.] No, nothing like that. They didn’t treat me like one of the gang. They weren’t telling me dirty jokes or trying to get me to smoke cigarettes. They respected the fact that I was a little kid. But they made me an honest part of the creative process.
In what way? Give us an example.
I remember the exact moment they started taking me seriously. There was a very collaborative nature to the Andy Griffith Show. Not just Andy or Don Knotts, every actor had a chance to pitch their ideas. There was one day on the set, just after I’d turned seven, we were rehearsing a scene and I had a line, I don’t even remember what it was but I told the director, “I don’t think a kid would say it this way.” And he said, “Well, show me how you’d do it.” I told him, and he said, “Okay. Let’s do it that way instead.” It was like . . . I can’t even explain it.
Your world shifted.
It really did. I remember just standing there, beaming like I’d just had my first kiss, and Andy walks up to me and says, “Whatcha grinnin’ at, youngin?”
No. Seriously? He said “youngin”?
That was literally how he would talk. So I told him, “That was the first suggestion of mine [the director] has taken.” Andy patted me on the back and, loud enough for everyone on the set to hear, he said, “Well it was the first one that was any damn good. Now let’s do the scene.”
You’ve worked with a lot of legends. People like Bette Davis, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda. Who was the least like their on-screen personas?
When you met John Wayne, did he have the same swagger and “Listen pilgrim” attitude we saw in the movies?
A little bit, yeah. [Laughs.] The very first time I met him, it was at a hotel in Carson City, Nevada, where we were doing The Shootist [John Wayne’s last movie, in 1976]. The director Don Siegel was taking me up to Wayne’s room to meet him, and as we walked through the lobby, we passed a magazine stand and there was a copy of TV Guide with Henry Winkler and me on the cover, in our Happy Days outfits. Don said, “I’ve got to show this to Duke.” I begged him not to, but he bought it, and we went up to the room. There’s John Wayne, and he’s this huge, bald guy with huge hands.
Wait, hold on. He was bald?
Yeah. He wasn’t wearing his hairpiece. So he’s a hairless giant playing chess. Not what I was expecting. I shook his hand, and it’s like my tiny hand was being engulfed by his gigantic palm. Siegel handed him the TV Guide and said, “Look at where our young friend is this week.” Wayne looked at the cover, squinted at me, squinted at the cover, looked back at me, and said, “Ah, big shot, huh?” With a perfect John Wayne drawl.
That sounds terrifying.
Oh yeah. I was thinking, “Oh, I am fucked.”
That’s what John Wayne says before he shoots somebody in the stomach.
It was fine. We talked about it and had a good laugh. He was actually really easy. Not everybody is that easy to win over. Some of them, well. . .
Bette Davis. She made me work for it.
Made you work for it how?
This was for a movie called Skyward, which was my fourth directing job [in 1980]. I’d done one movie for Roger Corman and two television movies for NBC. We got Bette Davis to play an aerobatic pilot who teaches a paraplegic girl to fly. In my initial conversations with her, I noticed that she kept calling me Mr. Howard. I said, “Ms. Davis, please just call me Ron.” She told me, “No, I will call you Mr. Howard until I decide whether I like you or not.”
Yikes. So what do you do in that situation? Do you try and make her like you? Or just say, “To hell with her?”
Well, my first thought was, William Wyler was her favorite director, and he always used to wear a jacket and tie to the set. So day one of shooting, I showed up in a suit and tie. Now, we’re in Texas, and it’s 95 degrees at 8:15 in the morning.
Not suit and tie weather.
Not at all. I’m sweating my ass off. The first time I even approach her, to give her some direction, she turns and acts like she’s startled. “Oh my Lord, I saw this child walking up to me, and I just wondered, what of any consequence could this child have to say to me? Ha ha ha.” With a big Bette Davis laugh. The whole crew laughed uncomfortably, and I laughed too, but then I started popping TUMS.
Did you ever win her over?
I kept trying to direct her, and she kept mocking me, but sometimes she took my advice, and a few times she said, “Okay, that was a good note.” By the end of the day, I told her she was wrapped and thanked her—the usual sign-off a director does—and she said, “Okay Ron, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The first day!
The first day. It was exhilarating. And then she patted me on the ass.
What makes somebody a legend? Why does somebody like John Wayne or Bette Davis or you become a household name?
Me? Well, I appreciate that, but I don’t know if I belong in that company. [Laughs.]
It is just about raw talent? Or are the legends the ones who don’t give up and stick around longer than anybody else?
I think it’s both, actually. It happens both ways. There are some people who just immediately become legends, like James Dean or Elvis Presley or the Beatles. The Beatles were legends before they turned 30. But some people do it only after long sustained periods of productivity.
Do you feel like you fall in the latter category?
I don’t know. I’m not somebody who likes to evaluate his own career. But one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten was from Steven Spielberg. Not long ago, we were pitching ideas back and forth, and he was asking me about the time I was on the Twilight Zone, which was when I was five. He said to me, “Wow, you’ve been a household name since 1960. You’re the Cal Ripken of this business.”
Now there’s a compliment.
Cal Ripken broke the record for the most consecutive games played.
He was also a pretty damn good baseball player.
Absolutely. A two time MVP, and probably the greatest shortstop of all time. But what really made Cal Ripken a legend is that he showed up.
For something like 2,600 consecutive games.
That’s amazing. He stuck around and endured and remained productive. If that’s what being a legend is, I’m okay with being in that category. I’m proud of my longevity. I think that’s an admirable goal for anybody. Whatever it is that you do, try to be like Cal Ripken. Be the one who keeps showing up.
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the January 2017 issue of Men’s Health.]