Some 25 years ago, Ron Howard joined Bert Lahr in a pilot for a television show called "Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley." "It was a 'General Electric Theater,' " he remembers.

"Ronald Reagan was the host. I had no billing in the show, and at the end he just kind of ad-libbed this thing about 'and our special appreciation to little Ronny Howard.' I have a kinescope of that, and it's pretty great. It goes over pretty well at parties these days."

Today, Reagan is -- aw, you know. And 31-year-old Ron Howard, on a roll with three hits in a row (and the new "Cocoon," which promises a good box office), is one of the hottest directors in Hollywood.

"I'm still feeling the momentum of 'Splash,' " he says, referring to his surprise comedy hit of last year. "As a result of 'Splash' people are pretty much prepared for anything. I can't do much about it, so I might as well enjoy it. But the practical side of me says you better worry."

Everyone wants him. When producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown were having trouble with director Robert Zemeckis' schedule (he was shooting "Romancing the Stone" at the time), they took "Cocoon" to Howard. Already, he is at work on another movie, "Gung Ho," starring Michael Keaton, the comedian he discovered in "Night Shift."

He has one of the most familiar faces in America. You grew up with him, Opie in "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Mayberry R.F.D.," Steve in "American Graffiti," Richie Cunningham in "Happy Days." His red hair is thinning now and paler, the texture of corn silk, but the big breakfast-table smile, the yokel's "HAaaaHAaaaHAaaah" laugh, are the same. With his blue chinos and maroon university stripe shirt and thick-soled boat shoes, he might be the bright young regional sales manager of American Auto Parts. If Norman Rockwell were God, we'd all look like Ron Howard.

He is known for having one of the best dispositions in Hollywood, a sweetness that suffuses his films. "There is a kind of humanity and positive feeling, and I think I share that general optimism with Frank Capra," Howard says of the legendary director whose work, in updated form, his own most closely resembles. "The big difference to me between Capra and [Preston] Sturges was that Capra was a little better storyteller, on the whole, really thought things through. Sturges liked to take a kind of interesting idea and run with it, and then figure out how to wrap it up. And Sturges was real cynical, while Capra really wasn't. I'm not cynical about people. I tend to think they do pretty well, on the whole."

Nobody has ever called him a slacker.

Born in Duncan, Okla., to Rance and Jean Howard, both performers (Dennis Weaver introduced them in the drama department of Oklahoma University), Howard has worked steadily since he was 4 years old. His first job in television was a Red Skelton Show. "It was live, and Red Skelton -- I guess because I had red hair or something -- kind of liked me and gave me a couple of lines. To be a little kid and come through in that situation -- I all of a sudden started getting a lot of work."

There were "Playhouse 90s," "Dobie Gillis," "Dennis the Menace" (he was one of Jay North's gang of kids) and finally, "The Andy Griffith Show." Aunt Bea. Barney Fife. Floyd the Barber. Go ahead -- whistle it. He was, at the age of 6, a TV star. "In '66 when Koufax and Drysdale were holding out for $100,000, I remember reading that -- it was headlines in the sports page every day -- and sat down and figured out what my salary was going to be for the 34 shows we were going to do that year. And it came to $105,000. When it occurred to me that at 12 I was making the same money that Koufax was, that was the first time that I put in perspective what the money was."

And yet he was a regular kid. The producers altered the shooting schedule so that Howard could play Little League (for Voss' Braves).

"I wasn't really a Hollywood kid too much, because I didn't really know any other Hollywood kids, and my parents didn't allow my time away from 'The Andy Griffith Show' to be absorbed by promotional things. Somebody wanted to do an Opie line of boys' clothing, and I guess it would have been a fairly lucrative thing, but they wanted me to travel to different department stores. And my parents just said no."

Andy Griffith remembers one scene from the first season. "It required him to be very sad. As we got into the scene, he actually started about weeping. He said he was remembering a dog that died and it made him sad. You know what that is? That's the Method. And he arrived at that on his own."

