Actor Rance Howard on Acting, Parenting and Staying Grounded
Rance Howard at 83 — 64-Year Veteran Character Actor, Father of Actors Ron and Clint — Talks Candidly About Keeping His Sons Grounded and Staying Upbeat in an Unpredictable Business
Veteran character actor Rance Howard is a happy man. Although he’s been to hundreds of auditions in his 64-year acting career and never quite achieved the superstardom status of his peers – Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne to name a few – he doesn’t look back with bitterness or resentment. He feels blessed.
The actor, who played Henry Boomhauer for two seasons in the television series “Gentle Ben” (1967-1969), isn’t exactly a household name but his face is one you’ve seen thousands of times having acted in almost 200 films and various television shows: “Bat Masterson,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “That Girl,” “The Virginian,” “Coach,” “Married…with Children,” “Ghost Whisper,” “ER “… and the list just goes on and on and on.
Howard’s sons — Ron, who played Opie Taylor on “The Andy Griffith Show” for eight years and Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days” for six seasons; and Clint, who played Mark Wedloe on “Gentle Ben” for two seasons — have had their share of good fortune as child actors but when their acting careers took a left turn (Ron is now a successful Hollywood director and Clint is happy doing character roles), dad remained – as always – upbeat and philosophical.
Howard talks candidly about his career, what his early goals were (did he want to be a superstar?) and how he kept his wits about him as a character actor in an unstable, fickle business; what it was like raising two actor sons who had different levels of success in the business; what happened at home when the cameras weren’t rolling and what it was like for him working with the likes of Henry Fonda and Paul Newman.
You’ve been an actor for 64 years. That’s incredible. How early in your childhood did you know you wanted to be an actor?
Very early, when I was in the 7th grade. At that point I worked in a little play in a one-room schoolhouse where I was attending school and the bug bit me. My career started in 1948 when I went to New York and auditioned and was able to get a job in a children’s touring company doing children’s theater. That was my initiation to professional theater and when my career really started.
What was the first role that helped you get started either in film or in television?
One of the most exciting things that ever happened to me was when I auditioned and got in the touring company of a play called “Mister Roberts” with Henry Fonda. I played a character named Lindstrom. We toured about a year and a half hitting the major cities in the U.S. That was really, really exciting because it boosted my career even though I had been working for almost a year in children’s theater. This was huge step up. I got that role in 1950. That was really the thing that cemented my career and my life for the course I had charted.
Was Henry Fonda nice to you?
Oh, he was wonderful. We had a really good and interesting relationship on that tour. He loved to improvise little scenes just kind of off the cuff — like for instance, checking into a hotel. If I would be at the register, he would come up and start an argument saying he was really there first. And I would reply to that and we would have a pretty good little exchange going and we fooled a lot of people. (Laughs)
Are there any big stars that surprised you over the years?
While working on “Cool Hand Luke” with Paul Newman, I started out seeing him in the morning and saying, “Good morning, Mr. Newman.” He never acknowledged my greeting. In the evening I would say, “Good night, Mr. Newman.” At the very most he would give me a bit of a nod. I continued that for two or three days until finally he said to me, “I don’t fraternize.”
What were your early goals in your career as an actor? Did you want to be a superstar like Cary Grant or Rock Hudson or Humphrey Bogart?
That’s a really interesting question. When I initially started in drama school at the University of Oklahoma, I thought I would be a western singing cowboy like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry or Tex Ritter. And I had never even heard of New York or Broadway or stage productions that would run for two or three or four years. That was all new to me so actually the University of Oklahoma really introduced me to the stage and to theater so I became so enamored of the theater that I totally lost the idea of being a singing cowboy and wanted to really be a serious actor … but to answer your question, I never really had a projected goal in my mind. And now — I’ve been a professional actor for 64 years — looking back, I think if you’d have asked me that question 64 years ago, I would have thought by this time in my career in my life I would have been as big as Spencer Tracey, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Henry Fonda … the big ones. I just assumed that’s where I would go. Now, looking back and knowing now how tough the business is, I am so happy and gratified to have been able to do what I really love and even though I haven’t achieved the height that I would have thought I might, I wouldn’t change a thing. I love this business, and it’s been so good to me. It’s been a blessing to have been able to have that intent of being an actor, just surviving as an actor all my life and to be able to have done it. It’s just so gratifying.
Your oldest son Ron was a child actor also. When did you decide to get Ron into acting and was it easy to talk him into wanting to act when he was like five years old?
My late wife Jean was an actress. We started out in the business together. We had no intention of bringing Ron into the business. He sort of fell in. When the opportunity came up for him to play this part in a movie called “The Journey” with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, we didn’t know if we wanted him to do this because having been in the business about six years ourselves already, we knew the heartaches and the downfalls and the traps for adults, which are worse for children. So we talked about it for a long time before we decided, OK, we’ll do it. The director of the film was offering me a small part as a Russian soldier. They took the three of us over to Vienna Austria to be in this movie. I think Ron turned four just before we left for Vienna, Austria and he was just an absolute natural. Acting for him was like playtime. So after we finished “The Journey” and returned to New York we thought: we saved his money, it was a good start for his college education and maybe this is not a bad thing. We didn’t see anything harmful or detrimental in any way.
