What’s it like to grow up on TV?
Actor-director Ron Howard, who famously got his start as Opie on the ‘60s classic, “The Andy Griffith Show,” has a stock answer: “It seemed utterly normal, because it was the only childhood I ever had.”
Howard and his brother and fellow child actor Clint, who was 8 when he starred in “Gentle Ben,” share recollections of their unique upbringing in “The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family.” Ron and Clint Howard join L.A. Times Book Club readers on Friday.
Here are a few surprising bits of trivia about 1960s and 1970s Hollywood that the Howards reveal in the book.
Ron and Clint got their only acting lessons at home. Their father, Rance Howard, was an experienced stage and TV actor who broke into the business in New York in the 1950s. When Ron was still a preschooler, Rance Howard had a role in the touring production of the Broadway hit “Mister Roberts” and noticed his young son’s uncanny ability to repeat lines of dialogue from the play. He mentioned Ron to a casting director at MGM, and then coached him to work with an adult actor in a screen test. As Clint recalls, their father worked with them at home from a young age, teaching them how to understand their characters’ emotions and how to approach acting as a craft. “He had us so well-drilled that we created none of the hassle with which child actors are associated,” Clint says in the book. “Ron and I rarely required retakes.”
Ron once did a movie scene with an extremely nervous Johnny Cash. Ron played a young boy named Bobby in the 1961 film “Five Minutes to Live.” In one scene the country-music legend, who portrayed a hoodlum named Johnny Cabot, grabbed Ron and held him hostage. He recalls that Cash, out of his element as an actor, perspired so much out of nervousness that Ron got soaking wet. “I recognized, on some level, that I was more comfortable on a soundstage than Johnny Cash was,” Ron writes.
Opie didn’t get to eat real ice cream. Ron was disappointed to discover that in scenes in “The Andy Griffith Show” in which his character was supposed to enjoy ice cream, his cone actually was filled with “cold, lumpy mashed potatoes” that wouldn’t melt under the lights. “Try licking that and smiling ear-to-ear as a six-year-old,” he recalls in the book. “Now, that is some acting to be proud of.”
In those days actors — or their parents — waited by the phone for roles. In the pre-cellphone era, the Howards had a family rule that either Rance or his wife Jean had to be present in their Burbank home between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. every weekday in case someone called with a job offer for Rance or their sons. “My thrifty parents didn’t want to waste money on an answering service,” Clint recalls.
When the Howards went out for dinner, it wasn’t to Musso and Frank Grill. Ron and Clint’s parents put their sons’ paychecks into savings accounts and U.S. bonds, except for the 15% that was required by law to go into a trust account and 5% that the parents took as a management fee. That necessitated a frugal lifestyle. Dinner at home often was meatloaf, fish sticks or hot dogs. The family’s go-to dining spot was a local Sizzler steakhouse, though they sometimes went to the King’s Arms, a medieval-themed restaurant with a sword stuck in a stone at the entrance.
Child stars attended studio school. While working on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Ron got his education in a one-room mini-schoolhouse with plywood walls and wheels; the room was outfitted with a blackboard, a teacher’s desk and an American flag. Sometimes he was the only student for the lessons in math, social studies and other subjects, though occasionally, he was joined by Keith Thibodeaux, who played Little Ricky Ricardo on “I Love Lucy” and had an occasional role on “The Andy Griffith Show” as a friend of Opie’s.
“Star Trek” producers wanted to shave Clint’s head for his role as an adult alien. When Clint was cast as the child-sized alien leader Balok in a 1966 episode titled “The Corbomite Manuever,” producers asked his father if the 7-year-old would mind having his head shaved for the role. A bit boldly, Clint declined, imagining that he would be teased by other kids and miss other chances to act while his hair grew back. Instead, at his father’s suggestion, a makeup man outfitted him with a latex skullcap. Clint wasn’t as successful at getting out of drinking the room-temperature grapefruit juice used to simulate “tranya,” a beverage the alien offers to the starship’s officers. But his distaste for the warm, sour juice made the scene work better, he recalls, since “I take only a gentleman’s sip, as a true connoisseur of a fine brandy or liqueur would. It looks as if Balok really does relish his tranya. (In the decades that followed, Clint went on to play roles in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: Enterprise,” and “Star Trek: Discovery” as well.)
Clint’s stand-in on “Gentle Ben” was a former Munchkin. Murray Wood, who was in his sixties, had appeared in the 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz.” As Clint recalls, Wood sported “an impressively groomed curlicue mustache and Van Dyke beard, both snow white.” Rance Howard, who wrote some episodes for the show, liked him so much that he arranged for Wood to appear in one episode as a carnival promoter. “Our team was rife with eccentrics,” says Clint, who recalls learning from another crew member how to hunt at night for bullfrogs in shallow water, with a flashlight or headlamp and a trident.