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Family Affair

Photograph by Bob Capazzo

Ron Howard skips down the stairs of his backcountry Greenwich home carrying his coffee mug and introduces himself to a photographer and crew at the door. “Hi, I’m Ron,” he says, extending his hand to each person in the entourage.

It’s a humble gesture — hardly necessary —from a man with one of the most familiar faces in America. Ron grew up in our living rooms, on television. As a youngster he played Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. As a teenager he starred as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. As an adult he won an Oscar for directing the movie A Beautiful Mind. So on the landing, Ron’s red hair, freckles and youthful smile are instantly recognizable. These days, though, the hair falls in wisps atop his head, and his red beard is flecked with gray, but the bright eyes and smile haven’t changed a bit.

The photographer and his assistants want just the right place to photograph the Howards. If there’s anyone who understands artistry behind the camera — the ideal light, the best surroundings, the exact image, the perfect shot to tell a story — it’s Ron Howard, one of the hottest and most successful directors today. But Ron, gracious and patient, doesn’t impart his opinion where it’s not sought. Instead, he offers to show everybody around.

It’s nearly a full house this morning. The youngest of the Howard children, Reed, a college freshman at Pepperdine who wants to become a professional golfer, is at home. So is his sister Jocelyn, one of the twenty-one-year-old twins. She’s back from doing some volunteer work in Costa Rica. The eldest daughter, Bryce, and her fiancé, actor Seth Gabel, who appears on the series nip/tuck, are holding hands in the foyer. (The couple of five years will be married in June.) Paige, Jocelyn’s twin, is the only one not home — she’s preparing for exams at NYU, where she studies acting.

“Anybody down there? Guys? It’s Dad,” Ron queries, knocking on the door to the basement, rousing the sleepy Reed who has chosen to bunk around the corner from the movie theater–size popcorn popper, the jukebox full of 45s and the fourteen-seat screening room. The photographer and crew look around, considering the pool table and the posters of some of Ron’s movies: A Beautiful Mind, Missing, The Paper, Willow, Cocoon, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Splash, Parenthood, Backdraft, Cinderella Man, Apollo 13. But they reject the setting and return upstairs with Ron in tow. Eventually, the photographer selects the living room where he assembles several Howards in front of a formal backdrop: a harp and a grand piano, and behind that, beyond the windows, a lake, tall pines, light and solitude.

The elegant setting seems worlds away from fast and furious Los Angeles, where Ron’s latest film, The Da Vinci Code, has had Hollywood chattering for better than a year. The movie, scheduled to open May 19, is based on the bestselling, controversial novel of the same name by Dan Brown. Among other issues, the thriller theorizes that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and fathered a daughter whose bloodline survives to this day. Some Catholics consider the book inflammatory. The Vatican condemned it, calling the book “a sack of lies” and likening it to “rotten food.” Ron says he finds the whole story intriguing.

“It’s unlike any other film I’ve made,” he says in the kitchen, after the photo shoot. “It’s a puzzle piece and a mystery. Hopefully, it’s a story that audiences will enjoy.”

Telling stories to audiences — writing them, acting them, directing and producing them — has been Ron’s calling for fifty-one of his fifty-two years. It’s a family business, started by Ron’s parents, Rance and the late Jean Speegle Howard, who began acting back in the 1950s, and it continues into the third generation.

While The Da Vinci Code plays on one screen this summer, Bryce will star in The Lady in the Water. Ron’s brother Clint and their father, Rance, will be filming new movies. And Cheryl Howard, Ron’s wife of thirty-one years, will be writing her second novel.

Ron learned the family craft in the town where he was born, Duncan, Oklahoma, not exactly the hub of show business. Rance ran acting and improvisation workshops at home and talked about business with the family. While Rance and Jean worked, Ronny toddled nearby. He liked to mimic the action around him.

“My dad was directing plays — he directed summer stock — and he noticed I was picking up on dialogue,” Ron recounts.

“I loved to say the lines from Mister Roberts. My father would start doing a scene and I would play Pulver [Jack Lemmon’s role in the film version]. He would say one part and I would say another. We’d go back and forth. My dad’s friends would get a kick out of it.”

Nobody thought much more about it until one day when Rance was in New York looking for work and calling on casting directors. In the waiting room of one office, he encountered a roomful of children hoping to be cast. Rance mentioned to the director that his little Ronny happened to be quite good at memorizing lines. Later, Ron auditioned, doing his Mister Roberts scene. The audition led to Ron’s first movie, playing little Billy Rhinelander in The Journey, alongside Yul Brynner, Jason Robards and E. G. Marshall.

“C’mon down, I’ll show you,” Ron offers, heading back to the basement. He stops beside a black-and-white photo of Anne Jackson, who played Ron’s mother in The Journey. “I had just turned four. We had to go to Vienna, and I still vividly remember seeing that castle.”

