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Looking Back: Ron Howard and Cocoon write St. Petersburg's ticket to Hollywood (1984-1985)

Wilford Brimley and Ron Howard stand on the corner of Central Ave. and 4th St. in St. Petersburg during the filming of the movie, "Cocoon."
TIMES | Rob Clark Jr.

Wilford Brimley and Ron Howard stand on the corner of Central Ave. and 4th St. in St. Petersburg during the filming of the movie, "Cocoon." TIMES | Rob Clark Jr.

Throughout 1984 St. Petersburg was abuzz with excitement over Hollywood coming to town. Actor/director Ron Howard was making his movie about senior citizens and aliens and it was St. Petersburg's shot at the big time. This collection of stories and photos appeared in the pages of the St. Petersburg Times between March 30, 1984 and the movie's release on June 21 1985.

St. Petersburg reportedly impresses director

By Tom Sabulis, Times staff

Ran March 30, 1984

It's being called Sunset Beach but, of things go according to plan, the setting for the movie Cocoon will be in the spirit of St. Petersburg.

Director Ron Howard (Night Shift, Splash) visited Tampa Bay earlier this week to scout locations for the $20-million fantasy, which is expected to begin production here in late May.

TIMES | Bill Serne

Ron Howard scouts the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Court as a film location for "Cocoon"

TIMES | Bill Serne

TIMES | Bill Serne

Ron Howard watches George H. Richardson (left) and John Spriggs (right) as he scouts the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Court as a film location for "Cocoon"

TIMES | Bill Serne

Howard liked what he saw, according to Laura Kitzmiller of the Florida Motion Picture and Television Bureau.

Along with producers Richard and Lila Zanuck, the former actor (Opie from The Andy Griffith Show and Richie Cunningham from Happy Days) arrived in Tampa from Los Angeles on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, they visited St. Petersburg's famed shuffleboard courts on Fourth Avenue N, a few mansions on Snell Isle, and the dolphin tanks at Busch Gardens in Tampa. Dolphins and underwater filming are included in the current script. Cocoon deals, in part, with extra-terrestrials and the peculiar effect they have on the elderly.

TIMES | Bill Serne

Ron Howard and Richard Zanuck watches George H. Richardson and John Spriggs as Howard scouts the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Court as a film location for "Cocoon"

The moviemakers returned Wednesday night to St. Petersburg to watch a dance at the Coliseum.

"He (Howard) liked a lot of things in the area," said a spokesperson with the group. "Things are looking real good for St. Petersburg."

'Cocoon' comes to town

By Times staff

Ran August 11, 1984

Filming of the 20th Century-Fox movie Cocoon will begin in St. Petersburg in about 10 days. For now the film's crew and cast – under the direction of Ron Howard – are scouting the area for shooting locales. On Friday, they looked around some of the landmarks of downtown St. Petersburg, including the Snell Arcade, shuffleboard courts and Coliseum. Later in the day, they visited a marina in South Pasadena. Cocoon, the tale of what happens when some beings from outer space visit a community of elderly folks, stars Maureen Stapleton, Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy and Barret Oliver (seen in the recent The NeverEnding Story). Ron Howard has gone from his television acting career on the Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days to become the director of such movies as Night Shift and Splash – all before he was 30.

TIMES | Rob Clark Jr.

(L to R) Ron Howard, Hume Cronyn and Don Ameche stand on the corner of Central Ave. and 4th St. in St. Petersburg during the filming of the movie, "Cocoon."

TIMES | Rob Clark Jr.

(L to R) Wilford Brimley and Ron Howard stand on the corner of Central Ave. and 4th St. in St. Petersburg during the filming of the movie, "Cocoon."

TIMES | Rob Clark Jr.

(L to R) Wilford Brimley, Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn and Ron Howard walk on the corner of Central Ave. and 4th St. in St. Petersburg during the filming of the movie, "Cocoon."

TIMES | Rob Clark Jr.

TIMES | Rob Clark Jr.

TIMES | Louie Favorite

Ron Howard (left) and Steve Guttenberg rehearse aboard a boat in St. Petersburg during the filming of the movie, "Cocoon."

TIMES | Rob Clark Jr.

Ron Howard stands in the Snell Arcade on the corner of Central Ave. and 4th St. in St. Petersburg during the filming of the movie, "Cocoon."

