Growing up, Clint and Ron Howard never had to dream of stardom, because as children they’d already achieved it. Ron was just 6 when he was second-billed on “The Andy Griffith Show” and 8 when “The Music Man,” featuring him crooning “Gary, Indiana,” was released. Clint, his younger brother, was racking up roles on “Bonanza,” “Star Trek” and “Gentle Ben.”
Today they are both Hollywood veterans: Ron, 67, is an Academy Award-winning director (“A Beautiful Mind”) and co-founder of Imagine Entertainment, while Clint, 62, is a prolific character actor who’s shown up everywhere from “Seinfeld” to the “Austin Powers” movies.
But their lives were transformed by their time as child actors and the influence of their parents, Rance Howard and Jean Speegle Howard, who left Oklahoma to pursue their own ambitions of becoming actors — goals that were surpassed countless times over by the accomplishments of their two sons.
Ron and Clint Howard retrace this formative period in a new book, “The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family,” which will be released by William Morrow on Tuesday. In their alternating accounts, the Howards look back on their parents’ lives, their own upbringings and their success at staving off the darker aspects of their profession — at least until the realities of adolescence and adulthood reared their heads.
When the brothers spoke in a video interview last month, they talked about how writing “The Boys” had helped reconnect them to each other and to their family history.
“We’ve remained close, but we’re 3,000 miles apart and busy with our own families,” Ron Howard said, adding that the book “has everything to do with trying to put our lives into the context of who our parents were and what they gave us.”
“We wouldn’t have done it just to tell our story,” he added. “Once again, Mom and Dad pulled us together.”
Clint and Ron Howard talked about their early starts in show business, their earliest brushes with fame and how their parents helped them keep it together. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
It’s well-known that you’re the children of actors, but you’re not exactly Barrymore scions. What were your parents like? How did they find it in Hollywood?
RON HOWARD There’s no reason they should have succeeded. They didn’t know a thing about where they were going. They weren’t bohemians, they weren’t hippies, but they certainly were not conservatives. But they had this dream. They had to chase that horizon. And when they got to the horizon, they never really fit in. They were always a little cornpone. Hence the term that they applied to themselves, sophisticated hicks.
Were you ever made to feel that you were the breadwinners of your family?
CLINT HOWARD We didn’t take show business home with us. Both Dad and Mom worked their tails off. Mom was just a championship mom. She was on the P.T.A., she was a basketball mom, she was a baseball mom.
RON Dad was a kid-actor whisperer. But he said, I work with you boys because you’re my sons and I think you can learn something. I don’t think he believed this was our career for the rest of our lives. I don’t think he wanted to project that desire upon us.
You probably could have lived much larger on the money you were earning — why didn’t you?
RON We always lived on Dad’s salary. Somebody wanted to do an Opie line of clothing — I’m sure it would have meant hundreds of thousands of dollars at the end of the day. Mom and Dad turned that down for me because they didn’t want me wasting my time on that.
CLINT We were never short for anything. But we didn’t go on vacation. They didn’t buy new cars. Once a year, Ron and I got new school clothes. No one was chasing those intoxicating elements that modern life or show business can overwhelm you with.
As children, you were regularly crossing paths with venerated Hollywood artists. Clint, you got to meet Walt Disney when you were working on “The Jungle Book.” What was that like?
CLINT I was completely blown away when Walt walked in and said, “You’re doing a fine job, Clint.” I was truly a Disney baby. But I was a little irritated that I hadn’t worked in more Disney shows. [Laughter.]
RON Too bad you didn’t just say, “What took you so long? Walt, how many times have I been to Disneyland? Where’s the quid pro quo here, Walt?”
CLINT These people all seemed pretty friendly but they weren’t handing out the contracts. I never got on “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
Were either of you ever jealous of each other?
CLINT Our age difference was ideal. Being five years apart, I would look at my brother and go, there’s no chance that I can kick his butt. There were a few times we would get into a fight over baseball cards or a toy, and Dad would physically pull us apart. He would say, you boys are going to want to be good friends when you grow up. So why don’t you just knock it off?
