LOS ANGELES -- Ron Howard had wanted to make a film with Tom Cruise for several years. And he had seen the Australian thriller "Dead Calm" and was impressed with its female star, Nicole Kidman.
He told producer Brian Grazer he would like them to star in his epic of Irish immigrants, "Far and Away." But he wondered if they would be agreeable to working together so soon after "Days of Thunder."
"I had to sit Ron down and explain to him very carefully that they most likely would be very agreeable because they were engaged to be married," Mr. Grazer says. "Ron didn't even know they were dating. That shows how un-Hollywoodish Ron is. He lives out there in Connecticut with his wife and four daughters and just drops in here to work.
"And when he's here, he's impossible. I have to explain everything to him. He knows nothing about studio politics. He calls executives by their wrong names. And when he does remember their names, he gets their studios wrong."
Whatever his "who's-in, who's-out" acumen, Mr. Howard has amassed an impressive list of credits -- "Parenthood," "Splash," "Cocoon," "Backdraft," "Willow" and "Night Shift" among them. That's a strong resume from the deceptively easygoing 36-year-old director who played Richie Cunningham in "Happy Days" and was seen earlier as Opie in "The Andy Griffith Show."
With "Far and Away," Mr. Howard faces his toughest challenge, a romantic fable that encompasses famine in Ireland, hardships in the Irish sector of Boston and, finally, a spectacular Oklahoma land-rush climax. And through it all is woven the romance between a headstrong tenant farmer (Mr. Cruise) and the equally headstrong daughter (Ms. Kidman) of his wealthy landlord.
"I like to think of it as a John Ford version of 'It Happened One Night,' with Dickensian overtones," says Mr. Howard, grinning.
It was at a concert of the Irish group the Chieftains that Mr. Howard felt his own Irish origins stirring.
"My relatives are from Ireland, and I took a trip there when I was 4," he says. "That was my first realization that there was a place other than America. But after the Chieftains concert, I started thinking about three of my great-grandfathers, who had come over from Ireland and had been in the Oklahoma land rush. None of them got any land. Only about one out of 100 did."
Mr. Howard adds that the family history was passed down from generation to generation with humor.
"And we try to keep humor in the film," he says. "We acknowledge the violence of the time and how the American dream was tainted with corruption. But we don't want to preach. It's there if you care about it."