While some celebrities spent lockdown in their Malibu beach houses or Beverly Hills compounds, Ron Howard – one of the most powerful and prolific men in Hollywood – spent the first two weeks sleeping in his editing office near his home in Connecticut. The image of Howard living in his workplace fits so well with his public image that it sounds almost storyboarded: the hardworking, humble guy who happens to be an Oscar-winning director (of 2001’s A Beautiful Mind; he was also nominated for Frost/Nixon in 2009. His mother thought, rightly, that he should also have been nominated for 1995’s Apollo 13). Yet Howard’s work-based isolation was not just for professional purposes, but personal ones, too: his wife of 45 years, Cheryl, was sick with Covid-19. He needed to isolate from her, but he wanted to stay close by.
“She had it only mildly, thank God, and so did my daughter Paige, but they were real cases. So I lived in the editing room. When Cheryl felt better, the two of us would go on what I called Victorian courting strolls, staying 10ft away from each other and no touching,” Howard says with a chuckle.
We are talking over video chat. Howard, 66, is back in the family home, which, from the little I can see, looks lovely; impressive, but not showy. “Yes, as gilded hamster cages with velvet wheels go, this one’s not bad,” he says. He is wearing one of his signature baseball caps; peeking out is his even more signature red hair, now a little paler than it was when he played Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. Does he mind that annoying people (ie me) still bring up the show, 45 years after it first screened?
“Not any more!” he replies in his affable chatty way. “There was a time when I felt a little threatened by that. But, in recent years, I’ve come to appreciate my unique place in pop culture.”
He has carved out this place at least partly through his workaholism. If Steven Spielberg is the father of modern mainstream US cinema, Howard is its beloved uncle. Between his directing career – which spans 80s comedies (Splash, Cocoon, Parenthood), 90s dramas (Backdraft, Apollo 13) and blockbusters (The Da Vinci Code, Solo: A Star Wars Story) – his production company, Imagine Entertainment (8 Mile, My Girl, Bowfinger), and his lifelong acting career (The Music Man, Happy Days, Arrested Development), Howard’s IMDb page rivals in length the works of Dickens. He has said he needs only four days’ rest after finishing a film before he is ready to start the next. So how did he cope with a six-month lockdown?
“Oh, it’s been a very exciting time!” he chirrups, before reeling off the half-dozen or so films he worked on from home. Howard, it seems safe to say, does not spend much time scrolling aimlessly through Instagram. But the film we are talking about today was finished long before the virus hit – and yet, by the time its release date came along, it turned out to be painfully of-the-moment.
Rebuilding Paradise, the fourth documentary Howard has directed, is a gripping look at the 2018 Camp fire in California, which killed 85 people and destroyed 62,000 hectares (150,000 acres). The town of Paradise was pretty much wiped out. The film opens with a terrifying sequence – made from mobile phone and dashcam footage – of the townspeople attempting to escape. But Howard’s real focus is what happened afterwards. “We wanted to see what it means to keep going when the direction of one’s life has been completely devastated and all your goals are gone,” he says.
Howard knew the town because his mother-in-law had lived there. But he does not mention this in the film – in fact, he does not appear in the film at all. This is because – in classic Howard fashion – he was simultaneously directing the adaptation of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams, so he had to do some directing by FaceTime. But it is also because he wanted to keep the focus on the effects of the fire. At the time of filming, 2018 was the worst year of fires in California’s history. That record was broken by the 2020 wildfires. Only eight days before our interview, Paradise was in serious danger of being wiped out again.
In the minds of many, the main cause of the annual fires is the climate crisis, but it is not that simple: yes, global heating is a contributing factor, but there are others, often down to humans, sometimes the consequence of good intentions. In the case of the 2018 Camp fire, the Pacific Gas & Electric company pleaded guilty to causing the blaze – one of its faulty power lines set off the spark. But the film also shows how reforesting efforts can contribute to fire spread – and that the public’s aversion to (and fear of) prescribed burns (the carefully controlled burning of brush and smaller trees to prevent wildfires spreading so rapidly) exacerbates the problem. Does Howard think that there has been too much focus on the climate crisis when it comes to forest fires?
“We need to take an organic approach. Once you say: ‘It’s not just this or that,’ it gets politicised: ‘Do you believe in climate change? Or do you not?’ But it’s about all of it: it’s about clearing away the brush and it’s about climate change,” he says.
Donald Trump appears for only a few seconds in the film, in news footage in which he mistakenly calls Paradise “Pleasure” (“Pleasure, yeah,” says Howard with a shake of his head). I tell Howard that Trump reminds me of Harold Hill, the titular character in the 1962 musical The Music Man, in which Howard starred at the age of eight. Hill is a con artist who strolls into towns, convinces people they are at risk of some nonexistent threat and lies that he knows how to save them.
