Howard is unashamedly a populist. His films have a universal appeal and are invariably positive and heartwarming. Over 30 years there have been the comedies, Parenthood and Splash, the dramas, Apollo 13 and The Missing, and the action thrillers, Ransom and Backdraft. The film that bombed was Far and Away, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
Critics complain that he can be over-sentimental, and can make stories like Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind not gritty enough and too commercial. If you mention this criticism he shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders. "Look, the critical community tends to see tragedies and cautionary tales as intrinsically more valuable. I have no problem going out there and acknowledging the bright side and being optimistic. I don't understand why cynics think an affirmative story is less important than a negative one."
Cinderella Man may transform Howard's image for good. Based on the true-life story of the American boxer James L Braddock, it stars Russell Crowe as Braddock, Renée Zellweger as his wife Mae, and Paul Giamatti as his manager, and has already had excellent reviews in the States. An old-fashioned, emotional tale, it is classic Howard material in many ways. But though it's inspiring, there's plenty of grit in the director's depiction of the Depression.
The film focuses on the struggles of Braddock's family, who lost every penny and had to accept handouts to feed the children. Braddock boxed his way back from destitution, against extraordinary odds, to become the world champion. "Men felt utterly degraded in that era," says Howard. "Many of them disintegrated under the pressure. Braddock didn't. He was standing in the bread-lines and the soup-lines. They were barely holding it together. He made his comeback, he was an unbelievable underdog and he inspired the nation.
"I related to the Braddock character," Howard continues. "Fortunately, my family has not had to struggle the way his family did. But his is really a story about a man trying to elevate his family, and boxing is the only way he knows how."
Howard's face is lined but at the same time it has an openness and vitality. "I am a very optimistic person and so, if I'm flicking through the newspaper, I'm the one who is going to find that human-interest story that allows us to understand and believe, to try to make good decisions, to hang on to hope. Of course I've had a blessed life but I also have eyes. I can see around me, I can see the kind of struggles people have."
Born in Oklahoma, Howard started acting as soon as he could walk. His father, Rance, was an actor and theatre director, while his mother, Jean, was an actress. Howard appeared in his first film, Frontier Woman, when he was 18 months old. By the time he was eight, he had became a household name as Opie in The Andy Griffith Show. There were more movies then, at 17, he was immortalised as Richie Cunningham in Happy Days. Fame definitely didn't go to his head. "I had to interrupt my film-school studies to do the show. I hadn't even wanted to do another television series; quite frankly, it wasn't exactly my cup of tea. The show was my day job because I was already 1,000 per cent committed to directing."
He starred in George Lucas's classic American Graffiti, but dreamed of calling the shots. "I don't have a performer's personality. I like taking charge a little more, I like driving the car. I remember once going through an uncomfortable contract dispute with the studio over Happy Days," he says. "And I said: 'You know guys, in all honesty I can always leave.' They said: 'Well, you have to choose. Are you going to be Paul Newman or Francis Coppola?'" He laughs. "Not that I'm comparing myself to either."
There are no regrets about his early experiences in front of the camera, and now his 24-year-old daughter Bryce Dallas Howard is carving out a successful acting career of her own. But Howard never allowed his children to act until they were much older than he had been. "If you're interested in acting as your life's work, it's almost an impediment to have been a child actor," he says.
At 51, Howard is still recognisable as Richie Cunningham, the iconic all-American boy with the freckles and red hair. The hair's gone now, but the familiar toothy grin remains, giving the director an oddly boyish appearance despite his dark suit.
Cinderella Man is close to his heart because he identifies so strongly with its central character. "My dad grew up in Oklahoma on a farm. They didn't have a radio so they drove 16 miles to the pool-hall to listen to a fight on the radio. My dad would use Jim Braddock as an example of fortitude."
Howard says he was fully aware of the pitfalls of making a boxing movie, with the inevitable references to Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby and even Rocky. "Oh, of course I knew there would be comparisons," says Howard with a smile, "but I didn't mind because I never thought of it fully as a boxing film. The difference for me is that it's not a story of somebody trying to fulfil a dream. It's not about ego or pride driving someone towards championship, it's a love story." Howard pauses. "By the way, I think it is really quite unusual, especially for an American film, that it's a love story about a married couple. You never see that."
Howard gives Crowe much of the credit for capturing the essence of Braddock's character. They worked together on A Beautiful Mind and the two are great friends. "Russell is so specific about creating a character from the look, from the outside in. He's a great, quiet actor, he's a funny actor, he's an emotional actor, he's a physical actor and it all works together. So, just as in Gladiator, he was carrying the heart and soul of the character into those action sequences. I knew that he would be carrying the spirit of Braddock into the boxing ring."
Howard maintains that he wasn't at all concerned about his friend's tempestuous behaviour. "Working with Russell, I always say, is a little bit like filming on a tropical island," he says. "You know the weather's going to change several times during the course of the day, but you also know it's a beautiful island and you want to be there, and if you just wait a few minutes the sun will come out. You know, he does have a quick temper. But I always approach him at those moments with simple logic and I always find that it works. So, in my book, even though I can see him feeling tense, I can see him getting angry, and he might even be angry at me, we're always able to talk through it. There's a mutual trust and friendship. That's it.
"He's not the first man or woman I've worked with who has a hot temper or mood changes," Howard adds. "In his own way, Tom Hanks is as intense as Russell. He's easygoing, he's not confrontational in a sort of quicksilver way, but, if there's a problem, it's urgent and the alarms go off as clearly with Tom Hanks as with Russell Crowe."
Howard is now dealing with the idiosyncrasies of Hanks, who is starring in his new film, The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown's bestseller, which they're filming in the UK. "I think the book is really on to something," he says. "It's touched a lot of nerves and created a lot of controversy. It is irresistible thematically for me on a number of levels, and a fascinating opportunity and challenge. I've never made a film that was a clear mystery, that situation where the characters really don't know what's going to come next and are really in a quandary and so is the audience. It has got me very excited."
Howard has made 17 films, and his fee is £6m per picture, almost as much as Steven Spielberg. Because his films are great crowd-pleasers, he's in an unusual position in Hollywood, with more freedom than most directors are allowed. With typical humility, Howard puts it all down to luck. "I'm fortunate in that, like it or not, my taste leads me to stories that appeal to broad audiences. It's my aesthetic and instinct. I think somewhere along the line, the studio executives came to trust my sensibility. So far in my career, the movies that I thought were going to be commercial turned out not to be and the ones I doubted the most, like A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, and Cocoon, wound up to be my biggest hits. But I was doing them because I loved those stories.
"I tell stories that the studios are able to market and I am able to cast films with actors whom the public enjoy seeing and whom I want to work with. It's fortuitous. It means I can operate the way an independent film-maker does but I can do it while working on a very large canvas. Someday they won't give me that kind of financial support and freedom, though."
Howard talks about film-making with intensity. Once he starts on a topic it's hard to stop him. After one circuitous answer he stops himself and apologises, with a smile, "that was a long way around the barn". He tells me he can't help it. Work is such an all-consuming passion that there isn't much space for anything else in his life - except, of course, his beloved family.
"My wife will tell you I'm a little too consumed by work sometimes, but there are only two things that I do. I don't have hobbies. I used to be a big sports fan, I barely follow it now. I basically raise my family - I try to comfort and care for my wife - and I work on movies. Each film is less like work and more like going on another adventure."
Asked whether he has any more goals as a director, Howard replies: "I'd like to do a film with my daughter. But I don't have a script and I don't know if I can afford her. She's getting pretty expensive."
'Cinderella Man' opens on 9 SeptemberReuse content