As Ron describes that first movie, it’s clear by the photos hanging on the rust-colored felt walls around him just where the journey has led. There’s Ronny in the movie The Music Man, where he belted out “Gary, Indiana” with gusto. There’s Ronny with Andy and Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show. There he is playing baseball with the crew from Happy Days, and there again standing beside the late Princess Diana when Apollo 13 opened in London in 1995. Then there’s Ron in a tuxedo holding his Oscar for A Beautiful Mind in 2002.

Rance and Jean Howard knew their acting options were limited in Oklahoma, so they packed up Ron and their belongings and moved west. “They both took this kind of leap. We drove across the country, and I started doing live television in L.A.,” Ron recounts. He debuted on television playing Stewart on Dennis the Menace. Rance worked as a writer on The Andy Griffith Show and Ron earned the part of Andy’s son Opie. Andy Griffith based the relationship between the characters Andy and Opie, in part, on what he observed between Rance and Ron: patience, kindness, good humor, warmth.

“My dad was gifted as a parent. I really loved being with him,” Ron says. “When we worked, he explained everything. The process wasn’t mysterious to me; my dad helped me understand it.”

Ron was tutored in a one-room schoolhouse near the set, but his real education came on the set. He worked alongside smart and funny actors who could be practical jokers one minute, serious and focused the next. Little Ronny was encouraged to raise his hand and make a suggestion about the scene or the dialogue. He was allowed to work the camera and fiddle with the microphones. The adults taught him about lighting and sound. Ronny realized that the director got to play with everybody. “That was the job I wanted,” he says.

Following The Andy Griffith Show, Ron felt more comfortable on a set than in the classroom, where most students treated him as a TV personality at their disposal, he says, asking him for autographs or making fun of him, rather than as a peer. Not all students reacted this way, however. In Mrs. McBride’s English class at John Burroughs High School in Burbank, a redhead named Cheryl seemed unfazed by Ron’s television fame.

“Ron seemed shy,” says Cheryl, who admits she may have been the only one in school who didn’t recognize her classmate from television. “I wasn’t allowed to watch TV,” she offers. Instead, she flew airplanes, shot guns and helped out her free-spirit father, a scientist who drove a Harley-Davidson.

Ron recalls their first encounter as if it were yesterday. “It was literally one of those chemical things,” he says, his blue eyes still twinkling at the memory. Ron was sixteen years old. He invited Cheryl to the movies. “I remember strutting into the house afterwards,” he says. “I swung the door behind me and announced loud enough for everybody to hear, ‘Now that was a date!’ I can only imagine what my parents were thinking!”

Ron was smitten. He bought a real-live Wooley monkey for his girlfriend, who loved animals. At first, Cheryl refused it. “How could I have accepted such an extravagant gift? We weren’t even engaged!” she says, laughing. But eventually she agreed to take care of the monkey for Ron. They courted, as Ron starred in the movie American Graffiti, then in Happy Days. They were engaged for two months and married at the age of twenty-one, at the time Ron starred alongside John Wayne in the legend’s last movie, The Shootist, for which Ron was nominated for a Golden Globe Award.

Acting was Ron’s day job, though. He was more committed to being behind the camera than in front of it. He attended film school at the University of Southern California and continued to make his own films with his father’s Super 8 camera. Cheryl appeared in every film and stoked his passion for filmmaking. Ron searched in vain to find a job directing movies, even though he had directed several episodes of Happy Days. So at twenty-three, he used himself as leverage: He promised producer Roger Corman that he would star in Roger’s movie Eat My Dust for very little pay on the condition that Ron could direct Roger’s next movie, Grand Theft Auto.

“Roger’s movie had a name, but that was about it. My Dad and I got together and wrote the script for it in two weeks,” Ron says. Their collaboration, a movie about a giant car chase, was made for only $602,000. The movie reaped a giant profit for the producer. On the heels of that success, Ron directed Night Shift, starring Henry Winkler, Ron’s Happy Days costar, good buddy and godfather to Bryce. From there Ron moved on to more ambitious projects, with Cheryl as his unsung collaborator.

“Cheryl is the good-luck charm. She’s my creative secret weapon,” Ron says. “She has good story sense and an intuitive ability to look at people in ways outside the box. She has a great sense of character. She’s given my movies some pivotal ideas. Cheryl was a writing fellow at AFI (the American Film Institute), you know,” Ron says, nodding appreciatively at his wife.

Discussing work is what brings three of the six red-headed, blue-eyed Howards around the green granite island in their kitchen on this morning. Bryce, whose porcelain-colored skin is sprinkled with freckles, sits on a stool, sipping a shake of protein powder, apples and flaxseed oil. Ron hoists his trim frame up on the island, dangling his legs, munching on a handful of almonds. Cheryl is leaning on the island, gazing at Ron over the orchids, amaryllis and a bunch of bananas.

“What I like about Mom,” Bryce says, “is she has a dark side. But she can cut through the darkness and find what’s moral in the story. Dad is incredible at looking at the big picture. He can see how to tell a story that connects with the audience. I am so lucky to have both of them as my parents. I come home in the middle of writing something and I feel like I’ve landed in a creative gold mine.”

