Ron Howard doesn't remember a time when he wasn't famous. At 5, he was Opie, the adorable kid on "The Andy Griffith Show." At 20, he became Richie Cunningham, the quintessential '50s teen, on "Happy Days."
For 17 out of 20 years, when other kids were going to school and only dreaming of being famous, Howard was a fixture in American life. He even learned to write his name by signing autographs.
Later, when he moved from acting to directing and made box-office hits like "Splash," "Cocoon," "Parenthood" and "Apollo 13," Howard remained a celebrity. Next to Jodie Foster, he's probably spent a greater chunk of his life in the public eye than any actor alive.
So it's hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Howard to bring "EDtv" to the screen. An exuberant look at fame, privacy and celebrity worship, "EDtv" stars Matthew McConaughey as Ed Pekurny, an average Joe who lives in San Francisco, works as a North Beach video-store clerk and finds himself the subject of a cable TV show that's on all the time.
At first, Ed's flattered by the offer from True TV, a cable network that's getting clobbered in the ratings by the Gardening Channel and desperately needs a hit. But when "EDtv" becomes a phenomenon rivaling Beanie Babies and the Spice Girls, Ed comes to hate the nonstop video cameras and the circus existence that destroys his privacy.
The movie, which opens Friday at Bay Area theaters, is similar to "The Truman Show." But unlike that film, which had Jim Carrey playing the unknowing subject of a continuously running hit TV show, "EDtv" is about someone who chooses to be on TV. It's also different in tone, Howard says: " 'The Truman Show' was much more a fantasy, and this is very much a contemporary comedy."
Last April, Howard, his crew and the actors spent several weeks shooting exteriors in San Francisco, and converted a Grant Avenue storefront into the video store where McConaughey's character works. During a day when three of Howard's four children were playing extras in a North Beach street scene, Howard took a break to talk about the ways in which Ed's experience intersects with his own. "My circumstance is totally different," the 45-year-old filmmaker said, "because I'm not aware of a time when I wasn't under some public scrutiny, either enjoying or suffering some form of celebrity."
A more accurate parallel, Howard argues, could be drawn to McConaughey, who became an overnight star with the 1996 film "A Time to Kill," or to his co-stars Woody Harrelson, who plays Ed's brother Ray; Jenna Elfman (TV's "Dharma and Greg"), who plays his girlfriend; and Ellen DeGeneres, who's cast as an ambitious True TV program director.
"They really understand the mercurial rise to celebrity in a way I kind of know intellectually," Howard said.
But didn't Howard's fame also occur overnight when "The Andy Griffith Show" debuted on Oct. 3, 1960, with freckle- faced "Ronny Howard" playing Griffith's son? "Yes," he answers, but since he was so young at the time, "I was kind of oblivious."
Unlike some celebrities, whose charm disappears off camera and whose need for privacy takes the form of aloofness, Howard is accessible and easy to be with. With his trademark baseball cap, familiar grin and an unpretentious manner that looks like a direct extension of his TV roles, Howard instantly seems like an old friend.
The whole world, it appears, feels that way about him. One afternoon on the "EDtv" location, a jogger passed twice through the cameras, cables, crew and extras clogging the corner of Grant and Vallejo. It wasn't McConaughey the jogger was thrilled to see, but the director.
"Where's that Opie Taylor!" the man bellowed. "I used to bounce him on my knee!"
Howard takes this sort of thing in stride. According to McConaughey, this stuff happens all the time: "Wherever you go with him people say, 'Hey, there's Ron Howard!' or 'There's Opie.' He gets that 50 times more than I do."
During a pause between takes, the Texas-born McConaughey, 29, sat on a canvas- backed chair and lavished praise on Howard, calling him "the most inquisitive director I ever worked with, and a great listener."
Finding anyone with unkind words about Howard is next to impossible. "I've never seen anyone so successful be so humble," says Sally Kirkland, who plays McConaughey's mother in "EDtv." When Henry Winkler won a Golden Globe years ago for playing Fonzie on "Happy Days," he said, "My success on this show is in direct proportion to the generosity of Ron Howard."
Howard's a gentleman, but there's more than meets the eye. "He has that 'Aw shucks, geez, I'm just Ron' kind of deal," says Brian Grazer, Howard's closest friend and the producer of most of his films. "But I know how smart he is. He's profoundly talented... enormously competitive and very tough. He's very open-minded, but when he decides something it's pretty hard to change him."
He's also a devoted dad and husband. Married 24 years, Howard and his wife, Cheryl, live in New England with their three teenage daughters and 12-year-old son. Howard frequently moves all of them to his film locations to keep the family intact.
