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Back In Splash Of Things With 'Cocoon'

June 12, 1985|DAVID T. FRIENDLY | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Ron Howard is nervous. Seated on the jump seat of a Cadillac stretch limousine, his knee bounces up and down like an oil pump as the car snakes its way through midtown Manhattan traffic. En route to one of the first public screenings of his new movie, "Cocoon," Howard's mind still seems locked in the editing room. "Maybe we should have jacked up the music in that dance scene," he says, unwilling to let go of his just-completed film.

"That's cornball stuff but you gotta give 'em some of that," he tells producer Richard Zanuck, remarking on another scene. As the car arrives at the Gotham Theater, Howard quickly adjusts his lucky hat, a well-worn checkered cloth cap that belonged to famous winning British horse-racing trainer Harry Wragg. "I wear it before every new movie," he says, bounding out of the limousine. "I just hope it works tonight."

Howard's uncharacteristic anxiety--when was Opie ever wired?--is understandable. A lot is riding on the $17.5-million fantasy-drama that centers on the lives of half a dozen senior citizens who experience their own close encounter with friendly aliens on a mission of mercy. "Cocoon" could provide a much needed revenue booster for 20th Century Fox's sagging bottom line. "Fox needs a hit and it needs it right away," says Zanuck, co-producer with David Brown and Zanuck's wife, Lili Fini Zanuck.

For director Howard, "Cocoon" represents another turning point in what has already been an astonishing second career. With the success of "Night Shift" and "Splash," he has earned the respect of a community generally cynical about actors who move behind the camera.

Thanks largely to "Splash" (which has brought Fox $34 million in revenues to date, according to Variety figures), Howard earned more than $1 million as a director's fee for "Cocoon" in addition to his participation in the film's profits. Should "Cocoon" perform at the box office as well as insiders expect, Howard's career would move up a sprocket into the rarefied ranks of A-plus directors who can effectively pick and choose projects with little interference from the studios.

"If 'Cocoon' is a big hit, I'll have the chance to be one of those guys everyone is just bonkers over," he acknowledges, picking at a chef's salad in Suite 1220 at the Hotel Carlyle in New York. "Then life could get really scary."

Ron Howard scared? That would represent a genuine sea change in a career that has been almost too perfect. Howard, who will forever be perceived as Opie Taylor, has already starred in two long-running No. 1 TV series, "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days," and has been in show business for 29 of his 31 years. Freckle-faced, with that familiar gap-toothed grin, he is a bulletproof version of the boy next door.

A product of Hollywood, he steadfastly refuses to adopt its trappings. He lives in Encino with his screenwriter wife Cheryl (his high school sweetheart) and three children. He has no visible enemies. His movies come in under budget, on time and consistently make money. Success has given Ron Howard the ultimate status in Hollywood: the security to be a nice guy. "He gets the most out of people because he goes into every relationship thinking it's going to work," says producer Brian Grazer ("Splash"). "He's the most secure person I've ever met."

At least for now.

"Cocoon," a film that was in development for four years (see accompanying story), is set to open June 21. With an ensemble cast composed of Steve Guttenberg ("Diner"), new faces like the stunning Tahnee Welch (daughter of Raquel) and Tyrone Power Jr. (he has one speaking line) and old faces like Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Wilford Brimley and Maureen Stapleton, "Cocoon" is a sentimental, feel-good fable aimed at a broad audience. It will be difficult to sell. In a marketplace dominated by so-called "high-concept" movies whose story lines are instantly recognizable from their titles, "Cocoon" is an anomaly: a film that brazenly attempts to appeal to all age groups rather than just one and gives little hint through its title of what it's about.

Fox marketing executives have decided to downplay the extraterrestrial elements of the story, perhaps concerned that audiences may be ODd on ETs. In trailers playing at about 2,500 theaters and in TV spots, Fox marketing strategists have decided to play up the human side of the film ("Beyond the innocence of youth and the wisdom of age lies the wonder of 'Cocoon' ").

"This is not a science-fiction or hardware film," says David Weitzner, president of marketing for Fox. "We don't hide the fact that there are aliens, but we have concentrated more on the human drama between them."

The emphasis on emotions over pyrotechnics is a distinct Howard trademark. "In doing a broad comedy or a fantasy, you've got to earn the right to be able to do the incredible thing," he said, abandoning his chef's salad for half a tuna sandwich on whole wheat. "You've got to draw people in through something they can relate to."

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