Even then, he wanted to be a director. He would ask directors why they would choose a certain lens or a certain angle, participate in the Thursday script read-through. "If I didn't have to go back to school, I'd get to hang around with the rest of the cast while they would pitch story revisions, talk about strengthening characters, things like that. I have lots of memories of actually speaking up and having grown-ups accept my ideas."

The one thing Ron Howard isn't is a whiz kid. He has worked at his trade for 27 years -- the only difference is that he started earlier. In the America of fakirs and con artists and overnight successes crowbarring their way onto the cover of People magazine, Ron Howard is the one guy nobody cares to be anymore: the man who knows his work and does it well. A pro.

"Happy Days" started as a pilot on "Love American Style" that didn't sell. "ABC didn't feel that the '50s would fly," Howard recalls, with a HAaaaHAaaaHAaaah. George Lucas intervened; when "American Graffiti" was a hit, starring Ron Howard, ABC changed its mind. Howard was at USC's undergraduate film school at the time, mostly playing a lot of pinball, but he was ambivalent. "The war was still going on, and I had a lousy number," he says. "But I had read somewhere that if your job could be directly related to the employment of 30 or more people, that that would be a deferment. I thought, 'If this series goes, I bet you I could get that deferment.' "

The draft ended a couple of months later. Howard's scheme for a draft deferment turned into one of the most wildly successful TV series in history, running for 11 years and spinning off the hit series "Laverne and Shirley" and "Mork and Mindy," as well as "Joanie Loves Chachi" and the Saturday morning cartoon "The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang."

"Happy Days" was a crucible for Howard. They began to film the show in front of a live audience, and Howard, who had never worked before an audience before, "spent a year mostly being frightened." In the third season, the focus of the show shifted from Richie Cunningham to Fonzie. "Which made a lot of sense to me," Howard says. "By the end of the second season, we were already repeating the Richie-problem shows, because my character was so sane that it was difficult to imagine him really getting into these problems. But the press started making a big deal out of it and making me feel bad about it. And also ABC suddenly started treating me like small potatoes. Even though I was only 21, I didn't think I really deserved that."

But he never griped about it, never used his clout, just did the job. "We did about 200 episodes together," says Henry (Fonzie) Winkler, "and during that time he forgot one line. He never missed a mark, was never late, never angry." "He would never expect the wardrobe lady to get his coat, he'd just get it himself," says Anson (Potsie) Williams.

He remains close to the cast. He and Williams have a TV production company, Major H -- Anson Productions, with development deals at all three networks; Winkler starred in "Night Shift." Howard married his real-life high school sweetheart, Cheryl, in 1975, and for a while he and Winkler and John Ritter and their wives were the "Monday Night Marauders," getting together at bowling alleys or Chinese restaurants. And when Howard got discouraged with "Happy Days," he returned to making Super 8 and 16 mm films, including one called "Have You Ever Heard the One About Leo Green?" starring Donny (Ralph Malph) Most.

"["Happy Days"] producer Garry Marshall came up to me and said, 'I was playing tennis with a friend of mine who's a shrink, and he said that what was going on will either do two things to Ronny, at his age. Either it'll be great for him, he'll really grow and mature and become much stronger, or it might really screw him up.' " HAaaaHAaaaHAaaah.

By the time Ron Howard got his first professional directing assignment, he had already shot and edited 10 Super 8 movies and four 16 mm movies. "I got out of mowing the lawn one time over at my parents' rental property by telling my dad I wanted to make this film about a guy who sort of attacked the lawn like he was a sort of a fanatical military guy. So he put on an Army helmet and we shot the film." Another, "Deed of Derring-do," a one-reel Western fantasy, won second prize in Kodak's contest for teen-age filmmakers.

Like pretty much everyone, Howard got his first job from low-budget independent producer Roger Corman, film's Grand Pooh-bah of Penury. If Howard would star in "Eat My Dust," Corman said, he promised to consider any writing or directing projects Howard might come up with. "I didn't like 'Eat My Dust,' but I knew that Roger was one guy who had this history of giving people a chance," Howard says. When "Eat My Dust" was, in its own way, a hit, Corman commissioned Howard to direct another car crash comedy called "Grand Theft Auto."

