As a second grader, he matched wits with the formidable and worldly Captain James T. Kirk. Years later during his rebellious rock ‘n rolling high school days he introduced a young Vincent Van Patten to the pleasures of the opposite sex. He taught an animated man-cub how to march like a proper elephant, and he’s tangled with both Tango and Cash. He’s Clint Howard, and if you’re a fan of pop culture, you’re a fan of Clint Howard.
Howard picked up his first Hollywood gig at the tender age of three, acting opposite his older brother Ron on the Andy Griffith Show. Since then it’s been a steady stream of roles, many of them of the offbeat variety. I sat down with Howard at his favorite Cajun restaurant in Burbank (he recommended the spoonbread) to talk about his weird Hollywood experiences. He was kind enough to bring along a coupon for 8 dollars off the meal. (He must have gotten wind of my limited expense budget.)
One of Howard’s fondest Hollywood memories comes not on a studio lot, but on a softball diamond. Garry Marshall, the executive producer of the wildly popular show, Happy Days, feared his cast of young wealthy actors might succumb to the temptations of fame in 70’s Hollywood, so he encouraged the cast to put together a softball team.
The Happy Days Softball Team
“I was a pretty good high school player, I caught a little when I was a Junior. Around that time, the Happy Days show got a team together. They would play Sunday double headers in Poinsettia Park in Hollywood – We played against guys like Alice Cooper, which was cool, because I’ve always considered him to be this icon.
There was this core group of Happy Days people who were big baseball fans, so they started up this team. Ron (Howard) must have volunteered me because I was pretty good, and I was a pseudo celebrity. Henry (Winkler) knew nothing about sports. He grew up in Manhattan. He never participated, never watched sports, but for some reason, he had this innate ability to throw an underhanded strike. He had this little fade, maybe because his arm was so weak, but his ball would always go in. I saw this as a catcher and thought, this works. Now he couldn’t field. If the ball ever got hit to him, he’d throw like a girl, but people worked with him…Henry developed into a really good pitcher, and he ending up hitting, and he was the Fonze, so it made so much sense for Henry to pitch.”
The team enjoyed almost as much success in the final box scores as they did in the Nielsen Ratings, and Marshall decided they should tour the country. “We played in Wrigley Field in Chicago,” Howard smiles wide and recollects, “We played in Milwaukee, Shea Stadium. We played at Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia in front of 60,000 people.
Their team had (former Philadelphia 76ers) Doug Collins and Hal Greer, I think (former Phillies centerfielder) Richie Ashburn. I’m catching and there’s this 50-year old Hall-of Famer Hal Greer, and he was still in great shape. And Henry’s pitch – I knew – inside on the hands. These guys would stride in to hit it and Henry would leak it in on their hands. Pop up after pop up after pop up. Henry was really effective. We won that game. I’d say we won about 70 percent of our games.”
The Clint Howard Variety Show
Catching Fonzie’s fastballs is one thing, but pitching show ideas to Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg is another ballgame all together. During the big dotcom craze of the early 2000’s Howard was the host of the short-lived cult classic, The Clint Howard Variety Show.
“ I interviewed people like Adam Sandler and Andy Dick, Sally Kirkland and Judge Reinholt.
The celebrity interviews took place in those low beach chairs in a corner of a vacant lot. I’d interview someone like Johnny Ramone, for like 50 seconds, and I’d ask two quick questions and by the time the third question came up I’d go ‘Oh, I’m sorry that’s all the time we have for this segment, but as you know each guest on the Clint Howard Variety Show receives 15 dollars and a turkey. Turkey provided by Haaandy Market Restaurant. Handy Market of Burbank, your neighborhood grocer since 1967.’ Then my sidekick, my announcer, Big Mike, would come over with this big dripping turkey in a bag and hand it to the celebrity and I’d pull out fifteen dollars out of my pocket and give it to the guest.”
Shooting the breeze with big name celebrities was a piece of cake for Howard, who cut his journalistic teeth when he was ten years old. His first interviewing gig was a no holds barred, one-on-one with then sitting President, Richard Milhouse Nixon, for the Art Linkletter special, A Kids’ Eye View of Washington.
“It was Maureen McCormick from The Brady Bunch, Darby Hinton from Daniel Boone, me, and this young actor named H.B. Barnum III. And nobody could ever figure out what HB had done or been in, but ya know, he filled out the roster.”
