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Ron Howard Plays With Fire : With 'Backdraft,' He Just May Shake His Opie Cunningham Good-Guy Rep

May 12, 1991|JAMES GREENBERG | James Greenberg's last story for this magazine was a profile of screenwriter Shane Black.

IT WON'T GO DOWN AS ONE OF THE great moments in rock-'n'-roll history. The band had just finished playing a selection of standards--"Mustang Sally," "Under the Boardwalk," "Twist and Shout"--when it was finally time for the mystery guest to appear. The lights dimmed and then, when the tension was almost too much to take, he bounded onstage, guitar in hand, and ripped into a searing version of "Wild Thing." Plying the strings with his tongue, dropping to his knees screaming, "Sock it to me," Ron Howard electrified the crowd.

OK, so what if his voice was a little thin and his moves a little clumsy? He was there to entertain the cast and crew at the wrap party for his latest film, "Backdraft." The drama about firefighters had just finished shooting in Chicago. He didn't care if his performance was embarrassingly bad; he was having fun sending up his image as the quintessential boy next door.

Few faces carry a clearer message than Ron Howard's. He is mom and apple pie, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July, a home run in the ninth and a basket at the buzzer. He is an American icon. Andy Warhol wanted to paint him. Eddie Murphy called him Opie Cunningham, combining the names of the two television characters that have planted him in the nation's consciousness for more than 30 years. He is a vision of the American people as we want to see ourselves--loyal, cheerful, friendly and hopelessly optimistic.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 23, 1991 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 2 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Credits for the Ron Howard cover photograph should have read: Stylist: Lauren Ehrenfeld/Celestine; grooming: Bethany Karlyn/Celestine; denim shirt: Hugo Boss; jacket: Armani (both at I. Magnin).

Upon first glance, his personality and demeanor resemble the characters he's played. At 37, his face still has some of the little-boy charm it did when he portrayed Opie Taylor on "The Andy Griffith Show." His red hair is thinner now, usually covered by a cap; his slight frame is youthful, draped in casually rumpled clothes, and his high-pitched voice makes him sound younger than his years. He exudes what one friend calls "wholesome hipness."

But his image is not something he woke up one day and was stuck with. As Howard has grown up in the public eye, he has chosen a life that happens to be consistent with the perception people have of him. He married his high school sweetheart and lives with her and their four children in suburban splendor outside Greenwich, Conn. Howard may seem ordinary, but his success has been so singular, his good fortune so pervasive and his attitude so relentlessly positive that he has become something quite rare. He is not a media creation of a good guy; he is a good guy.

As a figure in American pop culture, Howard probably resembles Jimmy Stewart more than any of today's antiheroes. He accepts the comparison only after pointing out that Stewart is more than his unassuming persona; he's also a savvy businessman who managed to sustain a lengthy career. "You can't do those things by aw-shucksing your way through life," says Ron in his Oklafornia drawl. "There has to be a drive, and ambition has to move you to do that."

If anything separates Howard from the sweet child actor of his youth, it's his ambition as a director and drive as a founding partner of Imagine Films Entertainment. In a recent rating of the 100 most powerful players in Hollywood by Premiere magazine, Howard was ranked 25th. He established his credentials with his hit comedies "Splash" (1984) and "Cocoon" (1985). The disappointing performance of "Gung Ho" (1986) and "Willow" (1988) did little to damage his reputation, and the box-office success and mature themes of "Parenthood" (1989) enhanced his standing in the community. Now, he is expanding his range with "Backdraft" (opening May 24), a gritty drama about firefighters, starring Kurt Russell, William Baldwin and Robert De Niro.

But is there really more to Ron Howard than what he appears to be? "That's a hard one," says friend Bob Dolman, who wrote the script for "Willow" and for Howard's next project, "Distant Shores." "Isn't that the mystery of Ron? I've been trying to figure that out for years."

THE ONLY TWO THINGS RON HOWARD THINKS HE'S ANY GOOD AT are show business and being a father. He can't repair his car (an AMC 4x4), he isn't handy around the house, and he says his cooking repertoire consists of scrambling eggs and popping something in the microwave. It's no surprise, then, that he's trying to give his children the skills he feels he's lacking. "I guess I'm trying to project something onto them that I feel I don't have. I'm a good problem solver within this arena, but outside of it, I feel kind of lost."

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