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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

By Belinda Acosta

MAY 10, 1999:  I don't know what it is, but Opie Taylor makes me a little misty. Opie was Andy Taylor's son on The Andy Griffith Show, played by then-child actor Ronny Howard. Today, he's all grown up and known as Ron Howard, the director of films like Apollo 13, Splash, Cocoon, and Parenthood, among others. But way back when he was just a little kid like me, he was just plain Op'.

I didn't have the same sort of affection toward Dennis Mitchell of Dennis the Menace, Beaver Cleaver of Leave It to Beaver, or to any of those well-scrubbed girls in shows like Father Knows Best or The Donna Reed Show. Nope, Op' was plain as peanut butter and just as satisfying. He liked to run around barefoot, go fishing, and eat ice cream. I liked those things, too. He had a respectful love for his pa, tried to stay out of trouble, and sometimes wrestled with those childhood moral dilemmas that would keep you wide-eyed with worry late into the night. I remember one episode when Opie took something from his Aunt Bea's purse. Memory fails on the details, but what I do remember is that what he took wasn't as simple as a couple of bucks for a DQ treat. It was a decision steeped in one of those torturous gray zones. He knew that taking anything from his aunt's purse was asking for a big-time whooping, but the reason -- which, at the time, seemed as monumental as saving the world from total destruction -- made it necessary. Op' nearly did get a whooping, but in the 11th hour explained to his pa what the deal was and got off the hook. That's when you were reminded that Opie was a television kid, with a television father, with a television life that got all problems solved in a neat 30 minutes. But even that didn't make me like him less. All in all, Opie was an okay kid. We would have played with him, my brother and I concluded.

So there was something warmly nostalgic about seeing Op', I mean Ron Howard, featured on Inside the Actor's Studio (5/9, 7pm, Bravo). In a career that has spanned 43 years, has navigated from television to movies, with work both in front of and behind the camera, Howard has done something that is nearly unheard of: He managed to make it from childhood to adulthood unscathed. He made it, not just career-wise, but as a real grownup person.

There are plenty of former child actors who've grown up to be embittered adults or worse, because they find it difficult to make it through puberty while working in an industry that seems to make that time of life even more treacherous. But make it he did, and this May 9 episode of Inside the Actor's Studio is a marvelous time to catch up with Howard.

Ron Howard

The straightforward, no-frills format of Inside, hosted by James Lipton, is a successful way to meet actors and directors because it offers a safe place for them to talk about their work. Lipton is a meticulous, if not cautious, interviewer, who comes to the stage with a stack of carefully prepared questions. Because he makes it clear through asides to the on-camera audience (student members of the Actor's Studio) that the interview is for their benefit and is not an attempt to ambush guests or show off his flash as an interviewer (flashy, Lipton is not), guests soon feel at ease to speak candidly about their successes and failures.

Howard is no exception. Prompted by Lipton, Howard charts his career through his early work as a child actor in the 1950s and Sixties, his adolescence in a failed series called The Smith Family (as Henry Fonda's son) in the early Seventies, and his days as the squeaky clean Richie Cunningham in the strangely popular Happy Days, which ran for 10 years starting in 1974. If there's any doubt Howard is a down-to-earth, unassuming kind of guy, it becomes clear in his Inside interview. It would have been easy for him to dismiss the lowly sitcom, now that he's an award-winning director (he won a Director's Guild award for his work on Apollo 13). Instead, he admits to perhaps failing the form for not "having a good ear" for the type of humor in Happy Days.

Howard's respect for the dynamics of each form he's worked in seems honest. Though he has no plans to return to television, it's clear that he counts that experience as important journeyman work toward his lifelong passion to be a filmmaker. Here's a guy who worked hard, jumped on opportunities, and wiped himself off after the not-so-great opportunities to make his life what it is today. It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

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