If there's one axiom about the kinds of people who make a life entertaining other people, it's this one from the musical Chicago: "None of us got enough love in our childhoods. And that's showbiz, kid." If you read biographies of singers and actors and dancers and comedians, what they all seem to have in common is some kind of chaos: absent fathers, drunken mothers, casual violence. And the stories get even worse if they involve children who perform, almost all of whom were compelled to do so by parents who ended up exploiting their gifts for their own narcissistic or greedy purposes.
And then there's The Boys, the joint memoir by Ron and Clint Howard.
In the 1960s, when they were kids, these brothers were both major TV stars—Ronny as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show and Clint as the friend of a bear on Gentle Ben. And to judge from their loving and evocative account of their very different lives, what distinguished their childhoods from almost every other performer they knew—and indeed, almost every other major child performer in Hollywood history—was their upbringing at the hands of loving, moral, self-sacrificing parents.
Rance and Jean Howard met in an acting class at the University of Oklahoma just after the end of World War II. Rance's ambition was to be a singing cowboy like Roy Rogers, but unfortunately, he couldn't sing. Jean had once tried to break into theater in New York as a teenager. Rance was struggling to build a career in Manhattan when he mentioned to a casting director that he had a little boy who loved to act. That week the casting director was looking for a child for a movie called The Journey, a Cold War drama starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Ronny got the part, and it turned out Rance had a gift for helping his tiny son keep focused on set and enjoy himself in the bargain. The family relocated to California so that Rance could try to make it in Hollywood, and he did okay, getting parts in TV westerns. But it turned out it was Ronny who was in demand.
"He never projected any sense of conflicted or wounded pride," Ron writes about his father. "It's possible that he felt it—he was an actor and he did have an ego. But on the other hand, he was also a farm boy who began to take on major chores at the age of five himself. The concept of a child juggling school and work wasn't novel to him. And I suspect he never wanted to be to me what his father had been to him: set in his ways, willfully blind to the possibilities that life held for his son."
The most telling and moving anecdote in the book is a story Ron hears during the filming of his final acting job—a 1986 TV movie called Back to Mayberry. Once again he was appearing with Andy Griffith, who told him that during the first break in the first reading of the first script of what would become The Andy Griffith Show, Rance asked Andy if he could have a moment. "In his humble opinion, Dad told Andy, Opie was coming off as too much of a smart-ass … written as a stock sitcom kid, the little wiseacre who comes across as smarter than his father. … ‘Wouldn't it be more interesting and unusual if Opie actually respected his father?'"
Ron goes on: "Now, Andy could very well have told Dad … to take his suggestions and shove 'em where the sun don't shine. But Andy liked Dad. They had a lot in common. … They were both, to use Mom's term, sophisticated hicks. … After their talk, Andy said, he directed his writers to model the Andy-Opie relationship more on the Rance-Ronny one."
Rance never told Ron about this, and it causes Ron to reflect: "Being the overseer and coach of a child actor was not Dad’s Plan A when he and Mom upped stakes. … But Dad had this magnificent ability to roll with the punches, to not let career disappointments or unforeseen life circumstances bring him down."
Rance and Jean did not exploit their sons financially and worked diligently to make sure they did not think themselves superior to other kids—so much so that both boys were bullied by their peers until Ron demonstrated athletic skill in high school just when he needed to.
Looking at Ron Howard's career—as he moves into young adulthood in the 1970s appearing first in the most financially successful movie ever made (American Graffiti) and then the era-defining sitcom that was a partial knockoff of that movie (Happy Days) before becoming an A-list director with Splash before his 30th birthday—you might then say Rance and Jean Howard affirmed the very notion that providing a child with a "solid base" is the root and core for professional and personal success later in life. Like his parents, Ron married very young, at 21, to the first girl he ever kissed—and is married to the same woman today, 46 years later, with four kids and several grandkids.
But then there's the story of Clint Howard, raised by the same parents with the same care and the same devotion—by his own account. And he could not resist the lure of drugs and alcohol, which became a problem for him at the age of 14 and would be a destructive element of his life for most of the following two decades. He is refreshingly candid and lays no blame on his folks or the peculiarities of his life circumstances. He was, he thinks, "preprogrammed" for addiction, and he spent a decade trying and failing to achieve sobriety before finally succeeding in 1991. "I'm happy with my lot as a character actor and with my place in the industry," he writes. "It isn't the exalted place where Ron lives, but it suits me just fine. I'm more like Dad; a working actor who waits for the phone to ring."
So The Boys offers no easy lessons about how to do the job of being a parent successfully. It does, however, offer a rather beautiful portrait of a genuinely good man. As Ron says, "he chose to be a great parent." As most Hollywood memoirs make excruciatingly clear, Rance Howard could have chosen otherwise. Most showbiz parents do. God bless him.
The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family
by Ron Howard and Clint Howard
William Morrow, 416 pp., $28.99
Published under: Book reviews