Ron and Clint Howard discuss their childhood memoir The Boys and the hardest story to write
The famous brothers — Ron as a child actor and now renowned director and producer, Clint as a prolific character actor — got their start in Hollywood early. Ron rose to fame with projects such as The Music Man and his recurring role as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, while younger brother Clint followed in his footsteps on shows like Gentle Ben.
But through it all, the two managed to weather the pitfalls and challenges that come with being a child star and go on to the rare achievement of Hollywood longevity. They credit their enduring success to their parents, Rance and Jean, but for the first time, their new memoir The Boys gives audiences unprecedented insight into what it was like growing up Howard.
Ron and Clint co-wrote the book, alternating their perspectives and taking readers inside their upbringing, as guided by their parents, who acted as both managers and mentors. It's a unique look at how one family maintained a sense of normalcy in the midst of a childhood that could've been anything but.
Before the memoir hits shelves Oct. 12, we called up the brothers to talk about why they wanted to put their childhood into a book, what the hardest story to write was, and what their beloved late parents would think of it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Because you both grew up so much in the public eye, you've talked about your upbringing a lot. What made you decide you wanted to write a book about it?
RON HOWARD: There were a few things. I had thought about it, and I'd been asked about it. I'd even talked to my friend Tom Hanks about it, he said, "Sure you've had a fascinating life, but if you ever do write about it, I would focus on your childhood." That's because whenever we're sitting around on the set, those are the stories he wanted to hear about. He asked the same question so many people have asked me all my life, which is, "What was it like to grow up on television?" But what really pulled us together was the opportunity to use our past and use those anecdotes that look backwards and all the humor and the nostalgia of that to tell a family story about our very unique parents, and the very unique way in which they helped us navigate — to answer the Tom Hanks question — what was it like growing up on television. It was all about being Rance and Jean Howard's kids. And that compelled us to tell the story, especially after Dad passed.
Why did it make sense for you to write it together?
CLINT HOWARD: Initially, and this goes years back, we were sort of riding Dad to write a book about his experiences raising us in the business. He didn't want to do it, although Ron cajoled Dad into doing these long email stories about the very early days of the Howard family before Ron and I came around. Ron, why don't you talk about using what Dad wrote as sort of a springboard?
RON: Once we got serious about it, we wanted to dig deeper into the origin story of our family, certainly as it related to being a Hollywood family. I went back to the reminiscences that Dad had written, and there was so much detail there. It became a jumping-off place for us to tell the story of not just what it was like to be on The Andy Griffith Show or Gentle Ben, but what was it like to be a part of a family that was, in its own way, an immigrant family. Their roots did not suggest that they should succeed in Hollywood, and yet miraculously they did. There is logic there. Along these lines, [the book] looks at it from a parental perspective. There are a series of really great decisions they made and mistakes they avoided at every pivotal fork in the road. Their common sense, their Midwestern zen, their logic and principles and morals led them to make really strong decisions on their behalf, and on ours as well.
What was your writing process like? How much were you swapping sections and revising each other's work or trying to remember things together?
CLINT: Especially in the formation of our book, we started with an outline. We also have a wonderful collaborator named David Kamp. Once Ron and I really worked on how are we going to tell this story and it's a matter of two creative people going back and forth, with the help of David Kamp we established a frame on how we were going to do it. Then it was just left to I was going to write my sections and Ron was going to write his. From the very early drafts, Ron's pages [were] page-turning. I loved hearing about The Music Man. And I loved hearing about even the American Graffiti stories. Because Ron and I never talked shop as kids. We never sat around and discussed the day's work. We talked about baseball, we talked about school.
RON: The real test was writing the book presentation. It was very fluid, and it was also immediately, clearly cathartic. I found it emotional. I found it funny. I can also see that our voices are different enough that there's an entertainment value there. Clint's funny, and the way he phrases and thinks, it's unique. That's reflected in the sections that he writes. I always felt like the back-and-forth was going to be natural, in terms of being brothers who see things a little bit differently at times.
You are that rare family in Hollywood that has really remained so together and leaned on each other and seems to have not allowed fame to disrupt the family unit. That continues here with the way you write of your mom and dad, and Ron's daughter Bryce writing the intro. Why do you think you've managed to perpetuate that after all these years?
CLINT: The beautiful foundation that Mom and Dad that set down. I didn't go to college or anything like that. I went to the same public schools that Ron went to. I personally owe it all to the nurturing and the guidance that Mom and Dad gave me. I miss them both terribly. Mom passed away several years ago, and Dad, it was more recently. Every day I'll think about what the old man would say about something. What would Pop think? I'm always talking to my wife about Dad. As far as I'm concerned, Dad is alive and well in my household.
RON: We wanted to look back and savor the unique experiences of working on these various shows and what we learned, which was a lot. That's in many ways why our parents actually encouraged it. I don't think it was about being career film and television people. They felt this was an opportunity to learn how to excel at something, how to earn people's respect, and they saw that we had the capacity and the aptitude to do it. There's a lesson in that. There are a lot of parental lessons buried within this story, these object lessons of how to navigate unusual circumstances by using common sense and that ever abiding sense of a quality of love. But it really is also a survival story, because this is a business which sets young artists and performer up to fail. It just does. It's just built into the nature of it. My parents recognized that, they believed they could help us navigate it, and for the most part they really did.
The book describes how your father came at you with a method approach from your earliest days rather than leaning into an extreme naturalism or the more showy tricks of a child actor. For both of you, how much do you think that shaped your careers and the way you've approached all of your work since?
RON: It affects everything. To this day it is the foundation from which I built my sensibility, and now as a director, my aesthetic. Whatever the genre, whether it's kids fantasy or sci-fi or real-life problems. I'm always trying to go build from a place of truth and honesty, and that all came from the simple approach that Dad took, which was to not turn us into trained performers with a bag of tricks but to instead understand the emotional logic of a scene, and trust that conveying that was going to be relatable and could be entertaining. It really has been the foundation of my career all these decades now as a director and a producer.
What do you feel you each learned most about the other from writing this together?
RON: I realized how funny Clint is, how smart and witty he is, what a good writer he is. But I also did not recognize how competitive he had actually been. Not with me, but with the world around him, with the business. I was surprised by some of the things that had really disappointed him in his late childhood and early teens. It really surprised me, and I thought it was great of Clint to share those feelings the way he did.
CLINT: I had a wonderful position watching Ron mature from being a kid on television to being a hall-of-fame storyteller and filmmaker. It wasn't so much in writing the book, but writing the book brought it all back to mind. Ron, he worked so hard. And he kept his eyes focused on his goals so well. That's one thing about Ron: Ron may not have been the smartest guy in school, he may not have been the wittiest guy in school, but I'll tell you what, he stayed on a problem and it got solved. He's done that his entire life, and I so admire that.
Was there one story, maybe different ones for both, that scared you a bit to include or was difficult to find the right words for?
CLINT: As we were writing, it was so tilted toward Dad. Dad was the one that was our mentor and our guide acting-wise, but the fact is, as we were writing it, we realized how important Mom was. A lot of our notes, going back and forth while we were writing the book, were, "Hey, we got to be more fair to Mom." We needed to bring out the beautiful thing that she did. For instance, when Dad and I were gone down in Florida doing Gentle Ben, Mom took it upon herself to set up the Christmas lights even bigger and better than ever. Ron witnessed that. Ron witnessed how much mom busted her butt to get Christmas right, so when her husband and her young son came home, they could enjoy Christmas.
RON: There were a few things that were sort of difficult to revisit. Some of the unsettled feelings that I had around Happy Days were things that I talked about a little bit. But I've never delved into it in the way that I did in the book. I also recognize how emotional it was then and how vitally important it was to me then. Yet now putting it into perspective, I recognize that it was just part of my growth. It was an aspect of the real world that was good and healthy for me to face because it ultimately motivated me to go ahead and pursue my big dream, which was to be a filmmaker. But revisiting that I found uncomfortable. Also admitting that as Clint got older and began experimenting with drugs and alcohol and having some struggles there that I could recognize that I had made some poor choices in terms of recognizing what my brother needed from me and what my parents needed to hear from me that I had fallen short on or misjudged. It was painful to put that into writing, but important.
For both of you, your relationships with the work and how that shaped people's perceptions of you have evolved over the years, but did you find writing this helped you rethink or crystallize any of that in new ways for you?
RON: I have always looked forward and leaned into the idea that my professional goals, my personal goals were achievable, and I have achieved many of them. But when I look back, I recognize it was not a straight line. There's no way that that it was a foregone conclusion that I would travel from those childhood experiences both professional and personal and grow into the filmmaker that I've become, the professional who I've become, and that transition into the life and career that I've had would be something that could be actualized. So in many ways I realized how many zigs and zags and crossroads there actually were that I had either forgotten about or didn't really identify at the time how pivotal those moments might have been.
CLINT: I think differently than Ron on this, and partially it is our different career trajectories. I was a character actor from an early age. I was always zig-zagging. I was always doing a different character, doing some kind of odd thing, being an alien in Star Trek and predicting the end of the world in Night Gallery, playing with a bear. I was always zigging and zagging. But one thing — and this is something that I hope I've had it over the years — but writing the book really helped me, and that was having an attitude of gratitude. It starts with putting Mom and Dad down on paper, and seeing what kind of Herculean job they did in their own wise way. It wasn't like they were ham-fisted about it. Mom and Dad had a unique way of operating. I'm so grateful to be their son, and I just have a tremendous amount of gratitude being Ron's little brother. It's such a beautiful cool place to be, to be Ron Howard's brother. I get that question a lot as an adult. People think that there's envy or there's conflict, and there really isn't.
RON: I also found it very interesting to recognize that I grew up understanding on a granular, elemental level, innately, popular entertainment, and what it means to tell a story for a large audience. Later in my life, as I have gotten more involved in documentaries and scripted versions of true stories, I really learned and became excited about narrowing that and understanding the power of those details and more sophisticated relationships and complexity. But it was interesting to look back, and see that of course there's this foundation that was built for me, which is an understanding of the way a story can speak to a lot of people all at once.
When you have kids on a set when you're doing a project, do you try to impart any of the wisdom or feeling of the experiences you had back then to them?
RON: When I'm directing a child actor, I try to mimic what my father was able to create for us, which was an environment where a child can both perform and achieve, but also learn and grow as a person. And as an artist. I just had an experience where I directed 12 kids for a movie, and I had 12 boys from age 14 down to 9 who had never acted before. What I tried to do in that situation is imbue them with a sense of the story and understanding of the moments and needs of a production, but also how to bring themselves, their truth, their honesty to their role. On the last day of shooting, it was very emotional for all of us, because I felt like they had grown a lot, and I was proud of them and happy to have witnessed it.
What do you think your parents would think of the book?
CLINT: They'd love it.
RON: Even a story they might find a little embarrassing, they would say, "Go for it," because they were proud of themselves. They knew what they had accomplished. Maybe it wasn't the superstardom Dad dreamed of, they knew that in their own way they were outliers. They had that sense of gratitude, but also they believed they earned it. And they had.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.