Ron Howard: Lessons I've Learned From 5 Decades in Showbiz

Ron Howard In the Heart of the Sea Set - H 2015
Jonathan Prime

Ron Howard In the Heart of the Sea Set - H 2015

As he sets sail with his latest film, 'In the Heart of the Sea,' Critics' Choice honoree Ron Howard has made smart use of every bit of experience — from his days as a kid actor to his work on Oscar winners such as 'Apollo 13' and 'A Beautiful Mind.'

This story first appeared in the Jan. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Ron Howard, a two-time Oscar winner for directing and producing 2001's A Beautiful Mind, is set to receive the Broadcast Film Critics Association's Louis XIII Genius Award at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards on Jan. 15 at the Hollywood Palladium. Now 60, he's been working steadily ever since acting in his first film, 1959's The Journey; he's directed 22 movies that have grossed $3.7 billion; and he's readying his next film, the seafaring adventure In the Heart of the Sea, which opens March 13. He recently shared with THR what each decade has taught him.

The '60s

"I grew up on TV shows where part of the task was to repeat yourself and mask that repetition," says Howard, who played the adorable tyke Opie on The Andy Griffith Show from 1960 to 1968. But once he became a director, he vowed to break that habit. "I didn't want to be a director who's given a narrow voice or genre. I wanted to be more chameleonlike."

The '70s

Stuck in another repetitive role, as squeaky-clean teen Richie Cunningham on TV's Happy Days (1974-1984), Howard escaped into directing when Roger Corman greenlighted his first film, 1977's Grand Theft Auto, at his New World Pictures. "When I was trying to get those Formula One cars to perform the intense way I wanted in [my last feature film] Rush, I realized I was applying all kinds of tricks I learned going back to Grand Theft Auto," says Howard of the debt he owes Corman.

The '80s

Howard realized he had a knack for discovering stars-in-the-making. For his brothel-in-a-morgue comedy, Night Shift (1982), Howard cast the unknown Michael Keaton as the motormouth "idea man" Bill Blazejowski, and he made Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah household names with his 1984 mermaid-out-of-water romance, Splash. "That worked out for Michael and Tom and all," says Howard. "I'm proud to say I'm an early adopter of Chris Hemsworth." The actor, who starred in 2013's Rush, will command the ship in Heart of the Sea.

The '90s

With his 1996 Mel Gibson thriller, Ransom, says Howard, "I moved into drama and realized how genre shifts the audience's expectations — words that would mean almost nothing in an adventure or comedy are measured in a mystery. They look for clues. That helped when I got into the Dan Brown world [with 2006's The Da Vinci Code] and had to play that game." Apollo 13 (1995), he says, was "my first movie based on real events. I realized that there was a real entertainment value for the audience in honoring the authenticity while synthesizing and ever so slightly heightening it to try to give a cinematic visceral sense of what the characters are experiencing emotionally." He adds, "From then on, I've been in a position where the creative community has trusted me and allowed me to be exploratory."

The '00s

Howard's online venture,, bankrolled by Paul Allen, flopped but taught him valuable lessons. "My awareness of what's happening in digital helped inform and shape Arrested Development," he says of the show he narrates and executive produces for Netflix. With his partner, Brian Grazer, he also is producing two new series, Oscar's Hotel and Parallax, for Vimeo On Demand.

The Future

When he was 35, he predicted that his best years as a director probably would come between the ages of 50 and 65. But now he's ready to extend that. Says Howard, "Considering that Clint Eastwood is out with American Sniper, I think I can tack another decade onto that."