TIMES | Louie Favorite

Steve Guttenberg, Ron Howard and Clint Howard rehearse aboard a boat in St. Petersburg.

TIMES | Louie Favorite

Ron Howard examines a "Betamovie" video camera during a marina taping.

'Cocoon' on location: Williams Park as Tinseltown

By Sandra Thomspon, Times Staff

Ran August 21, 1984

Just minutes behind schedule at 9:05 Monday morning, Hollywood Wunderkind director Ron Howard, in an English touring cap and worn jeans, looking like a Greenwich Village bartender and chewing gum, called out "Action!" Filming of Twentieth Century Fox's Cocoon had officially begun in William's Park at the corner of Third Street and Second Avenue N in downtown St. Petersburg.

TIMES | Staff

Ron Howard directs "Cocoon" on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Cast and crew – about 100 of the Hollywood crew and 50 local background actors – had been assembled since 6:30 a.m. Wardrobe trucks and the honey wagon – that's Hollywood-ese for bathrooms – lined Third Street. Producers Richard Zanuck and Lily Zanuck, both in T-shirts and running shoes, sat in director's chairs with their names printed across the backs. Their chairs were taller than those labeled with the names of the films' stars – among them Maureen Stapleton, Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy and Jack Gilford. Wilford Brimley slouched on a park bench, his hat tipped down over his eyes, looking very much like a local dozer.

TIMES | Staff

A handful of St. Petersburg's finest were positioned for traffic and crowd control. There wasn't much for them to do; there were only a few dozen gawkers. In all, except for the trucks and the Panavision cameras and a lot of people in shorts and baseball hats running around, at first glance, Williams Park looked about the same as it usually does on a Monday morning.

* * *

Ninety-nine percent of Cocoon, a film in which extra-terrestrials meet senior citizens, is being shot in St. Petersburg, with a schedule that stretches from yesterday morning until Nov. 1. Why St. Petersburg? Cocoon location manager Bob Maharis (actor George's brother) was on hand to answer. There is a large population of senior citizens, and," he said, sweeping his arm outward to indicate a segment of Williams Park and the street beyond, "it's pretty. It will photograph well. It had a nice feel. We felt the old people here were more energetic. They ride bicycles, they go to the Coliseum to dance." He also mentioned the excellent cooperation they received, especially from the Committee of 100, a civic group that promotes St. Petersburg.

* * *

The first scene went without a hitch. A vintage white Cadillac slams into a black Nissan 300ZX, sending two stuntmen pedestrians jumping back from the crash. After the scene was shot, stuntman Ted Grossman exited the Caddy in a tie and jacket (the clothes worn by the actor, Wilford Brimley, who will replace him in the close-up shots) – and shorts.

TIMES | Staff

Ron Howard examined a dozen eggs in a pink Styrofoam carton. Then the crew set up for the next shot. In that one, Wilford Brimley gets out of the Caddy.

Then it rained.

Tarps were thrown over the cameras, and the crew ran for cover under the trees.

The rain stopped, and four men wiped water off the Cadillac.

Then the crew got ready for the next take. Said publicist Al Ebner, "That's what they do most of the day – get ready."

It took four takes to get this one right. A microphone, covered to muffle the wind, is lowered on a boom to the passengers in the Cadillac – Jack Gifford in the front seat with Brimley and Maureen Stapleton in the back seat with the eggs. Brimley runs the Caddy a few feet into some sandbags, there's some talk among the passengers, then he gets out and says, "I'm trying to keep my eyes on the g------ road!" in a later take, he deleted the expletive.

TIMES | Staff

TIMES | Staff

Hey, Ron! Glad you like St. Petersburg! So how's Opie?

By Tom Sabulis, Times Staff

Ran Sept. 5, 1984

St. Petersburg reminds Ron Howard of his hometown – Burbank, California – and it's not just because the natives have gone out of their way to make him feel welcome.

"It has a very similar kind of atmosphere in that it's really a city, but it has a little more feeling of a community. More like a town. I like it. It's beautiful."

Howard has even nicknamed it Burbank-by-the-Sea.