He was so precious as Opie in “The Andy Griffith Show.” You must have been around on the set a lot on TAGS.
I was there from the beginning from the time they did the pilot which was a spinoff of “The Danny Thomas Show.” I had been working in the business. At that point I had been in the Air Force in Special Services directing plays and variety shows so I had a real sense, if you will, of what was needed and what was required in helping Ron learn his dialog and working with him more of: what is the idea of this, what are you trying to say, what are you trying to express, more than: this is your dialog, these are your words and you have to learn them and say them. Ron was terrific. He had a great sense of drama and of timing and how to use emotion in a scene.
How did Ron get along with the cast at such a young age?
He won Andy’s heart and Don Knotts and the producer Aaron Ruben and the executive producer Sheldon Leonard. They loved Ron and he loved them in return … and Frances Bavier who played Aunt Bee. They were like his second family so for eight years he was very close to them. Going to work with him was a joy. There was no having to push him or prod him or coerce him into working. He looked forward to it … the very same way with Clint.
Did you become friends with Andy?
Oh, yes. Andy and I became very good friends.
How did you feel about his passing?
It was really a sad day when I heard that. I talked with Andy, I knew he was failing. It wasn’t really a great surprise. We used to talk on the phone, and I miss not having Andy around, being able to call him and say, “Hey Andy, how’s the weather down there.”
You were in several episodes of “Gentle Ben” which starred your son Clint. How was it working with him on set and then going home and telling him to clean his room?
(Laughs) . Working with Clint was a real joy. Clint and I were living in an apartment hotel in Miami, Florida. We had maid service. I functioned as his father, mother, dialogue coach, playmate, chauffeur, cook, and best buddy. He was eight years old. We worked a five day schedule on the series. His role, Mark, was very physically and mentally demanding. He was also required to attend school with the studio teacher three hours a day. He had a big responsibility, learning dialogue, staying in good physical condition with a regular exercise regimen. What did he do for fun and relaxation? He was on a Little League Baseball team. When we returned home from a day on the set, the responsibilities he was carrying made household chores seem trivial so we didn’t dwell much on room cleaning.
Your sons seem like such gentlemen as adults. Acting is a very hard profession, very competitive; the ups and downs are tough. How did you keep your boys grounded when they were growing up?
That’s a very good question. I think my late wife, their mother Jean, and I … we were both like depression babies. Our parents really felt the depression and it had really rubbed off on Jean and I so we were both really frugal people.
We had a dream, and so actually I think to answer your question, when both boys started acting, they became stars. I was a character actor. I would do a “Death Valley Days” here and a “Lone Ranger” there but they were way out earning me. So we could have taken their money and really have lived it up. We could have gone to Beverly Hills or wherever we wanted to and probably leased a mansion to house our family. We chose not to do that. We chose not to live on what the boys could afford, but what I could afford. We drove the kind of car that I could afford. The boys didn’t have a lot of money … maybe a quarter a week allowance. I tried to get them to do really honest work like mowing the lawn, taking out trash, cleaning up things. Jean and I both strived to get them to do that so they would appreciate sweat on the brow.
What’s the downside for child actors in general?
I think the first thing that happens is that the parents’ heads swells up. And then the child suddenly becomes the family support. His earning is supporting the family and this is very tragic because the child suddenly realizes this and has the responsibility of going to work and doing that stuff and supporting the family because the family has moved into strata that is really above them. We kept our family to the living standard that I could afford. I think that had a lot to do with their level-headed attitude and their work ethic. As children, they were never treated as stars.
Show business can be very competitive. Did you feel there was any competition with the boys in any way?
The boys are five years apart. They were never really competitive with each other. Ron was the big brother and Clint was the little brother. They had a great relationship. They still have a great relationship.
Ron of course played Opie and went on to play Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days.
Clint starred on “Gentle Ben” but then his acting career slowed down somewhat. Was that hard for him?
I think it was to some extent. That’s a cruel thing that happens to kids in Hollywood. One day — maybe for several years they’ve been stars and then suddenly the series ends, they hit the awkward age, their teens – 15, 16, 17 – and production companies don’t want to hire a 15- or 16-year-old because that age range of child falls under child labor laws and they can only be on the set for nine hours and work for six hours and have to have three house of schools, so production companies find an 18-year-old who can look 15 and they use the 18-year-old so they solve all the problems that children cause a production company in a film or television series. After Gentle Ben ended, Clint worked on films and guest-starred on television. He continued to work almost throughout his teen years but to really answer your question, it becomes a problem for children when they have been working and getting kind of the star treatment, making a lot of money, getting a lot of publicity and suddenly it all dries up and there is nothing. That’s kind of a tough thing.
How did Clint process that when the acting gigs slowed down for him? Clint did very well. And the reason he did very well is that he was able to do roles in films and television. Clint was doing an exciting movie of the week and a film here and a television show here so Clint, in his growing up, was really not faced with being totally unwanted or not being able to get work. He continued to get work.
