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Published: Saturday, 2/27/2010

New Ron Howard series is personal

BY GAIL PENNINGTON
ST. LOUIS DIPATCH

In 1985, Ron Howard headed for Buenos Aires to make the movie Gung Ho and took his family along.

“My son, our youngest, wasn't born yet, but the twins were infants,” he recalls.

His oldest daughter, Bryce — “the movie star one” — was about 4, and she was sitting next to her father.

“I proudly thought, as a forward-thinking, progressive kind of dad, that she might like to try this appetizer sushi,” Howard recalls, in a story he's clearly enjoyed telling many times before. “She was game, took one bite, and projectile vomited all over my shirt.”

This was the first hour of a 17-hour flight that “turned out to be the flight from hell, because we were bringing all the kids, and we were bringing all the stuff. We had 25 pieces of carry-on [and] 25 pieces of checked luggage. I was down there pulling bags off the carousel, sweating, you know, getting ready to direct a movie. And I thought, ‘When and how did this happen to me?' I didn't quite understand it.”

At that moment, Parenthood was born. Howard wrote the story for what became the hit 1989 movie and directed it.

Now, Parenthood is about to enter its third generation, this time as an NBC dramedy, and Howard is on board again. It remains his most personal film, he says, and “something I hold near and dear.”

After the movie came a TV series, also called Parenthood, that arrived and departed in the 1990-91 TV season.

The 1990 version, which Howard calls “sort of a sitcom,” was “just misguided,” he says. “Didn't work, didn't live up to the potential of all the stories and the characters as they existed in the movie.”

Years passed, and Howard — who famously got his start playing little Opie on The Andy Griffith Show — gathered acclaim for directing such movies as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. He'd never thought of doing more with Parenthood.

Then Jason Katims, executive producer of Friday Night Lights, itself adapted from a movie produced by Howard's Imagine Entertainment, came to him with an idea.

Toying with ideas for a new show, Katims popped Parenthood, one of his favorite movies, into the DVD player. “It held up so well, and it felt so contemporary,” Katims says. “I felt like it was a great jumping-off point.”

But as he worked on the pilot, “it became much more than a jumping-off point,” says Katims, who wanted to “honor the movie” and revisit its themes. “What is parenting like now that was different then?”

Doing that would mean getting Howard on board. But he and Imagine partner Brian Grazer were skeptical. As Howard recalls the conversation, “We asked Jason, well, why do you need Parenthood? I mean, you're a great writer. You can develop your own family.”

Eventually, Howard says, Katims argued successfully that “he could take this thing that meant so much to Brian and me, this idea, and bring it forward to today in a way that was compelling.”

Imagine signed on to co-produce for NBC, and Howard joined Katims and the cast in introducing the series to TV critics meeting last month in Los Angeles.

NBC has heavily promoted Parenthood during the Olympics, and viewers might now think it's a new spin on Gilmore Girls, with Lauren Graham in the lead.

That's not the case. A drama with humorous elements, Parenthood centers on a sprawling California family headed by Craig T. Nelson and Bonnie Bedelia as Zeek and Camille Braverman. Graham plays their daughter Sarah, newly arrived with her two children after a failed marriage. Peter Krause is Adam Braverman, whose young son Max (Max Burkholder) is struggling in school. The family also includes daughter Julia (Erika Christensen), son Crosby (Dax Shepard), in-laws, and grandkids.

Graham wasn't even supposed to be in the show, but Maura Tierney, the original Sarah, dropped out to undergo treatment for breast cancer. It was the second upheaval on the set, after the unexpected death of an NBC executive during shooting.

But “there's no cloud” over Parenthood, Katims says. Tierney is doing well, and after she withdrew and Graham was cast, “It was like we could, all of us, move forward.”

The remade Parenthood pilot, which viewers will see Tuesday on NBC, WNWO-TV, Channel 24 in Toledo. feels less heavy than the original, particularly because Graham brings a humorous quality to many of her scenes. But the change in tone was deliberate, Katims says.

“When we went back to [reshoot], there was also the second chance on some other things as well,” he says. “One thing we did very purposefully was to lighten the tone. ... It was a rare opportunity for somebody in my shoes to have a second shot.”

At the start, Parenthood may remind viewers less of the movie that inspired it and more of ABC's Brothers and Sisters, another dramedy about a sprawling family including adult siblings and their kids. It's impossible to watch the opening scenes without thinking the world was better off before family members could harass one another constantly by phone and text message.

Once Parenthood settles down, however, Katims starts meeting his goals of telling a story about the ups and downs of parenting, the humor, the pain, the compromise, and the responsibility of doing the right thing.

Howard finds it “unbelievably gratifying” that the idea born on that airplane still proves relevant today. “I'm incredibly proud of it already,” he says.



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