Life’s Work: An Interview with Ron Howard

Life’s Work: An Interview with Ron Howard
Life’s Work: An Interview with Ron Howard

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por Alison Beard


Ron Howard achieved early fame as a child actor on The Andy Griffith Show. Then came a long stint as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. But from an early age he wanted to direct, and now he has a number of award-winning movies to his credit. He talks about the role of his parents, the arc of his career, and how he gets the most out of his actors.


First he won our hearts as a child and teen actor playing the beloved TV characters Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham. Then he started directing popular (and critically acclaimed) movies, from Splash and Cocoon to Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. Often in partnership with his Imagine Entertainment cofounder, Brian Grazer, and working with the industry’s top talent as well as its up-and-comers, Howard has produced more than 120 films and shows, and he has acted in or directed more than 130, all while maintaining a reputation for being one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. As he told an audience at the Masters of Scale Summit, his aim is to make films that have a positive impact on the world – “whether it’s destigmatizing mental illness …. or celebrating cooperation and volunteerism.” His latest directorial effort, Thirteen Lives, is streaming on Amazon now.

HBR: Your parents were in the entertainment business. Did you always expect to follow in their footsteps?

Howard: I was involved before I ever thought about it. If they needed a baby for a play, I’d be the baby. I didn’t have a say. By the time I was four, I was actually acting, and I enjoyed it. My earliest recollections are of having a lot of fun. My first film was The Journey, about the Hungarian Revolution, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr and shot in Vienna. I was just enthralled. Brynner was this bigger-than-life guy, and I could crawl around on what were made to look like Soviet tanks with the other kids in the movie. My dad realized I had an aptitude for acting, and he was a naturally gifted teacher, so he began to explain not how to perform but how to act—to understand what the scenes were about. When we got back from Europe, we got in the old Plymouth and drove to Los Angeles, and he set me up with his agent and said, “I have no idea if this will go anywhere, but let’s just see.” The first couple of jobs were on live television shows, and he was so good at preparing me that I did it anxiety-free. The local casting agents took notice, and I wound up working a lot that year, which ultimately led to The Andy Griffith Show.

So many child actors go off the rails. How did you avoid that?

A lot of it had to do with my parents. They were strict—not harsh, but helicoptering before that was a thing. I was well-known, and I think they had a lot of anxiety about security. But at the same time, we always lived in the house that my dad, a struggling workaday actor, could afford. That meant a neighborhood of three-bedroom, one-bathroom houses in Burbank, California, not gated communities. I also really enjoyed the environment and the process. It’s like a kid who grows up with the circus. You come to know the art and the discipline involved and the camaraderie and the energy around creative problem-solving. I could see the grown-ups really hustling, straining, arguing to try to get things right, even on a show that looked as relaxed and down-home as The Andy Griffith Show. There was a lot of laughter, but there was also a lot of hard work and care. So I was lucky in that I did not have that adolescent confusion. Even as I got older and went into that awkward stage, where acne and child labor laws are not your friend (because they can hire somebody over 18 who looks the same age as you and they won’t have to restrict the work hours), so roles were a little less forthcoming, I wanted to continue acting. And by the time I was 15, I knew I wanted to be a director. I never felt cheated by the experience. I always felt advantaged by it. That was a huge step in having as constructive a mental health outlook as one can have in that wacky business.

As a little kid on the set with all those adults, whom did you learn the most from? And what did they teach you?

On The Andy Griffith Show most of the directors had been actors and had a very comfortable way with us. The scene direction was built around character. It wasn’t “Hit the marks and belt out the jokes, kid.” It was much more about truth and honesty and Andy Griffith’s recollection of what it was like growing up in the South. That was great training for me. One director on that show, Bob Sweeney, expected a lot of me and, in a very loving, respectful way, would take me to task. He was teaching me, at age eight or nine, the power of concentration and focus. And there was Robert Totten, who directed me in some stuff at Disney and wasn’t a household name but had directed his first film at age 21. That was an inspiration to me. And then my dad, who taught me the simplest version of the Method—Stanislavski’s technique. It was all about putting yourself into the character and the situation and understanding it on a personal, emotional level as much as you could and then executing on the written material through that lens and filter. He never explained it this way, but he was helping me build the bridge between whatever Opie or any other character was going through and me, Ronnie. To this day I feel like I’ve got an almost hypersensitive empathetic pathway. It drives my wife, Cheryl, crazy, because even when people are clearly in the wrong, I’m understanding of their mindset. I’m saying, “But you never know what they might have gone through today.”

