Ron Howard: Too good to be true

Ron Howard directed Russell Crowe on the set of "A Beautiful Mind."
Universal Pictures

(CBS News) "When I was 8 years old," recalls Ron Howard, "people used to ask me, 'What do you want to do when you grow up?' I said, 'Actor, writer, producer, director cameraman...and baseball player. And that was my pat answer instead of fireman, astronaut, cowboy."

If you wanted to pitch a movie based on Ron Howard's life, the title would be the easy part: "Too Good To Be True."

Getting it made might be more difficult. Consider the story line: A sure-footed march from child star to teen idol to Oscar-nominated director, by the quintessential "nice guy" who remains more "next-door neighbor" than "mover and shaker."

Even for Hollywood, the Ron Howard story seems a bit much. Correspondent Jim Axelrod reports for "CBS News Sunday Morning."

At age 47, Ron Howard has been in the movie business now for – 46 years.

He made his debut, at 18 months old, in a western called "The Journey." Ever since, he has been as much a part of Hollywood as the famous sign in the hills.

His first significant role was the all-American boy next door in "The Music Man." He was 6 years old. (When his daughters watch "The Music Man," says Howard, they say, "Oh, Dad. You were so cute.")

The role of "boy next door" was one he perfected as Opie Taylor in "The Andy Griffith Show."

Remember the opening of the show, as Griffith and Howard walk along on a fishing expedition, tossing stones into the swimming hole?

"What I really remember," says Howard, "is that we only had three opportunities to throw that rock into the lake because it's one of the water reservoirs for Los Angeles. And we were allowed to throw only three rocks in there."

While child stardom is too often the first act of a Hollywood tragedy, Ron Howard's life off-screen mirrored the one he was living in Mayberry.

"If I were to sit down and sort of write a list of my childhood highlights, most of them would be the kid stuff," he says. "It would be . . . handling myself against the school bully or something in the third grade, or it would be doing well in sports, or, you know, playing army with the kids on the block, and I lived on a block. I had all that."

"All that" included real parents, as caring and involved as his TV father. Too good to be true? Not for him.

"I always felt loved," he recalls. "I never felt that my parents love or affection depended in any way, shape, or form on . . . how I was doing at the set."

During the next decade, he was one of America's most visible child-actors, appearing in many of the most memorable shows on television: "The Twilight Zone," "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza" and "MASH," capped off by a starring role as Richie Cunningham on the hit show "Happy Days."

But while the world was watching him grow up on camera, he was looking back -- from a slightly different angle.

He was 15 when he knew directing was his calling. He began by making silent movies with his father's home-movie camera. They were a family affair, with his younger brother, Clint; his dad, Rance, and his future wife, Cheryl Alley, whom he began dating in high school.

He moved from his own back yard to the studio's back lot, directing and starring in "Grand Theft Auto." He was all of 23 years old.

Six years later, Howard made his "Splash," a breakout comedy for him and the movie's young star, Tom Hanks. Neither one ever looked back.

"When we went and saw lines around the block for our movie, with no stars in it... That was just, you know, a sort of underdog sort of picture. It was one of the thrills of my professional life," Howard says.

"Splash" was followed by a string of hits: "Cocoon," "Parenthood," "Far and Away," "Backdraft," "Apollo 13," "Ed TV" and "The Grinch." All these films followed a path of happy endings to more than a billion dollars of box office success.

Some critics, though, saw Howard as a master of the mainstream, probing safe ground, rather than a filmmaker who provokes deep thoughts.

Howard told "Sunday Morning," "Well, you know, it's a little dose of public humiliation. Maybe there's some reviewers that don't like my approach to movies. Fair enough. Although I wish they felt differently."

That may be why his latest film may be so important to him. "A Beautiful Mind" is the story of a schizophrenic mathematician who wins a Nobel Prize.

"I think this movie is more demanding of me as a director than any film that I have worked on so far -- not logistically, but in terms of just subtle, human interaction, unusual kinds of relationships... married with the difficulties from a directorial standpoint of illustrating sort of what's going on inside someone's mind."

It's a movie that carries the potential to once and for all redefine Howard as a director. These days, with an Oscar for Best Director on the line, everyone connected with Ron Howard is careful to put the man in the spotlight, and to leave the boy-next-door behind.

For instance, here is part of what Russell Crowe said while accepting his Golden Globe in January for his work in "A Beautiful Mind": "I want to thank Ron Howard for the privilege of working with him. I want to thank him for setting a platform every single day...that allowed actors to be adventurous, take risks, and explore. I also want to thank him for his humility, his consummate skill, and his honor as a man."

Howard's reaction: "Just as a man, it meant a lot. Russell Crowe speaks his mind and is nobody's politician. And so I mean, that was an incredible moment."

How important is it to him to win the Best Director Oscar for "A Beautiful Mind"?

"The nomination gets you in the record books. And that means something," he replies. "Winning would, too. But, I mean, I think that, you know, it's almost a little too much to -- you can't sort of plan on it. I mean, it's even a little too much to, sort of, hope for."

Given the way Ron Howard's life has played out so far, nothing is too much to hope for. After all, this is Hollywood, and Hollywood loves a happy ending -- even if it is too good to be true.

"My mother, who passed away a little over a year ago, always told me I was born with a four-leaf clover behind my ear, that everything that looked like a bad turn seemed to evolve into, you know, a stroke of good fortune," he says. "And you know -- I don't know, Mom. I don't know."

For more about Ron Howard, see an interview from "The Early Show."