How a college prank turned into a public art tradition
Actor and director Ron Howard on the joy of being a storyteller
Judy Woodruff: Initially famous for his acting on TV, Ron Howard has grown up on screen right before our eyes. Now he is one of Hollywood's leading directors and producers.
Earlier this summer, Jeffrey Brown reported on Howard's latest film, "Pavarotti."
Tonight, a profile of the director, as part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: The grand stairway at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, perhaps not the place you would expect to meet Ron Howard.
This isn't your world.
Ron Howard: No, not my world at all.
Jeffrey Brown: So, you didn't stop with Pavarotti thinking...
Ron Howard: No.
But I knew more about opera than I knew about Formula One before I did the movie "Rush," or certainly going to the moon before "Apollo 13."
Jeffrey Brown: Howard, now 65, has just made a documentary on the life of opera great Luciano Pavarotti.
And the Met, it turned out, was just the place to talk about his long, varied and hugely successful in show business.
It began early, with both parents working in Hollywood, as a child actor, most famously as Opie in "The Andy Griffith Show" in the 1960s, and Richie on "Happy Days" in the 70s.
Ron Howard: We got it all figured out, see? We're not going to be ourselves. We're going to be adult businessman.
Jeffrey Brown: A decade later, and his transition to directing was in full swing with hit comedies such as "Splash," "Cocoon" and "Parenthood," leading to dramas, including "Apollo 13" in 1995, and "A Beautiful Mind," which won him an Oscar for best director in 2001.
When you look back now, does it make sense?
Ron Howard: It makes complete sense.
Jeffrey Brown: It does?
Ron Howard: Complete sense, because I really wanted it. It wasn't somebody else's idea. It was my idea.
Jeffrey Brown: And you just knew that from...
Ron Howard: Well, it evolved. You know what I mean? So many of the directors on "The Andy Griffith Show" had been actors. And so they might just drop here and there, "Hey, I bet you want to be a director someday."
My father directed a lot of theater, no film. I watched him. I watched him rehearsing. I could see what that process was. And just like a ballplayer might one day want to manage or a basketball player might want to coach, I was drawn to the total process.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes. What is the key to directing for you?
Ron Howard: Partly, directing for me is trying to create that environment, not just for the actors, but also for all the key department heads in the production.
And then it's really a matter of interpretation, understanding that story, beginning to understand on a kind of both macro and micro level what the elements are going to be. Putting together a film, television show, documentary, it's sort of like a mosaic. It's built in tiny little pieces, unlike, you know, a live performance, which is, you know, this is it, there's no going back.
Jeffrey Brown: And how much control or how loose is it?
Ron Howard: It depends on the moment.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes?
Ron Howard: It depends on the moment.
Sometimes, you want to be as relaxed and loose and carefree as you possibly, possibly can be. And, other times, you need to get everybody's focus
Jeffrey Brown: Many stories have followed for Howard, as both director and producer.
Imagine Entertainment, the production company started by Howard and his friend Brian Grazer, is a film and TV powerhouse, including hits such as "Arrested Development." Several new projects are in production, including a documentary on the Paradise Fire that devastated parts of Northern California last year.
For Howard, documentaries are an exciting new way of storytelling.
Ron Howard: Frankly I have always loved documentaries. And I was a little shy, maybe fearful of sticking my toe in those waters.
Jeffrey Brown: You were fearful because what?
Ron Howard: It's a different discipline.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Ron Howard: And if I'm going to do it and put my name on it, I wanted to believe I could put my best foot forward. And the good news to me was that I can. I can actually use much more of my storytelling experience and sensibility in the doc world than I even expected that I could.
Jeffrey Brown: One new scripted work is a dramatized version of "Hillbilly Elegy," the memoir by J.D. Vance about growing up in Appalachia, focusing attention on the white underclass that helped elect Donald Trump.
Ron Howard: I think this is particularly interesting at this time, where there's a tendency to sort of dig in with what's familiar, what you relate to the best and so forth.
And so if entertainment can shed light on sort of what it is that we have in common, I think that's useful. If it could shed light on a corner of society that people might have some questions about or are curious about in an interesting, engrossing, emotional way, then that's a form of entertainment.
Jeffrey Brown: The film is being shot in Georgia. And after the state recently passed a restrictive new abortion law, Howard's company joined others from Hollywood in speaking out against it.
Woman: Just this week, a new Amazon show, as well as a Lionsgate movie starring Kristen Wiig, canceled shoots set to start in Georgia.
Jeffrey Brown: For now, though, shooting will continue.
Ron Howard: We didn't want to bail out on all those people whose livelihoods depend on us being there.
But we did want to be counted, that, as a part of the media industry, if it passed, we would be disinclined to work in Georgia.
Jeffrey Brown: At 65, Ron Howard continues to exhibit a youthful exuberance. For many Americans, he knows he is forever Opie.
In reflecting on his latest documentary subject, Luciano Pavarotti, Howard focused on the tenor's drive and willingness to take risks.
You come across as an easygoing person. That was your actor persona as well. But there's clearly some drive or ambition? Or is there a killer instinct in there that...
Ron Howard: Well, only a respect for the medium.
I mean, I think the -- Pavarotti was -- he was charming. People loved working with him. They really wanted to work with him. I hope people feel that way about working with me. I bring a lot of joy and excitement to the set with me, because that's the way I feel.
Jeffrey Brown: You're 65. You have been at this a long time, right?
Ron Howard: Sixty-one of those years.
Jeffrey Brown: Sixty-one of 65.
Jeffrey Brown: But you seem to be busier than ever.
Ron Howard: As a storyteller, it's almost like this buffet. It's incredibly energizing to me.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, Ron Howard, thank you very much.
Ron Howard: Pleasure. Thanks.