men he idolized. He was 12.
Ron also tells a touching story he learned of from Andy when Ron was 32 and they were filming the Return to Mayberry TV film. At the onset of the series, just a few reads in, Rance requested Andy’s audience. Opie was modeled by the writers similar to some other current shows, and being presented as a brat. Rance suggested to Andy that, wouldn’t they get more mileage and still be able to write for laughs if Opie actually respected Andy? Andy took Rance’s advice, talked to the writers, and the show became a juggernaut.
The director’s bug bit Ron almost immediately, and was first put into words for him by Howard Morris, who played Ernest T. Bass on the show, and whom Ron later cast in Splash. Andy and show producer Aaron Ruben gave Ron his first 8 mm movie camera on his eighth birthday. He immediately began making short films in which he would cast Clint and Rance (who were also cast in Splash) and some of his friends. Ron’s writing of his childhood work centers around his goal of becoming a moviemaker and what he learned by working with the likes of Fonda, John Wayne in his last movie, The Shootist, George Lucas on the set of Graffiti, and negotiating with Roger Corman for the funds to shoot Grand Theft Auto, his first major movie, which was made for $650,000 and grossed $6 million.
There were so many more interesting connections for both Clint and Ron, too many to mention here. The “Fonzie phenomenon” and Ron’s friendship with Henry Winkler for one. Ron’s real-life squeaky-clean lifestyle versus Clint’s drinking and drug problems is another. Ron’s love of basketball, playing “B” team in high school, coaching Clint’s teams for years, and being bullied as much as revered. The brothers trade off every one-and-a-half to three pages, conversationally overlapping on their topics, which I thought was a great format. If I had one complaint, it was of wanting more – more insights to the movies that Ron made. There are a few mentions, mostly tied into their parent’s participation, Jean in Apollo 13. But then, that’s what The Boys was essentially about – family, both at home and at the studios. All in all, a light, informing, enjoyable, amusing read I recommend, if you’re a fan.