“Ha! Well, Donald Trump is definitely that kind of self-promoter looking for the soundbite. So much of his presidency is based on noise and rhetoric,” he says.
How does he think Trump has handled the fire problem in California? “He has a complicated relationship with California. As a politician, he’s made a strategic decision to let his followers know that states that don’t agree with him aren’t going to have much success in currying his favour,” he says.
Conversations with Howard jump about in chronology, a reflection of the longevity and ubiquity of his career. Talking about filming the California fires leads to reminiscing about Backdraft, the 1991 firefighter drama he directed starring Kurt Russell and Billy Baldwin. Chat about long-running projects takes us to Arrested Development, for which Howard is the narrator. Does he agree with many of the fans and critics that the last two series did not work so well? “I thought many of the episodes worked really well, but they did lack that cohesive sense [of the first three series] and that’s because all the cast members had become such superstars that you could not get them all together [for filming]. But I thought it largely worked. I would say, sometimes I get in the booth and start my narrative and if there’s too much narration then I know this episode had got in a bit of a tangle and the story is a little too confusing to follow,” he says.
References to The Music Man take us to his childhood career, when he worked alongside greats such as Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr and Shirley Jones. He is the Zelig of Hollywood and no one has had, or probably will have, a career comparable to his: the highly successful child star who became a movie mogul.
Howard was born in Oklahoma to jobbing actors. He started acting pretty much from the moment he could talk, after his father noticed him copying the dialogue of the plays on which he was working. Why did his parents start him working so young? “It was kind of an accident. My father wandered into a casting office and he left a note saying: ‘My son’s a fine actor,’ and I ended up getting the part in a film shooting in Vienna. My parents were poor, struggling actors and they said: ‘We’re never going to be able to go to Europe, so let’s do this.’ Then, when the movie ended, we moved out to California where the TV shows were being made and my dad told his agent: ‘Ronnie can do this and he enjoys it,’ and one thing led to another,” he says.
Howard is a gifted storyteller. From a different narrator, this story could sound terrible: parents using their five-year-old to score a trip to Europe. But it is also clearly true that his parents were not cliched stage parents, given how stable he and his brother Clint – who also acted as a child and often appears in Howard’s films – turned out to be. “My parents were of that post-world war two generation that had the gumption to chase their dreams and, in doing so, changed the course of this family,” he says. In fact, they created an acting dynasty: two of Howard and Cheryl’s four children, Bryce and Paige, are successful actors.
Howard’s experience as a child actor has helped him to draw out some of the best performances on screen of other child actors. I ask how it felt to see Joaquin Phoenix win the Oscar for Joker when we all know he should have won it for 1989’s Parenthood, in which he played a heartbreakingly miserable adolescent.
“You know, I’d like to say I guided Leaf, as he was then, now Joaquin, through that performance. But he always had that vulnerability, that intelligence behind the eyes. So I didn’t have to do much of anything. You know, he’s very introverted, so I think he channels his internal emotions into his characters,” he says.
Howard’s sets are relaxed – partly, he says, because he learned what he liked and did not like from a working environment as a kid. He is also close friends with the two actors widely agreed to be the nicest guys in Hollywood: Henry Winkler, with whom he starred in Happy Days, and Tom Hanks, whom he has directed five times (in Splash, Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons and Inferno). So it must have been pretty weird for him when Winkler and Hanks fell out in 1989 while making the cop-and-dog comedy Turner & Hooch, resulting in Winkler being sacked as director.
“It was disappointing. I’m friends with them both and both men felt compelled to come to talk to me about it. It was just one of those unfortunate things where they really had a working style that did not fit. I know it was painful for both of them and I was able to lend an ear, if not offer any solutions,” he says.
Is it a bit awkward when he wants to invite them to his birthday party? “Oh no, they’ve both been invited to my birthday parties. It’s been a lot of years, two men with a lot of water under the bridge,” he says, shucking off the question. (This may be Howard spinning a story: when asked about the falling out in 2019, Winkler replied with an exaggerated poker face: “I got along great … with the dog.” He has since walked that back a little and said this year that there is no “feud”.)
After working with Howard so often, Hanks has developed a shtick for talkshows in which he does impressions of Howard, all nasal geekiness and jazz hands. Does Howard mind? “I think his imitations are terrible! But they’re sort of infectious. I now find, when I’m directing him, I direct Tom the way he portrays me on talkshows. But we have a lot of laughs about it,” he says.
Howard is such a delight to talk to, so full of good cheer, so certain about the goodness of others. But what is a nice guy like him doing chasing wildfires and making Hollywood deals?
“I grew up as a child actor, been working all my life, and I love it. But it does create a kind of bubble. So I look for projects that lead me to life experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise had – and on my own I’m an introverted, risk-averse individual. But, when there’s a story to be told, it gets me out of the house, talking to people, learning things. And then I just go,” he says, smiling.
Rebuilding Paradise opens in UK cinemas on 25 September