RON He would say you have a chance to be good friends when you grow up.
There’s a period you describe in the book, where things were starting to wind down for Ron on “The Andy Griffith Show” and Clint was beginning to take off on “Gentle Ben.” Did that create tension between you?
RON I felt envy over what Clint was achieving. He was really popular at school, an excellent athlete, gregarious, smart, confident. Things that I don’t necessarily feel or exude. And I admired that about his persona. And I could see it in the work he was doing as well. He was a hell of a good child actor. The system is set up to make child performers feel like failures as they go through adolescence, that most vulnerable period, and I was beginning to experience that. Clint experienced a version of it later.
CLINT I worked on “Gentle Ben,” I was one of the coleads of a television series that was really popular for a short period of time. What really knocked my chin in the dirt was getting hired to work on a TV series called “The Cowboys.” The job ended up just sucking. It was a bad show. I was still making money but the work was poor. That, and then pimples. Dad and Mom warned us about this period of show business. We knew it was coming. There was just no way to really quantify how I was going to feel about it.
In an era and an industry where drugs were prevalent, Ron avoided them fastidiously while Clint had a long period of addiction and recovery. Why do you think you had such different experiences?
RON I was very introverted and my group of friends were likewise. I wasn’t really allowed to go to parties. If I was invited once or twice, I think my parents said no. But Clint was in a different group, much more socially mature. I also resented some of the restrictions that my parents put on me, and I was constantly imploring them to use a lighter hand with Clint.
CLINT I had just some sort of odd fascination with smoking weed. To the point where I literally practiced — I took some pencil shavings from my pencil sharpener and I twisted up a joint and tried to smoke it. Ron was the first, he was a little more nerdy. I was socially more outgoing. I ended up with a group of friends where it was no big deal. The problem is, once that train leaves the station, it can get going pretty darn fast. It’s a slippery slope and I was throwing down the Crisco.
Ron, did you ever feel guilty that you had somehow let your little brother down and hadn’t protected him from this?
RON Yes, I did feel that. When we knew Clint was smoking pot, I said, look, it’s not the horrible curse of the demon you fear it might be. But as Clint started to go further, by then I was married and beginning to have kids. I was concerned and I tried to offer support and go to meetings. I continued to work with Clint and cast him when it made sense. I remember telling him pretty late in his period of abuse — we used a lot of baseball terminology — I said, you’re a bona fide .300 hitter who’s batting about .217.
CLINT I have that letter. You wrote it on stationery from a New York hotel room.
RON I was thinking about you while I was on the road. But I was very proud of Clint for having navigated it. That achievement meant so much to Mom and Dad, probably more than anything any of us had achieved.
CLINT My recovery wasn’t easy-peasy, clean and snazzy. Ron had a lot to do with it and Dad had a lot to do with it, too. I struggled with Mom passing away, but I was very proud of the moment I could drop my nine-year chip in her coffin. I only wish it was a 10-year chip.
What’s your favorite performance that your brother has given?
RON Clint was tremendous in “The Red Pony.” But as I was doing research for this, I had forgotten that we had both been on “The Danny Kaye Show,” and there was this sketch where I was supposed to be this kid James Bond character and Clint was my boss. He nailed that scene. When I watched it, I said, my God, look how present he is. He really is playing a 50-year-old, hard-bitten guy, and I buy it.
CLINT He talks about me being in “The Red Pony,” but I never got a chance to do what he did in “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” There’s a scene in that movie where he has this panic attack that turns into a tantrum, and he just was so believable. I’m going, the guy’s got chops. Also, as a young man, he did a movie, “Act of Love.” That was weighty material and he nailed it.
RON That was a euthanasia story, based on a real event, where a younger brother had been beseeched by the other to end it after a horrible accident. There’s a courtroom scene where he’s talking about how much he loves his brother and Clint was going through a difficult time during this period. It was one of the most personal moments I ever generated onscreen, because I was channeling my own sense of love and despair for what Clint was going through. The tears and the emotions were real — they came from my own gut.