Unless you've been doing the backstroke in the middle of Lake Okeechobee, you know that Ron Howard, Hollywood Director, is here in St. Petersburg making a movie called Cocoon, a science-fiction fantasy about extra-terrestrials and their rejuvenating effect on people in a retirement community.

TIMES | Louie Favorite

TIMES | Louie Favorite

Ron Howard on location: the lunch counter at Woolworth's.

By this time, you may have run into cast and crew somewhere around town – outside the open-air post office, inside Pinellas Lanes – as they film the $17-million picture, which is scheduled for release Christmas 1985. The cameras began rolling Aug. 20; they'll be here until November. Everything's going smoothly. Afternoon thundershowers thwarted filming a few times early on but, according to Howard, "everything has been great otherwise. Even on those other days, we didn't get hurt too badly."

What is surprising is that the Californian director approves of the summer weather. Many out-of-staters rank the humidity reading right up there with love bugs and fearless alligators.

"I'm kind of a strange person that way," Howard said the other day. "I really like this weather. I like that it changes. I like that the rain blows through. I like that it gets hot and, y'know, I like the humidity. It feels healthy to me."

Last Saturday, crowds of rubber-necking onlookers gathered again as the 20th Century-Fox production took over the Woolworth's store in the Northeast Shopping Center. Inside the sealed-off store, things began rolling around 6 p.m., as veteran actors Don Ameche, Wilford Brimley, Hume Cronyn and Jack Gilford played four elderly friends who, in this particular scene, start cutting up like kids on a sugar binge.

TIMES | Rob Clark Jr.

Wilford Brimley (left) and Don Ameche walk on the corner of Central Ave. and 4th St. in St. Petersburg during the filming of the movie, "Cocoon."

TIMES | Rob Clark Jr.

Hume Cronyn walks on the corner of Central Ave. and 4th St. in St. Petersburg during the filming of the movie, "Cocoon."

TIMES | Rob Clark Jr.

Actor Jack Gilford relaxes on set in St. Petersburg during the filming of the movie, "Cocoon."

Right before Howard yelled his first "action" of the day, he found time to talk about his directing career, Cocoon, the movie's warm reception in St. Petersburg and his own happy days as a television and movie actor.

"I think that Cocoon here offers an opportunity for a real step forward," he said. "I think it's a terrific story and it's quite a bit different from anything I've done. It has a tremendous cast, a great cast, and that has an awful lot to do with any movie's success or failure.

As he spoke, Howard grinned wide at the prospects of directing a venerable ensemble cast that includes Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Maureen Stapleton, Don Ameche, Gwen Verdon, Jack Gifford and Wilford Brimley.

Twentieth Century Fox

The cast of "Cocoon"

Although he's very well-spoken, if shy, you can still catch a gee-whiz intonation here and there that sets the mind racing back to Mayberry and Milwaukee for memorable scenes with Aunty Bee, Barney Fife, and The Fonz.

Listening to him, it's almost impossible not to be reminded that, for years, he played wholesome role models named Opie Taylor and Richie Cunningham on television's The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days. Different generations may remember him for movie roles; some for the cute kid in The Music Man and The Courtship of Eddie's Father, others for Steve, the uncomplicated straight arrow in American Graffiti.

No matter how old the viewer, it seems almost everyone has grown up with Ron Howard at one time or another.

Of course, fans ask him about those acting jobs every day. And time was, that sort of thing might have gotten on his nerves. Today, it's much easier for Howard to accept the public's fondness for nostalgia. At 30, he's one of Hollywood's most surefooted, entertaining and profitable young directors.

TIMES | Louie Favorite

Director Ron Howard is shown filming the lunch counter scene at Woolworth's in Northeast Shopping Center.

Seven years after being given his directorial break (Grand Theft Auto) by B-movie king Roger Corman, Howard is surfing along on the success of his last two features, Night Shift and Splash. They've done wonders for his confidence, not to mention his bank account. Just as important, they've spared him from having to cope with the onus of the child-star/Adult-nobody syndrome. People are just as interested these days in the films he directed.

But Howard confirmed that everybody still wants to talk about Opie. "Especially around here," he says, chuckling. "Everybody wants to talk about Opie around here."

Well, what about him? "Well, that's something I did and that I'm very proud of. I get a kick out of it now, mostly because I've made that transition, so I don't have to worry about it.