Why did you decide at age 15 that you wanted to direct?

When I was 10, one of the directors on The Andy Griffith Show said, “I see the way you’re looking at the camera and following rehearsals even when you’re not in the scenes, and I have a feeling you’re gonna be a director.” Then, when I was around 12, I began to fall in love with the movies. The Graduate, Romeo and Juliet, Bonnie and Clyde—those films were a bit neorealist, borrowing from Europe, and had an anarchy and rebellion that was beginning to emerge in American cinema. It was a kind of cinematic revolution. I related to it, and I loved it, and I began to understand that there was this other thing beyond half-hour sitcoms. And the person behind that filmmaking was first and foremost the director. I wanted to play in that sandbox.

How did you make the transition?

At that time things were very much sort of siloed. Actors didn’t really direct films. Once in a while a high-profile star like Paul Newman might leverage a way into it, but there weren’t hyphenates the way there had been in the silent era, with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. People out of situation comedies especially didn’t become feature film directors. When I would say I wanted to direct, I was met with a lot of patronizing pats on the head and “I bet one of these days you’ll get a chance.” I didn’t want to hear that. I was ready to go. So I went to film school. I was in the first class of freshmen accepted to USC’s. But that was interrupted by being cast in Happy Days, which was a good-money job, and I didn’t want to take that for granted. I took it thinking, Most series don’t go. The Andy Griffith Show was a fluke. I’ll do a year or two and come back to film school. But the show just kept going and going and going. So I took it upon myself to begin making short films and then more-ambitious ones with sound, rental equipment, and a crew on the weekends. I started writing my own scripts and worked with my father, who was also a writer. That ultimately led me to an opportunity with Roger Corman, who was famously king of the B movies but very influential. He launched Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Jim Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, and me. In 1977 he let me act in and direct a movie called Grand Theft Auto. Well, first I had to bribe my way in by acting in another of his movies. I told him, “I will only do Eat My Dust if you give me a chance to direct.” He gave me some hoops to jump through—the movie would have to make a certain amount of money, which meant I’d have to promote it; he had to like my script and approve the budget; blah, blah, blah—but I took the gamble. And while Grand Theft Auto was not the seriocomic masterpiece that I dreamed of launching my career with, it was a hell of an opportunity to get some experience, and I learned a lot.

And then came big hits: Night Shift, Splash…

Well, in between, there was a visionary executive at NBC in charge of television movies, Deanne Barkley. She was the most powerful woman in the business at that time, a real pioneer, and she believed in actors’ transitioning into directing. She wanted movies to have heart, and I think she thought we actors could innately channel that and very quickly work well with other actors. She was also going after big names from TV for the status and profile. She gave Michael Landon and Beau Bridges chances. And after Grand Theft Auto she met with me and said, “Would you like to direct movies at NBC? Produce them? Come up with the ideas? There’s an open door here.” For three straight Happy Days off-seasons I made a TV movie for her. I learned a lot more about filmmaking and taking responsibility for an entire production, which put me in a stronger position for just a few years later, when Brian Grazer and I formed Imagine Entertainment. Night Shift was his idea, and as young guy who’d never done a feature film before, he did remarkable work to get it green-lit. My friend Henry Winkler also came through. I’d left Happy Days, but he remained like a big brother to me, so when it looked like we couldn’t get the movie made, he agreed to come in and play a role. I’m forever grateful for that. Michael Keaton also made his debut in that and was fantastic. Splash was Brian’s idea too. There was something about the two of us—Baby Boomers, me in my late twenties, him 30, very different guys but with similar sensibilities creatively and tonally—that clicked. The business was at a tipping point generationally; people were asking, “Who’s gonna tell us what this new audience wants?” And we had just enough credits, experience, and chutzpah to push ourselves to the front of the line. Those first two successes were undeniably meaningful. Then I did Cocoon, not with Brian but with the very established producing team behind Jaws and The Sting. It wound up being nominated for some Oscars and Golden Globes and was, like Splash, a top-10-grossing movie without known movie stars. People thought I knew something, and I had to pretend I agreed with them.

