Book Review: Rance and Jean Howard put “The Boys,” Ron and Clint, on the road to Hollywood Success

A running gag for some of us who’ve interviewed actor turned director and “Arrested Development” narrator Ron Howard over the years was to finish the chat with an admission.

“Actually, what I’m really here for is to get an update on Clint. What’s he up to?”

This always gets a laugh, and always brings up a delicious anecdote. Here’s one I remember when we talked as Howard’s “The Paper” was coming out.

“I was just meeting Tom (Hanks) for this movie about Apollo 13 we’re doing,” Ron related. “He’s looking at the script, some photos of NASA at the time. And he looks at one and says ‘LOTTttttttta people in these Mission Control scenes.” He pauses and gives me a look. “‘GOTTA be a part for Clint in there somewhere!'”

In a business rightly criticized for nepotism, pretty much right from the beginning, the Howard Boys were the adorable poster kids for why that isn’t always a bad thing. Ron, a child star who evolved into an Oscar winning director, could always find a spot for his kid brother Clint Howard, also a child star, on his sets. “My good luck charm,” Ron always called him.

Ron’s always had this folksy, upbeat All American, boy or man next door image, the sort of filmmaker who calls critics up to thank them for nice reviews. You always figured “That boy was raised right,” and as generations have grown up with him, many still watching his acting high water mark — as adorable Opie on “The Andy Griffith Show” — we figured we had the proof.

But go on any Hollywood gossip site and look at the whispers about how rough child stars have it. http://www.crazydaysandnights.net, sort of the QAnon of salacious Hollywood, is filled with “blind items” about cruelty, “stage parents” and much worse going back decades and happening even today.

Corey Feldman and Corey Haim are much more the rule for kids put through this “growing up way too fast” in a fast and loose business and town.

How did “The Boys” turn out so normal? OK, how did RON turn out so normal? Clint, funny as he’s been, long has had the “not as easy a row to hoe” vibe.

“The Boys” is their affectionate, sometimes revealing co-memoir of how their Oklahoma-born parents, actors who changed their names to Rance and Jean Howard, did it.

The sons practically skip through the pages, talking about this or that stage in their lives, what their parents told them about their pre-marriage childhoods and what they were able to learn much later on. We follow little Ronnie onto the set of “Make Room for Daddy,” the Danny Thomas show of the late 1950s. “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” was a folksy and somewhat sharp-edged and mean “back-door pilot” for what became “The Andy Griffith Show,” a casting coup that set the Howards, boys and parents, up for life. Or so you’d think.

Ron and later Clint, who became one of the funniest silent recurring characters in TV history, wearing a cowboy outfit his momma dressed him in — “No thank you, Leon.” — relate the later life realization of what their struggling actor dad gave up to make them so good at so young an age and what their mom — the first actor in the family, sacrificed to make it all work.

The siblings, switching back and forth several times a chapter, note how their father became a child-actor whisperer, teaching his kids — neither the older Ron nor younger brother Clint could read when they started out as tykes — how to find the core truth of a scene and “inculcating” them with their lines and motivations.

A Method for Moppets was born, and Rance would continue this for years and years, so long as each was young enough to require having a parent or guardian on set — from “Andy Griffith” to Clint’s “Gentle Ben,” “The Music Man” (Ronnie) to “The Red Pony” (Clint).

The brothers come off like their public personas in print — earnest, well-mannered family man so wholesome he was “Father Ron with the collar” in Hollywood, and wild child and sometimes hellion and lifelong wiseass Clint (his “Seinfeld” episode remains a stand-out, because he stole it).

We hear about Ron’s early fascination with the “tricks” of the trade, how to fake drowning, how to get a performance of “Wells Fargo Wagon” or “Gary, Indiana” into “The Music Man” when he was and remains “no singer.”

Andy Griffith and that show’s director gave him his first film camera. The first person to tell him “You’re gonna be a director someday” was also on that set — Howard Morris, aka “Ernest T. Bass.” Ron never forgot, and cast Morris in one of his early films. And yes, that’s exactly what we’d expect Ron Howard to do.

Clint’s “How could this be legal?” stories of child acting with animals like a black bear in sweaty, humid Florida (“Gentle Ben”) and having to kill a buzzard in “Red Pony” can be cute or chilling.

The sons grew up appreciating their father’s matter of fact way of treating every question honestly, from “Is there a Santa Claus?” to pre-adolescent queries about sex, alcoholism (they worked with a few folks who had the smell about them). And they rather belatedly consider all that their long-sacrificing actress-mother gave up to give them everything.

They were the “most honest child actor managers” in Hollywood history, the sons declare. The parents made their own money, took less of a “management” fee from their earnings than parents generally did and lived modestly so that the kids had fat bank accounts to start life as their child-actor days ended.

The kids grew up, if not immune to the pleasures and indulgences of Hollywood (Clint had substance abuse problems), at least prepared to deal with most of the pitfalls show business and life around it promised for them as adults. Humility comes off as an under-rated “teachable moment” in their memories of their parents.

It’s not a scandalous book by any means. Ron gives hints of the “adult” nature of the “Andy Griffith” set, that there were signs Griffith showed a violent temper back home. Grownups drinking on the job and cussing around a kid seems more scandalous today than back then. There’s a lot of noting how things could be looser, and not necessarily to the benefit of child actors, in days when “getting the scene” might include shortcuts, drinking on the job wasn’t even frowned upon and spousal abuse was a punch line.

There’s zero discussion of the racial attitudes of the day, reflected in how monochromatic film and TV shows both appeared in were.

But courtship and romance, college and “Happy Days,” “American Graffiti” and cocaine addiction all are touched on in this rosy portrayal of how one raises a child actor to be dependable, be professional, be kind and not turn out a brat.

At home or on the set, Ron’s memories are the warmest and as you’d expect, Clint’s are the funniest. Well, Ron’s memories of getting his directing start from B movie king Roger Corman are warm, and a hoot.

Neither ever uses the word “blessed,” but “gratitude” spills off every page that they fill with star encounters, making friends with Richard Dreyfuss and Henry Winkler, movie making memories and off camera hijinks.

The kids came out all right, and “The Boys” lets us see how that happened, and all the places it might not have had Jean and Rance not kept their eyes on the ball and their loving hearts on their sleeves, from each boy’s birth until each parent passed away having a pretty good idea of a job well done.

The Boys, by Ron Howard and Clint Howard. William Morrow, 393 pages, $35.99.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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