"I think that a number of years ago I might have felt that all I was ever going to be known as was Opie or, later, Richie Cunningham. And then I might have felt a little anxiety when people called out 'Hey, Opie!' on the street, and was that all they were really thinking I can do?


Barney, Opie and Andy.

Times files

Richie Cunningham and Ralph Malph.

"But now I know that they're just referring to a part of my past, something that has fond memories for both of us in a lot of ways, and I really enjoy it."

TIMES | Louie Favorite

Ron Howard poses with Pat Mason (left) and Sherry Treadwell in St. Petersburg during the filming of the movie, "Cocoon."

Asked if he'd prefer to be recognized first as a director, Howard said: "I'd like to be recognized for all of it. I wouldn't want to be ... I wouldn't want my acting to be totally forgotten, although I'm not putting much emphasis on it right now. I am thrilled when people come up and say, 'I loved Splash,' or 'Night Shift was great,' or talk about one of my TV movies (he made three) that I directed. That's happening more and more and more. That's probably the greatest compliment somebody can pay me."

"People listen to you a little bit more," he explained, "and they really want your opinion 'cause they believe that you might know something. With that comes a lot of freedom and also a lot of responsibility and pressure, in that, you don't want to take a step backward. I'm enjoying the success of Splash and what that's brought. At the same time, I'm not taking it too seriously."

St. Petersburg was chosen because it's "ideal" for the story. "I feel good about this picture," Howard said. "The sunny shores location is perfect and the support seems to be here from the community."

Some of the city's more characteristic features – the park benches, the shuffleboard courts, the Coliseum ballroom – certainly helped. "All those things definitely worked in its favor," Howard said.

But, ultimately, it was the engaging personality of St. Petersburg and its elderly citizens that convinced Howard and the Zanuck-Brown production team to locate here.

"The retirement community aspects of St. Petersburg are a lot less depressing than in a lot of other places, particularly in larger cities," Howard said.

"Our film is about people living in a retirement community, but it's not any kind of indictment of that. So we didn't need some dark, dreary situation. We needed something that was very honest and believable. St. Petersburg was our number one choice.

A fine sip of extra-terrestrial tonic

Review by Kelly Scott, Times Staff

Ran June 21, 1985

It's hard not to feel a bit protective of Cocoon, the new Ron Howard movie that was filmed in St. Petersburg last summer and fall.

The look is so right: the deeply lined, sunken faces of our many elderly citizens, the sunbaked landscape of water and sand, almost palpably hot and bristling with palms, the conglomeration of architecture styles from regal Spanish to jalousie windowed, split-level show box.

But how good is Cocoon independent of St. Petersburg's role? The movie takes off in many directions – too many, ultimately, to be a unified story. Its sci-fi visual effects disrupt rather than enhance the tale. But en route to its somewhat scattered ending, Cocoon is a very well-acted, inviting story told with style and sass.

Initially Cocoon skips along on charm and laughs. Some choppy transitions are forgivable; the audience is having a great time. About two-thirds of the way through, however, the movie descends into confusion and slows to a plod. Howard's light, sure touch deserts him, and he seems to cast about for an ending.

For St. Petersburg audiences, there are plenty of landmarks – the downtown shuffleboard complex, a stretch of Central Avenue, the Northeast Shopping Center – that make Cocoon fun to watch. The city isn't in every minute of the movie, but it is a very recognizable backdrop. And St. Petersburg is beautifully shot by director of photography Don Peterman, particularly the scenes in the Coliseum, where the highly polished wooden dance floor gleams under the rosy light of the table lamps.

Cocoon is special, and it is certainly more endearing than most movies you are going to see this summer. But it doesn't sustain the euphoric mood and the humor of its first half, and the letdown, when it comes, is disappointing in a movie that promised so much.

TIMES | Kathleen Cabble

Director Ron Howard gets a hug from a fan.

Twentieth Century Fox

The poster used for the premier of "Cocoon"

To order reprints, license or download any Times image from this gallery, or to see other Cocoon photos, please visit the Times image archive.

Jeremy King

Twitter: @JeremyK63182742

e-mail: [email protected]

Looking Back: Ron Howard and Cocoon write St. Petersburg's ticket to Hollywood (1984-1985) 03/16/17 [Last modified: Thursday, March 16, 2017 9:01am]
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