Did you then feel pressure to match that success every time?

I felt a bit of that panic after that trifecta of movies. But I thought of a story I’d read in the autobiography of the Hollywood icon Frank Capra. He was an immigrant kid, struggled early in his career, had successes, but couldn’t get to the Academy Awards, which meant everything to him. Once he finally did, with It Happened One Night, which was the first movie to sweep the Oscars with awards for best movie, director, script, stars, he was paralyzed. The papers reported that he was dying from an undiagnosable disorder. Then, according to him, a Christian Scientist knocked on his door and said, “Please consider this: I think you’re just afraid.” He said, “Damn, I think she’s right.” And two or three days later he was up and out of bed. He credited her with knocking some sense into him so that he could regain the courage to go forward. So when I was beginning to have anxiety, I thought of Capra. I also remembered that I come out of television, where in those days you were making 24 to 26 episodes a year. Everyone gives their best to each show, but they don’t all work, and that’s OK. You hope that maybe a third of them are special, maybe three or four are underperformers, and the rest are really good. My thinking was I’m going to do this for the rest of my life, and I’m not going to put pressure on myself beyond just giving every movie everything I have. And that’s what I’ve done for the decades since.

Let’s talk about cast building. How do you find people like Michael Keaton, Tom Hanks, Daryl Hannah, who are amazing talents and will also work well with the other actors in your films?

You never really know. I mean, people have reputations, and you can ask around, and sometimes directors will give you honest answers, and sometimes they won’t. But I’ve found that I’ve always had an ability to create an environment where people could flourish. Even early on, in one of my TV movies, I directed Bette Davis. She was in her seventies, but still a multiple-Oscar-winning diva, and she wasn’t crazy about me—this young guy from a sitcom—directing. It was a struggle to earn her respect, but I ultimately did by leaning in, not avoiding her but also not trying to dominate. I used the logic of creative problem-solving that I’d witnessed as a kid: rolling up your sleeves and saying, “Oh, this isn’t quite working. How might it work? What should we do? What do you think?” By the end she was very complimentary of me, which gave me a lot of confidence. I was able to carry that over into experiences like Cocoon, where I was suddenly working with people who’d had decades of success, though most of them weren’t household names. I also approached everyone differently—something I learned coaching kids’ basketball, which I did in part because I knew that if I could manage a bunch of kids, it might help me handle temperamental actors down the road. What I prided myself on as a coach was understanding what each kid could do naturally on the court. Maybe one who couldn’t dribble still had the footwork and coordination to be a defensive specialist and build confidence there. I would do the same thing with actors around their character, their scene. It wasn’t perfect. There could be friction. Wilford Brimley was tough on me, for example. I had to deal with him very differently than I dealt with anybody else, and it was sometimes unpleasant. But as a great improvisational actor, he also elevated the tone and brought a naturalism and an honesty to Cocoon. I recognized that was tricky but also exactly what that sci-fi, seriocomic movie needed, and I made it my business to navigate that and not let him make the set too toxic for the others to flourish.

What about choosing a crew? I know that you’ve started a new networking platform to help people staff film and TV projects more creatively or expansively than they have in the past.

