Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rance and Ron Howard: Oklahoma’s Resilient Native Sons

Oscar Hammerstein had it right: Oklahoma’s a place where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain. We’ve all seen the photos coming out of Moore, Oklahoma. It was flattened last week by a EF5 tornado, which sent winds of 210 mph barreling across a stretch of prairie three miles wide and seventeen miles long. Twenty-four people died, including ten children.

But we’ve also been hearing about the resilient folk who make Oklahoma their home. They’re hard-working and plain-spoken. They may not be as picturesque as the farmers and the cowhands in Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical, but their can-do spirit helps them survive disasters without hysteria. Which makes it fitting indeed that Ron Howard is Oklahoma-born.

Ron Howard seems to have led a charmed life. He made his professional acting debut at age five. When he was six, The Andy Griffith Show made him a star. He passed through his awkward teen years without much harm done, and at twenty he starred in his second hit TV series, Happy Days. When he was twenty-three he fulfilled a lifelong dream by directing his first film, Grand Theft Auto. Quickly leaving B-movies behind, he helmed such Hollywood hits as Splash, Cocoon¸ and Parenthood. Apollo 13 brought him critical respect, and A Beautiful Mind brought him two Oscars. Today, as both director and producer, he has a full slate. Most recently, he’s continued his involvement with Arrested Development, for which he serves as executive producer, while also reprising his deadpan narrator’s role and playing himself on-camera. Great careers don’t just happen. Sure, there’s luck involved, but also hard work, as well as an ability to shrug off disappointments and keep moving forward.  

Everyone who has worked with Ron Howard speaks of his common sense and his ability to remain down-to-earth while wielding serious show biz clout. And everyone credits his parents, Rance and Jean, for molding him into the man he has become. The effervescent Jean Speegle was a star in Duncan, Oklahoma, population 22,000. She served as editor-in-chief of her high school yearbook and was elected student council president. After graduating, she was accepted into the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. On February 10, 1947, Jean left a dance class and stepped into the path of a speeding truck. The result: a brain concussion, a broken arm and shoulder, and a pelvis shattered in three places. She lay unconscious for ten days in a New York hospital. At last she was put on a train for Oklahoma, where doctors warned her worried family she might never walk again. But Jean, always a fighter, beat the odds.

Studying drama at the University of Oklahoma, she met a country boy who had walked off the family farm with the dream of becoming an actor. Their courtship took place during a bus-and-truck tour with a children’s theatre troupe. (Rance would get down on his knees and add a fake beard to play one of Snow White’s dwarves.) Not long after the birth of Ronald William Howard, they moved to New York and then Southern California, in pursuit of acting careers. Their young son would far outstrip them both in terms of Hollywood fame and fortune. But they lived on Rance’s earnings as a character actor and worked hard to keep their small star a regular boy. Heart disease claimed Jean far too soon, but Rance continues to take on small but meaty roles at age eighty-five. He’s a survivor, and a credit to his Oklahoma roots, those roots that hold fast even when life seems to be blowing in the wind.   


  1. I terribly saddened by the disaster in Oklahoma. There just aren't any words. My heart goes out to everyone affected.

    The closest I have been to working with Ron Howard was when I was the PA for a Virginia second unit on the film Virus (1999) which was directed by Todd Hallowell - Ron Howard's second unit director on several shows. Todd was great - under his command we were The Pirate Unit and we actually flew the Jolly Roger everywhere we shot. My wife was on a plane with Ron Howard once, but was too shy to approach him or say hello. I'd like to meet him one day - maybe I'll try to pitch him some goofy project! Excellent post, Ms. G!

  2. Thanks, Mr. C. Anyone who works for Ron has got to be super-nice, and super-capable. Crew members aren't pushovers, by any means, but those who work for Howard describe the experience as the best of their entire careers.