Howard says his celebrity is "both wonderful and frustrating" for his kids, especially for his son, Reed. "He gets a little tired of being referred to as 'Little Opie.' We talk about it from time to time and he understands.
"I'm usually quick to correct people when they offer that well-meaning observation. They say, 'Is this Little Opie?' and I say, 'No, this is Reed Howard.' Then they say, 'He looks just like you did at that age' and I say, 'Well, I think he looks a lot better, thank God.' "
Nearly a year after the "EDtv" shoot, Howard returned to San Francisco to promote the film, and again discussed the vagaries and pitfalls of celebrity the way they're spoofed in "EDtv" and the way they've made an inescapable dent in his life.
As a kid, Howard always worked and loved it. For eight years of "The Andy Griffith Show," he says, "I used to weep at the end of every season because I would miss everybody and I would miss going to the set." He also did movies, including "The Music Man."
As a teenager, he played Henry Fonda's son on the short-lived series "The Smith Family" (1971-72) and credits Fonda with being the first adult to encourage his directing ambitions.
Howard also continued to act in films, including George Lucas' hugely popular "American Graffiti" in 1973. The next year he played a similar part on TV, the wholesome teenager Richie on "Happy Days." That series ran through 1984, but Howard left in 1980 to focus on directing. Looking back, Howard credits his mother, a former actress, and his father, actor Rance Howard, with keeping his childhood success in perspective. (His older brother, Clint, had a part in the TV show "Gentle Ben" and continues to act in Howard's films.)
"(My parents) were always stressing the idea that while the public responded to somebody who was in television or movies in a particular way with curiosity, adulation or even hostility it was important to understand that people in the business knew it was work. It was a job."
Having started so early, Howard says he doesn't know what he missed by being a child actor.
"My wife, who has a degree in psychology, occasionally will say: 'You have no idea who you would be if you were "normal." You have no idea who you'd be if you weren't always aware of the fact that people were recognizing you, judging you and comparing you with what they saw on television.' And she's right. I don't have any idea."
The remarkable thing about Howard is the way he can look back without bitterness or regret almost as if he were discussing a character in one of his films. He won't complain about his life and by the same token he doesn't want "EDtv" seen as a "diatribe" on the perils of media exposure.
"The thing I hope the movie is not is a 'poor me' account of celebrity," Howard says. "That sort of 'It might look good but believe me it's terrible' kind of thing. I can't make a movie that says that because it's not true."
Perhaps, but Howard's son has apparently seen enough of his dad's profession to know he doesn't want any part of it.
"We were driving along about a year ago and Reed suddenly got very serious," Howard says. "He said, 'Dad, I need to tell you something. I've been thinking and I'm not going to be able to go into the family business.'
"I said, 'Well, God bless you. Find something that you like to do."
Ron Howard Looks Back With Affection At Earlier Films
One of Hollywood's most successful filmmakers, Ron Howard has directed 13 movies, starting with the low-budget "Grand Theft Auto" when he was 23. His newest, "EDtv," is his first comedy since "Parenthood" in 1989.
Below, Howard comments on some of his films and imagines how he might, given another chance, improve them.
"Night Shift" (1982): "It's found a loyal following like Mel Brooks' 'The Producers.' People who really love pure comedy have good things to say about it, so my recollection of it is a good one."
"Splash" (1984): "I saw part of it recently and I really was happy with it. Visually it was pretty simple, but man, it had a wonderful tempo. (Tom) Hanks was good, Daryl (Hannah) was quite good, John Candy was funny. Very efficient storytelling."
"Gung Ho" (1986): "I had so much fun making it that it's kind of a pet of mine. It was so-so at the box office, and it was taken to task because it was made right at the height of the American fear of Japan... and some reviewers thought we were bashing the Japanese."
"Willow" (1988): "I wouldn't mind another crack at it. I'd deal with the villains much differently, find a way to be more dimensional and unexpected. It also gets a little harsh in some of the battle stuff. It needs to be a little more swashbuckle and a little less gritty combat."
"Backdraft" (1991): "I'm very happy with what Kurt (Russell) did with the brother story... but for me the story line doesn't hold true. A rookie fireman is not going to get involved solving a crime. It just doesn't make any sense."
"Far and Away" (1992): "That's the one time I've been really blindsided, mostly by critics. It's not a traditional studio movie and not the way you're used to seeing Tom Cruise. The marketing campaign was a problem it was difficult to communicate what it would be."
"Ransom" (1996): "It was definitely new territory for me. I found myself... manipulating people to be frightened or to feel upset. I wouldn't say that I wouldn't do another thriller, but I was happy to be back in comedy with my next movie."
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle