June 12, 1978 12:00 PM

The kid with the bullhorn was not plumping for his candidate for prom queen or organizing a protest boycott against spider eggs in bubble gum. Ron Howard—the Fonz’s foil on Happy Days—was directing a movie on location around Dallas. But no, the inmates had not taken over the asylum. Ron, except for an occasional furtive gnaw on his nails, had proved a decisive, galvanizing director, coolly bringing the NBC property in question, Cotton Candy, to a wrap ahead of schedule and bang on its $1.1 million budget. At 24, Howard’s reputation as Hollywood “hyphenate” (producer-director-writer-actor) is growing faster than that orange fuzz on his upper lip.

While the top banana of his TV series, Henry Winkler, was lurching uncertainly into movies with two relative disappointments, Heroes and The One and Only, Ronny told himself, “I am better off at this stage of my career trying to make sleepers than to do pictures everyone has high hopes for.” So leave it to TV’s “Richie Cunningham” to sleep his way to the top in the industry, his way. He got his first directing shot in 1976 from B-movie czar Roger Corman, who had earlier gambled on the likes of Coppola, Bogdanovich and Scorsese. Howard’s gambit to be worthy of that pantheon was speed: he shot so many car pile-ups for Grand Theft Auto (in which he also starred) that he established a Corman company record of 91 camera setups by twin crews in a single day. Yet he completed the movie for $602,000 in four weeks, and it became a drive-in blockbuster grossing $15 million.

Those stats caught the eye of an NBC VP, Deanne Barkley, who asked Howard to develop something for the network. “I immediately flashed on Cotton Candy,” remembers Howard, who hopes this movie (scheduled to air this fall) will evolve into a series. “I’ve always wanted to do a story about first love in high school because I relate to that.” That reference is less to his own typecasting than to Ron’s marriage three years ago this week to high school sweetheart Cheryl Alley. The rest of his family is stuck on Cotton Candy too. Ron’s brother, Clint, 19, who spent two seasons on CBS’ Gentle Ben, co-wrote the script, including a part for himself. His actor-father, Rance, 49, plays a school vice-principal and is a co-producer. Mom Jean plays a teacher, and Cheryl is Clint’s prom date. “It’s hard to undercut our price,” cracks Jean, mindful of an NBC clause calling for cost overruns to come out of Howard’s own pocket.

When Ronny and his crew arrived on location at Dallas’ Lake Highland High School, the larger concern was whether the director would be overrun. Disguised in shades, baseball cap and his new mustache (a growth symbol probably doomed when Happy Days resumes production), Howard emerged from a counselor’s office to see “students already pressed against the door.” He calmed the kids with an assembly speech and by enlisting 400 drama and honor students as extras plus contributing cash to student activities. Ron later kept intrusive fans at bay by offering autographed photos to everyone who left an address. Six thousand requests arrived in two days. During one supper break, an eager fan swiped his leftovers. “I can understand somebody grabbing my hat,” he marvels. “But my chicken bones?”

Admittedly “a little nervous” about ordering around grizzled film crewmen twice his age, Howard says, “I had my speech all worked out. I was going to tell them I appreciated their experience, and that I might make mistakes, but that my job was to direct as I wanted. Well, I never had to deliver that speech.” Film editor Bob Kern admits, “I was ready to tell Ron where he was going wrong. But he was way ahead of me.” Cotton Candy star Charles Martin Smith (who was featured with Howard as Terry the Toad in American Graffiti) notes, “Ron can’t make a decision about where to go for dinner, but he had an answer for everybody on the set. It was amazing. He was totally in control.”

The Oklahoma-born Howard has already spent 22 of his 24 years in showbiz. His actor parents put him before the cameras at 18 months in Frontier Woman. Barely 2, he did summer stock in Baltimore in his dad’s production of The Seven Year Itch. Then at 4 he appeared in The Journey with Jason Robards, Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr and two years later began his eight-season run as Opie in The Andy Griffith Show. Next came a stretch with Henry Fonda’s sitcom, The Smith Family. And, if entering his 16th season of TV in the last 18 years weren’t enough, Ron has also parlayed his Norman Rockwell freckles into a dozen movies, most notably 1976’s The Shootist with John Wayne.

All the while, Ron says, “I was focusing on the idea of becoming a director.” At 15, Tom Sawyer-style, he conned his dad into mowing the lawn for a Super 8 short and later finished second in a national Kodak film contest. Then, after graduating from Burbank’s Burroughs High, he tried four semesters at USC’s film school before dropping out.

About then, Howard waged a short, uncharacteristic teenage rebellion. “We couldn’t do anything right,” remembers his mother. “If we wanted to know where he was going, he’d ask, ‘Why? Don’t you trust me?’ And if we didn’t ask, he’d say, ‘What’s the matter? Don’t you care?’ I was going to pack his bags, but at 18 he miraculously turned back into the boy we’d always known.” Now Ron says with conviction, “I hope I will always be working with my parents. People think it’s strange, but they have such experience and expertise.” Indeed, Ron has incorporated his umbrella company as Major H Productions.

Ron and Cheryl, who graduated last year from Cal State at Northridge, live in Studio City only 15 minutes from the rest of his extended family. Their unpretentious three-bedroom place would be laughed off the movie star maps. Happy Days’ Anson Williams cruises over in a Mercedes and Winkler drives a BMW, but Ron’s wheels are a Volkswagen van. Neither he nor Cheryl smokes or drinks hard liquor, and their idea of cutting loose is a Dodgers ball game or watching old movies on TV with hot chocolate. To celebrate Cotton Candy‘s wrap, Howard didn’t throw a champagne bash or, Lord forbid, break out the cocaine, but joined in a cream-pie fight between his LA. and Dallas film crews.

“I don’t know what it would be like directing big stars,” Howard says modestly. “I’m not interested in doing a Close Encounters.” In addition to six more movies for NBC, Ron also has a deal with Paramount for two feature films and one more for Roger Corman. (Sometime this year he will reprise his starring role in Universal’s American Graffiti sequel.) Moreover, Ron hopes to serve as director next year in collaboration with neighbor and executive producer Henry Winkler, 32. “Henry has incredible integrity and taste,” says Ron, “and he can make me a better director.” Ron is not restive, however, with Happy Days and has already signed up for his sixth and seventh seasons. “Out of Happy Days came my production company and a chance to direct,” he points out, “which is what I wanted going in. This may be the one time in my life I have this kind of leverage. It’s not the time to cruise—it’s the time to ‘grab the gusto.’ ” Or, as his mom, Jean, quips in terms Richie Cunningham might relate to, “All that cod-liver oil has finally paid off.”

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