Home is on thirty-five acres, plenty of room for the Howards and two dozen dogs and cats to wander. (The parakeets and fish are inside, and the goats, chickens, donkeys, miniature horses, rabbit and other assorted members of the animal kingdom have their own territory.) Ron, Reed and Bryce play basketball on the family court as often as they get the chance. The setting helps kindle creativity, just as Ron and Cheryl had anticipated.

“Hollywood is an industry town,” Ron begins. “When we lived there, I found it oppositional to my work. It can be hard on kids, too. In kindergarten one kid would go up to another kid and say ‘You’re dad isn’t hot anymore.’ ”

Says Cheryl, “If you’re trying to be creative and think of ideas, it can be difficult there; it’s so insular. We wanted our children to have options.” Ron continues her thought: “Here they could really see there was another way to make a living that could be rewarding.”

In 1984, when the Howards were in New York City filming the movie Splash, they spent a lot of time thinking about where they wanted to raise their children. “Daryl Hannah [who starred in the film] said there were a lot of neat little towns outside of New York City,” Ron remembers, “so one day Cheryl and I rented a car and we went for a drive.” In Greenwich, the Hollywood couple discovered stone walls, a main street and a real Woolworth’s, all perfect props for a cozy town. But these were for real. Also real: “The schools were good,” Cheryl says.

Moving to Cos Cob changed Ron and Cheryl’s lifestyle immediately. No longer did the pair have to battle each day with their social calendars. On the West Coast, the Howards hadn’t been able to take the kids out for a bite to eat without someone pulling up a chair to pitch a movie. In Greenwich Ron and Cheryl were an inconspicuous novelty.

“Finance and fashion were big around Greenwich at the time. That’s where all the money was,” Cheryl recalls. “When we met people, they would say ‘Oh, you do movies? How cute!’” Adds Ron, “We weren’t important to anyone.”

They were to their children, however. The Howard children attended Greenwich Country Day School and joined Mom and Dad on location with a tutor in tow. To Dingle Island in Ireland. To London. To Montana. Rather than dividing the family, Cheryl says Ron’s work provided a golden opportunity for the family to regroup, to spend time exploring a new location and to get to know each other better. “I loved it,” Bryce says. “I felt so happy and so comfortable around video sets and around my family.”

Happiness seems to come naturally to her father. Ron is basically an optimistic person who finds in a story hope, survival and celebration. His movies tend to follow a theme: how a character copes with unpredictability. Usually there’s a struggle, and the character’s struggle leads to triumph. Ron’s movies also tend to present an underlying issue that audience members can explore — or not.

He’s heading into controversial territory with The Da Vinci Code. In the movie, starring Tom Hanks and French native Audrey Tautou, a curator is murdered in the Louvre and a cryptic message is carved on his body. Hanks plays a Harvard symbology professor who helps the victim’s granddaughter, a cryptographer (played by Tautou), find out the reason for her grandfather’s death. The pair races from one landmark clue to the next, trying to unravel the grisly murder. All kinds of unsavory characters get in their way, including a delusional bishop and a self-flagellating monk from the secret society Opus Dei.

Ron filmed the movie in 2005 in the United Kingdom and in France. The year before, he scoured the European countryside looking for locations and navigating official channels to pursue permits. Westminster Abbey said no. The Louvre approved, with conditions: no blood on the floor or secret messages written on the Mona Lisa; no lights allowed directly on the paintings. Christian protestors marched against the movie even as it was being filmed.

Cheryl joined Ron on location, but this time Bryce wasn’t with them. Although she has appeared in a host of her father’s films, sprinkled alongside the rest of the red-headed extras and various Howard family members, she had no time to spare in 2005. Instead, she starred in Mary, Queen of Scots and Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It, filmed The Lady in the Water with Paul Giamatti, and wrapped up Manderlay with Willem Dafoe and Danny Glover. She also signed up to play the new love interest in Spider-Man 3.

Bryce’s decision to become a full-time actor surprised even her parents. In high school Bryce told everybody she wanted to be a forensic anthropologist or a lawyer. When she applied to New York University, she chose acting and writing as a double major. When she had to audition for NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Bryce refused to run her monologue by her father. As Ron was driving her to the audition, though, he pulled over and reminded his daughter that he was one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood and that many actors would clamor for the chance to run their monologues by him. But Bryce didn’t budge. She was accepted on her own merit, and for most of the first year, few people knew who her father was. They found out when Dad showed up in the audience at a college play.

That’s where Dad discovered his daughter had talent. “When she was at Tisch, she did some gut-wrenching work,” Ron says, referring in particular to Hamletmachine, in which Bryce performed in the nude. The whole family, including Grandpa Rance, saw the production. “All my instincts as a father were to go up and rescue her,” Ron admits. “At the end I said to my dad, ‘Well, how’d you feel about Bryce?’ He said, ‘I thought she was great.’ And I said, ‘Well, how’d you feel about seeing her naked on stage?’ He said, ‘Well, she worked very hard to get there. Now she’ll never be afraid to go there again in the future.’ And you know? He was right. We are adults, and we’re in this business, and we understand what people put themselves through for their work."