Howard had enjoyed his trip to the nation’s capitol. He and his cast mates reported on the obligatory D.C. landmarks, and they even studied and did homework in the basement of the Smithsonian Institute, but in comparison, that was so much child’s play for the child actor. He was especially excited about meeting pre-Watergate scandal, President Nixon. Howard was allowed to come up with one question himself. After some deliberation the hard-hitting, pre-pubescent thespian turned reporter decided to grill the leader of the free world in his inimitable take no prisoners style, “I said, ‘Mr. President, I’m a young actor, and I pay taxes, yet I don’t get to vote. Isn’t that taxation without representation?’” It’s easy to see, even decades later, Howard is still pleased at himself for coming up with the probing inquiry.
“They wouldn’t let me ask him that question, but I was kind of hoping for a big tax refund. ‘Cause here I was, I’d been on a TV series, I made a quite a bit of money, I paid a lot of taxes and I didn’t get a vote. Come On! What’s with that?”
If Howard was calm and collected while meeting Nixon, he was an absolute bundle of nerves a few years later when he was summoned by movie making legend George Lucas.
“I went in to meet George Lucas, and I believe I was auditioning for Star Wars. They knew who I was; they were seeing everybody in town. I was nervous; I was about 17 years old at the time, or whatever I was, maybe 16. I walk into the room, and the first person I see is Francis Ford Coppola – and he’s a larger than life human being. George had his back to me. He was sitting in a big leather chair. George isn’t a big guy, so he was sort of engulfed by this leather chair and he swiveled around and I see him for the first time, and he’s a little diminutive guy, and he looks at me and goes, ‘Commander Balok. The Corbomite Maneuver. May I offer you some Tranya?’ And in my mind, all my nervousness went away, and the only thought I had was, ‘Jesus, George, get a life.’”
(A seven-year-old Howard played the role of Commander Balok in the Star Trek episode, The Corbomite Maneuver. In one scene the young Howard – although voiced by a much older man – jubilantly offers William Shatner’s Kirk a glass of “tranya” as a gesture of good will.)
Meeting a Bear
“Oh yeah, it was scary at first, but right away they showed me that he was a vegetarian.” Howard confessed when asked about being told he’d be working opposite a 500 bear in the 1967 TV show, Gentle Ben. “ The first thing they did, they took me to the compound. Now I knew what a carnivorous creature was – so they threw this huge steak his way. He sniffed it, he didn’t like it, and then they threw a box of donuts and he immediately wolfed down this box of donuts.”
Howard insisted at first that his experience on Gentle Ben wasn’t weird at all. He remembers the entire experience with great fondness, “I got to work with my dad (character actor Rance Howard) and working with all those animals. Talk about it being an adventure.” After it was brought to his attention that while in elementary school, his annual paycheck was much more than the average college educated executive, and these wages were predicated on him frolicking around with a giant wild beast, he reluctantly agreed with the weird angle.
“What that bear really liked was sweets. The bear ate 24 loaves of bread a day. It ate a couple of bags of Monkey Chow, they’d roll out, oh I don’t know a half a dozen heads of lettuce for roughage, and he’d eat donuts and drink Coke like this. (Howard pantomimes the enormous furry converted omnivore drinking large bottle of soda) He’d have one of those big bottles of Coke, guzzle it down – spill it on himself. They’d put cookies in my pocket, or rub honey on my hand. When they did the famous shot of the bear kissing me, I had a Life Saver in my mouth. He also didn’t have any front teeth and didn’t have any front paws.”
Hollywood has put up with its share of demanding monster-sized divas, (Roseanne Barr for instance) so when the bear wanted his own trailer, the executives promptly provided one. “It was really hot down in Florida, and he’s a California Black Bear and weighed about 500 pounds. A lot of times it would get hot and the bear would just lay down. It was too hot. So by the second season – we’re a popular show – so they built an air-conditioned trailer for the bear. That’ll fix everything, right? Well the first day, the bear likes it in the trailer. They couldn’t get him out. They literally had to get a bunch of teamsters to jack up the trailer and slide the bear out, and the next day that trailer went away. After that they put him in the shade.”
Suddenly Howard felt compelled to share a final Gentle Ben factoid. “There were always some other critters running around that set – raccoons, elephants. Did you ever see an elephant take a leak? It just amazed me as a seven-year-old kid. And that bear would take these prodigious dumps. Just prodigious! Of course, if you eat 24 loaves of bread, you’re going to crap.”
And with those parting words, Clint Howard took his leave of the restaurant. I made my way to the men’s room, for I had just eaten prodigious amounts of Cajun-style spoonbread.