It started with Brian Grazer’s tour of Y Combinator in Silicon Valley, which is like a boot camp for start-ups. He thought, Oh, every movie and television show is a start-up, so let’s do the same for writers and potential showrunners. We immediately found that it really democratized the system, because people from all over the world could submit projects and ideas and themselves through an app. It was a very diverse, interesting, fresh set of voices. We did that for a few years, and then along with Tyler Mitchell decided to use the app for below-the-line talent—photographer, cinematographer, key grip. It’s a way of letting people know who you are, where you are, and how to reach you. And then producers might say, “Oh, we’re looking for people in the Midwest so that we don’t have to bring somebody from Hollywood.” That’s beginning to have a nice impact on hiring patterns. Instead of using a go-to list of people you’ve worked with before, which gets a little stagnant and limited, you can keep refreshing the talent pool for a different sensibility, a specific perspective, creative range. Casting the crew is vitally important. You’re like an expedition team that’s been put together to serve an objective: to maximize the potential of this story. You don’t have to love each other, but you do have to get through well to serve that goal. It’s a little different with Imagine Entertainment. Being good at your job isn’t enough; you also need to be good for the company and its culture.

How do you decide which projects to pursue?

Brian’s and my process early on was to confer and tell each other the truth but also support and back each other up. Neither of us has a kill button. If I have a project Brian doesn’t believe in, he’ll tell me so. And I might say, “He doesn’t get it, and I’m still going ahead” or “Actually, he’s right. I’m gonna pull back.” We follow our instincts. Of course, there’s also the process of gaining the support of your studio by treating those executives and gatekeepers as partners. I continue to have a lot of creative control—final cut, sometimes green-light power—but I’m not one of those people who think they don’t know what they’re looking at. I may disagree with them and ultimately try to use my position to counter their comment or note, but I also always want to keep the channels open, because they’re smart people and they have a lot at stake too, and they want the project to succeed. I have a lot of peers who don’t agree with me. But I think if you’re rigorous about your analysis, you build a better mousetrap.

You strike me as someone who’s sneakily persuasive.

I have a basic principle I call the six-of-one rule. If I’m working with somebody—whether it’s an actor, writer, cinematographer, editor, composer, key production person—who wants to approach a scene in a certain way, not the way I visualized it, I hear that person out on why. Then I ask myself, “What do I need for the scene? Does this conflict with that? Support that?” If it does achieve everything that my idea would have or more, I say, “Yes, great idea.” If it’s gray—six of one, half a dozen of another—I always try to go that artist’s way, because you get an organic X factor in the execution. They’re not responding to the director, they’re expressing themselves. Absolutely I have that final call, and I use it a lot, but I find that it’s much easier to say no when people also recognize that you’re very eager to say yes.

When you’re managing an extremely complex film like Thirteen Lives, which is about the Thailand cave rescue, do you delegate?

Yes, but not blindly. I use the word “deputize,” empowering them—especially if it’s about a language you don’t speak, cultural authenticity, or technical specifics around diving or race car driving or firefighting or going to the moon or any of the other subjects my movies have dealt with—but continuing to be there enough to focus on what each part means to the overall story.

How are you thinking about streaming services and the way that technology has disrupted the film and television industry?

It’s more good than bad. It presents a few challenges and undermines theatrical distribution to some extent, but I don’t blame that on the streamers. It’s audiences meeting new technology, which we’ve seen since people were telling stories around the campfire and somebody learned how to make a shadow figure on the wall. Sure, you can be nostalgic about the way people used to want to see a film or a TV show, but technology usually gives more opportunities than it removes. What I’m most excited about is the way it has made the world smaller and pulled audiences together. And we know that storytelling will continue to be relevant, because it’s how we understand who we are, what we’re doing, and how we might handle situations in the future. Every story—I don’t care if it’s a cartoon or a serious drama—is a cautionary story. A tragedy is when the heroes aren’t able to offset a threat. The more inspirational or happy endings are the ones where people figured out how to navigate that challenge.

Yours often end that way.

Well, I’m an optimistic guy. But it’s what I love about working in the realm of stories based on real events. These aren’t fairy tales. This is not wishful thinking. They did rescue those kids from that cave. Look at how they did it. Look at what it entailed. Let’s recognize that this is possible.

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