Coming June 5 from
Atlantic Monthly Press:
The Comeback chronicles the life of one of America’s greatest athletes, from his roots in the windswept hills of Nevada's Washoe Valley to the heights of his global fame at the Tour de France. With a swift narrative drive and a fierce attention to detail, Daniel de Visé reveals the dramatic, ultra-competitive inner world of a sport rarely glimpsed up close, and builds a compelling case for LeMond as its great American hero.
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Rance Howard, who died last month at 89, had nearly 300 acting credits to his name, including the lead role in a powerful film called Nebraska that was one of my favorites of 2013. You read that right: four years ago.
Busy as he was, Rance made time to speak to me over and over again as I wrote Andy and Don. Not quite a cast member on The Andy Griffith Show, Rance was nonetheless an insider, a near-constant presence on the set, playing the most important supporting role of his career: Father. Ronny, his son, was six years old when Griffith went on the air.
Here is a brief retelling of Ronny's journey to Mayberry, adapted from the book.
Rance and Jean Howard were New York actors who had met in college. Ronny was born while Rance served in the Air Force, touring the country and entertaining troops. “Backstage, Jean would have Ron in a bassinet or in her arms,” Rance told me. “He heard the sounds of rehearsals and audiences applauding and laughing early in his life.”
By age two, Ronny was attending his parents’ rehearsals and performances. Eventually, Rance discovered Ronny had an uncanny talent to learn lines, apparently by osmosis, as he could neither read nor write. The two began to entertain their friends by reciting scenes from the play Mister Roberts from memory.
One day, Rance took Ronny to see an a theatrical agent. They did a scene from Mister Roberts. “That is absolutely incredible,” the agent said. “Do you think he could learn anything else?” The agent gave Rance a two-page scene from a movie he was casting, called The Journey. They took it home, and Ronny learned the scene. They returned to the agent the next day and read it flawlessly. The Howards then put their own careers on hold and cast their lot with their four-year-old son, traveling to Vienna so Ronny could join The Journey. Acting in a Hollywood movie “was playing games for him,” Rance recalled.
When The Journey was over, the Howards sailed back to New York. Ronny’s next project was a television pilot called “Mr. O’Malley.” Hosted by Ronald Reagan as part of the series G.E. True Theater, “Mr. O’Malley” was based on the intellectual comic strip Barnaby and meant to launch a comedy-fantasy series built upon the relationship between Barnaby (Ronny) and his fairy godfather. The pilot was a hit. “The next day, the agent was getting lots of phone calls,” Rance told me. “And one of the calls that came in was from a guy named Sheldon Leonard.”
Sheldon, creator of The Andy Griffith Show, had seen the pilot. He told Rance he wanted Ronny to play Andy’s son on the new show. The boy would be named Opie, after the southern bandleader Opie Cates, a favorite of Andy’s.
Sheldon wanted a long-term commitment from Ronny. Rance wondered what that would mean for his son. “He’s entitled to a childhood,” Rance told the producer. Sheldon reassured him: "We will provide him with all the things a kid needs to be a kid.”
Rance sat in on script meetings as a valued contributor, not a meddling parent. He was an actor in his own right and a crucial companion for Opie when it came time to learn the lines.
“They took one of the dressing rooms and made it into a little schoolhouse,” Rance recalled. “And if he wasn’t in school, if he wasn’t on the set, he and I would play games, checkers, marble checkers, or learn his lines. I was there when Ron was there. A pact Jean and I had made was that one of us would be there with him all the time. We wouldn’t send a tutor or a nanny.
“Being an actor myself, I knew what was going on. I wasn’t awed by it. And I think I did know how to be helpful, and also I knew when to get out of the way.”
In the crucial first season, Rance helped shape the Griffith Show from a promising but flawed production into a timeless classic. Early on, Rance recalled, “a script came in where Opie had all these smart alecky lines, kind of flip and kind of sassing his dad.” At a script meeting, Rance piped up: “You know, these lines, the direction you’re going with Ronny’s dialogue, it’ll get you laughs right now, but it will seem like he’s a smart-ass kid, and you’ll want to slap him down. And in a year or two, when he gets a little older, it’s not going to be funny.”
After the meeting, Andy came up to Rance. “You know what, Rance? You’re right about that, between Andy and Opie,” he said. “We’re gonna change it. We’re gonna try to develop a relationship between Opie and Andy the same as your relationship with Ronny.”
Rance surprised everyone on the set one day by bending the child star over his knee and administering a spanking. It happened only once.
“I don’t really remember what I was doing,” Ron told me. “But I knew the director, Bob Sweeney, had talked to me about trying to concentrate a little bit more. I was getting a little relaxed and probably acting up. I remember pretty well that I was testing something there. It was startling as hell, and of course I cried.”
The whole set grew quiet. As Ronny took in the surreal scene, his father made a little speech worthy of a Griffith script, recounted in the book Mayberry Memories. “Anywhere you are -- I don’t care who’s watching,” Rance said. “I don’t care what’s going on. I have only one job and that’s to be your father and that’s to teach you right from wrong. And nothing about that job embarrasses me.”