"Ron was the most assured director I've ever worked with," says Corman, whose production shop has spawned Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante and Jonathan Demme, among others. "He showed up on the set the first morning, and said, 'The camera goes here, the lights go here, call me when it's set, I'm going to get a cup of coffee.' And everybody just looked around, astonished."

"Grand Theft Auto" was typical Corman madness: Cheryl ended up preparing lunch every day for 60 people, and Howard had to complete some 95 setups in one day. He drew on his experience in episodic television. "Nothing could be as bad as going as fast as you have to go with episodic," Howard says. "There's a sort of efficiency that you learn, so that when you have to, you can go fast and not screw yourself up. It makes you feel more secure. 'Well, if I have to do that scene in an hour, I guess I could. So I'm gonna take a little more time with this.' A lot of directing is learning to make those trade-offs without killing yourself."

The movie was a small hit, it got sold to the networks, and Howard's career was off. He made three TV movies (including "Skyward," with Bette Davis), and teamed up with producer Brian Grazer to make "Night Shift," a comedy about two guys who run a pimping operation out of a morgue. After "Night Shift's" modest success, Disney took a flier on "Splash!," his mermaid love story, even though a project called "Mermaid" was in the works, connecting the imposing names of producer Ray Stark, director Herbert Ross, screen writer Robert Towne, and Warren Beatty. "Our attitude was, 'We'll just make it faster. We've got nothing to lose,' " Howard recalls, with some pleasure.

Through these movies, Howard was developing his identifiable comic touch, an ability to find sentiment while steering clear of the mawkish, a way of grounding the fantastic in familiar emotions, an affection for visual slapstick and an eye for bright young comic actors (like Michael Keaton, Tom Hanks and John Candy). And the general Howard theme: busting loose.

"There's a thing I like as a moviegoer and can see in the stuff that I've done, and that is a character who's in kind of a safe position, a very predictable position, and suddenly an opportunity presents itself, and common sense would dictate that they just back off. Even loved ones would say, 'No, don't, you'll get hurt.' But this person goes ahead and takes a shot. I love that when I see that in movies, and I like to see that in life, too."

He is known as an actor's director, nonjudgmental, open to everyone's ideas. "I have a theory that as a director I should come in with a plan, a foundation," Howard says. "How I'm gonna shoot things, what needs to be accomplished, what we need to capture in the movie. And then I hope someone else will come up with something that will work within that plan. There are so many ways to get to the same place that if it's a flip of the coin, you're better off using somebody else's ideas. It keeps everybody interested, it keeps their head in the picture. And if it can be something that the actor loves and that really works for him, not only does he get that satisfaction, but it's just better."

In the best parts of "Cocoon," you see those strengths, in the movie's warmth and the wonderful performances of the old actors. "My job was to blend those styles into an ensemble on a daily basis," Howard says. "Wilford Brimley loves to improvise, and sometimes you have to go to Wilford and say, 'I dunno, I think it would be easier if you did this a little closer to the script.' At the same time, I'd go to a guy like Don Ameche, who liked everything very highly structured, and say, 'I know Wilford's all over the place but we're getting great stuff. Just hang in there, just stay with 'em, don't let him get the best of you.' "

But the rest of the movie is awfully derivative, something Howard concedes. "I like the special effects, I feel good about them and everything, but there's no question that they seem like shots you've seen, a lot of them. And that was something that I knew."

Besides, he adds, without the special effects, "you would never get it made." Realism from the pro, a 27-year Hollywood veteran; but not so much like one of those Ron Howard characters who "goes ahead and takes a shot." Not so much like the Ron Howard who coached his kid brother Clint and his friends for "Howard's Hurricanes."

"I kind of pride myself on being this even-tempered guy," Howard says, "not a yeller and a screamer. But when I think of how I used to act -- if I was in college or professional coaching, I'd be Bobby Knight or something. We had one season where we lost six games by a toal of seven points. The officiating fouled up every game. There was one ref I used to play baseball with, nice guy, Ed Klevak. I just got all over him. I just went berserk."