Stuart Jeffries interviews Ron Howard about Happy Days and Tricky Dicky

Thanks to President Nixon, Ron Howard never had to go to war. How did he repay him? With a film fuelled by admiration and anger, finds Stuart Jeffries

When Ron Howard met Richard Nixon, the former was in the middle of a brilliant career, the latter in the depths of nation-shaming personal ignominy. It was their only meeting. "It was in the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles in 1982," recalls Howard, now a 54-year-old, balding, bearded grandfather who otherwise keeps the endearing baby-faced features he had in the 1970s, when he played Richie Cunningham in the US sitcom Happy Days.

"He was doing a promotional thing and I was doing publicity as well. Somebody from his camp came over and said, 'Nixon's next door and would like to meet you.' What was interesting was that, even in 1982, his people were not sure whether anyone would want to meet the man or shake his hand."

An audience with Tricky Dicky, the man who dishonoured the office of the US presidency through the Watergate scandal? Who could resist? Did he shake Nixon's hand? "Absolutely." What did they talk about? Geopolitics? Corruption? Carpet-bombing? Cambodia? Did Nixon greet him with a Fonzie-style two thumbs up? "Nothing like that. We only talked briefly. He said, 'I like your work,' though I'm sure he'd never seen a thing." Still, what a thing for Nixon to have said. At that point, Howard was not yet the Oscar-winning director known for such films as Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and The Da Vinci Code. He had helmed a handful of movies, starting with Grand Theft Auto in 1977, but was still chiefly known as the clean-cut boy from Happy Days, with a sensible parting and a plaid shirt.

Happy Days offered Americans a soothingly sanitised trip back to the putatively innocent times before Nixon sullied the presidency with his cover-up of the burglary of the Democratic National Committee HQ and evaded likely impeachment by resigning. Happy Days was set in the 1950s, before Vietnam, drugs and hippies, when teenagers were civil to their elders. It became a huge hit, starting its six-year run in the same year as Nixon's resignation, suggesting a paradise lost before the fall. Without Nixon's tumble from the greatest height, Howard and Happy Days might not have risen so high.

Does he buy the idea that Happy Days was a return to lost innocence after Watergate? "It absolutely was. In fact, I watched the Nixon resignation standing in JFK [airport]. We were on a promotional tour and saw people gathering round a television. We heard Nixon resigning. I remember we were shell-shocked." Gerald Ford, his successor, then pardoned Nixon. "Was it a good thing or bad that he wasn't dragged into court?" muses Howard. "Even liberals weren't sure whether it would be more scarring."

Howard gave himself the chance to think about those questions more deeply when, two years ago, he decided to adapt Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon, about the interviews that David Frost did with Richard Nixon in 1977, in which the supposedly lightweight interviewer coaxed the former president into something like a confession. The British writer's play had been a hit on Broadway and at London's Donmar Warehouse, both times starring Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon in Michael Grandage's production. When Howard saw it in London, he knew he had to make it into a movie. "During the intermission, I stepped out on to the sidewalk, called my agent and said, 'I wanna do it and I wanna do it next.' I found myself engrossed."

There was, however, a bidding war for it - one that included, reportedly, George Clooney, Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols. How come Howard won? "I was able to say that casting will not be an issue because I will do the movie with these guys [Sheen and Langella]." Why did he say that? "My instincts were screaming at me that I should do it with these guys. They'd been inhabiting these characters for nearly a year." So Grandage had done all the work for him? "No. I knew what I would do to change it. I knew I could broaden the emotional connection for the audience beyond two characters. Also, I thought I could do things to speed it up."

Howard shot a lot of footage that ended up on the cutting-room floor: "At the end of a scene, I would ask the actors, 'So what else do you have? The camera's right here.' We came up with a menu of tones and decisions that I could take with me to the editing rooms." It sounds incredibly laborious. "The other time I worked like that was with Russell Crowe on A Beautiful Mind [in which Crowe played a Nobel-winning mathematician with paranoid schizophrenia]. The degrees of insanity were difficult to be sure of on a moment-by-moment basis as I filmed it. I remember Russell was very willing to experiment and ratchet things up and down."

And the ratcheting proved worthwhile: A Beautiful Mind won four Oscars in 2002, including best director for Howard. It's worth noting, however, that he doesn't regard the Academy award as his highest achievement. In 2006, he told Vanity Fair that his greatest achievement was "48 consecutive years of steady employment in television and film, while preserving a rich family life". Very Richie Cunningham.

Whether Frost/Nixon, released tomorrow, is in line for similar honours is debatable; early reviews have been mixed. So, back then, did he despise Nixon? Is that also what tempted him to make the film? "Not before Watergate. In fact, he had done me a favour. I didn't particularly want to go to Vietnam and so, belatedly, he had at least done the thing he said he was going to do - which was get us out of Vietnam and undo the draft. I appreciated him for that." So it was thanks to Nixon that Howard never saw real combat. "I remember watching the interviews. Being a president is an impossible job - it's naive to think someone can do the job and not bend the law here and there."

In the last of the interviews, Frost got Nixon to fess up and Howard turned against him: "What he did was damnable. I would have liked to have come away with the thought that Nixon had got a raw deal. I didn't want to know that the president had irrefutably abused power. But he had. You could respect him, you could appreciate him, you could even like him if you wanted to - but you really couldn't forgive him."

Howard's next project will be another adaptation of a Dan Brown novel, following the commercial success of his 2006 film The Da Vinci Code. In Angels and Demons, Tom Hanks will reprise his role as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, but Audrey Tautou will not reprise hers as his sexy French cryptologist sidekick. Instead, Hanks will be accompanied by the no-less-glamorous Israeli actor Ayelet Zurer, who plays the daughter of a physicist, whose murder only Langdon can solve.

Isn't Dan Brown beneath him? "Here's the remarkable thing about those stories," Howard says. "They reach a broad audience, and they're undeniably provocative." So provocative, in fact, that the Vatican banned Howard from filming in holy buildings. "It's hard to imagine another mainstream entertainment that a studio can feel safe investing in - and that a director knows is going to stir conversation and thought. Dan Brown even wrote an opening scene at Cern, right next to the Large Hadron Collider. He knows where these buttons lie. He's on to something."

And so, you might think, is Howard in making Frost/Nixon. Is there a parallel between America in the aftermath of Nixon and Watergate and the country today? "I think there is. It's in the fact that the system is not built to react quickly to abuses of power. If somebody chooses to, it's almost impossible to shut them down. I think the media today would have been harsher over an abuse of power like Nixon's, but that's not enough, you know? It could still happen again".

Frost/Nixon opens tomorrow.


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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