Did your sons ever get picked on much when they were growing up because they were child actors? If so, how did you and your wife handle that?
Jean and I did not try to handle the boys’ actions and reactions with their peers. If either of them came to us with a problem, we would explain that being in the public eye can cause jealousy and the best thing was to be open and friendly, try to understand and never become fearful. One time at an out of town basketball game when Ron had been fouled and was preparing to make a free throw, the crowd started chanting, “Opie!, Opie, Opie!!!” There referee motioned for Ron to wait. After awhile he blew his whistle, gesturing for the crowd to stop. They did. Ron stepped up to the line and made both shots.
Ron has been a very successful director and I love it that he has included you and his brother in several of his films. Was that easy or hard to take direction from your son?
Oh, it was easy. To begin with, he is a very good director. He is excellent. An actor is always looking for a good director. Ron is such a good communicator. He can explain to the actors what he’s looking for in the scene. He is just a dream director to work with. Some people may feel differently, but I don’t have any trouble saying to myself, OK Ron is a director. He’s your son and offstage or at home or on the basketball court you don’t have to take his direction, but on the set he’s the director and whatever he says goes.
Most people can’t go to work with their grown children and watch them do their job, but you were in four of my favorite Ron Howard films: “Cocoon,” “Parenthood,” “Apollo 13″ and” A Beautiful Mind.” When you were in those movies and he was directing them, did you always agree with his vision or did you offer him advice?
If it was anything that pertained to me, I might question him or say what do you think about this or how about this? But I didn’t offer suggestions unless they were solicited. If Ron came to me and said, “Hey dad, what do you think about this?” and I would tell him but I didn’t stand on the set and offer suggestions.
Your granddaughter – Ron’s daughter Bryce Dallas Howard – played Hilly Holbrook in “The Help.” I was blown away by her performance. She’s a third generation “Howard” actor. How proud were you of her in that film?
Very! I have always been proud of Bryce. She is such a hard worker. From the time she was probably in junior high school or high school, she knew that’s what she wanted to do so she took voice lessons and she took dance lessons and she made an effort to get in any play that was going on in school. She’s like a really good carpenter or a good plumber or a good electrician who really knows their trade and can do anything you need, anything you want. A good carpenter can build it. She is that kind of an actress.
Acting can be a heartbreaking career because it doesn’t always go well for a long period of time. Were you nervous about your granddaughter becoming an actress because of the ups and downs of the business or did you encourage it?
I didn’t necessarily encourage it but I didn’t discourage it. This is what she wanted to do so I wouldn’t try to talk her out of it. To give you an example, I remember at NYU she was doing a play called “Hamletmachine.” In this play it was necessary – at one point during the play for about 10 or 15 minutes – everyone in the cast was totally nude on stage. So I remember Bryce’s mother, Cheryl, almost putting her foot down and saying no you can’t do that. I remember saying to Cheryl, “This is college. This is a learning process. Let her do that. If she can do that it will get rid of all inhibitions and she will never be inhibited by anything she has to do on the stage or in film.” So Cheryl went along with that. And Bryce did it. I went to see it, and there she is, an 18, 19-year-old girl stark naked. (Laughs)
What are you doing now? Are you still acting?
Yes. I just finished a nice little cameo role on the film “The Lone Ranger.” Johnny Depp plays Tonto and Army Hammer plays the Lone Ranger. It’s going to be great entertainment.
Do you still have to audition for parts after all these years?
Yes, as a matter of fact I did audition for that part … that doesn’t bother me. I really enjoy the whole process. I like auditions because it is an opportunity to act. I don’t look at it like I’m going in and will be judged and tested. I look at it like: this is an opportunity to perform. I look forward to auditions. I don’t always get the part, but I usually do. When I give a really good audition, I walk away saying: that was really a good audition, I really enjoyed that. I don’t care if I get the part or not. I feel like I’ve already done it.
You’ve acted in so many TV shows: “That Girl,”” Bonanza,” “The Waltons,” “Happy Days,” “Little House on the Prairie,” “Laverne and Shirley, “Seinfeld” … the list goes on forever. Did you have to audition for all of those parts?
Most of them I did. You mentioned “Seinfeld”. I specifically remember auditioning for “Seinfeld.” I did two “Seinfelds.” I played a blind man one time and I played a farmer another time who had a daughter. So I remember when I auditioned for the farmer, I had a really ratty, raggedy old overalls and a shirt that belonged to my dad and some old farmers shoes and a beat-up straw hat, and I went in to audition. I auditioned for Larry David – who was a hands-on producer – and I was auditioning with Jerry Seinfeld [in front of Larry David]. I did the scene and Jerry Seinfeld looked at Larry David and said, ‘Now that’s commitment.’ (Laughs) When I do an audition, I really prepare for it. I really get up for it. I totally enjoy it.
When you were auditioning with Jerry Seinfeld, did Jerry know you are Ron Howard’s father?
If he knew it, he just had to somehow know it on his own because I never walk into an audition and say, ‘Hi, I’m Ron Howard’s dad.’ I never play the Ron Howard card. I don’t trade on his name at all.
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