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Easily one of The Andy Griffith Show‘s top ten episodes, “Opie the Birdman” called for little Ronny Howard to showcase some serious acting skill.

Namely Howard, as his character Opie Taylor, needed to empathize with a nest of motherless birds and authentically cry on demand. As we know, he delivered one of the most touching performances by a child in television history.

Now a celebrated filmmaker, Ron Howard recalled how he did it.

Andy Griffith, Ron Howard, and Frances Bavier of 'The Andy Griffith Show'
Andy Griffith, Ron Howard, and Frances Bavier of ‘The Andy Griffith Show” | CBS via Getty Images

How ‘Opie the Birdman’ differed from many other ‘Andy Griffith Show’ episodes

Unlike most other Andy Griffith episodes, which are heavy on the humor and comedy, “Opie the Birdman” covered pretty serious ground.

The episode opened the show’s fourth season in 1963 and centered on the father and son relationship between Andy and Opie Taylor.

Ron Howard and Andy Griffith in a scene from 'The Andy Griffith Show'
Ron Howard and Andy Griffith in a scene from ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ | CBS via Getty Images

In the episode, Opie accidentally kills a mother bird with his slingshot, unknowingly leaving her baby birds vulnerable and without food. Andy finds the dead mother bird and shows his son what his carelessness has caused, opening Opie’s bedroom window so his son can hear the hungry chirps of the orphaned birds.

The episode shows Opie caring for the chicks, releasing them with trepidation by the episode’s end. Like every parent at one time or another, Opie Taylor wondered aloud, “I hope I did all the right things,” as he freed the birds to find their own way.

Andy Griffith learned how to raise Opie from Ron Howard’s father

(Lto R): Rance Howard and his son, Ron
(Lto R): Rance Howard and his son, Ron

Ron Howard’s father, Rance, was frequently by his son’s side on the show’s set. At the start of the series, Ron explained to the Archive of American Television, Rance approached Andy Griffith to suggest a new way for Opie to view his father.

“Early on, they wrote Opie a little differently,” Howard explained. “More like the typical sitcom kids who were always kind of the wise-ass comebacks. Later I heard that my dad actually was talking to Andy about it.”

Thanks to Rance, the dynamic between Andy and Opie Taylor wasn’t simply another sitcom father and smart-mouth son relationship.

Ron continued, “My dad apparently said [to Andy Griffith], ‘What would happen if Opie knew that Andy was smarter than him? How about if Opie actually respected his dad? As opposed to sitcom kids who are always kind of making the dad look bad.’ Andy really took to that and that’s how they began to write that.”

Ron Howard’s father gave the young actor the direction he needed

Ron Howard in 'Opie the Birdman'
Ron Howard in ‘Opie the Birdman’

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Rance knew his son would need to understand real grief to act out his scenes in “Opie the Birdman.” He needed to really feel the loss of the mother bird. And so, Ron explained, his father sat him down and helped him gain the insight the situation called for.

“I have vivid memories of “Opie the Birdman” because I’d had a dog named Gulliver who had been hit by a car and in sort of getting to the emotional place of doing those scenes, my dad reminded me of Gulliver,” Ron told the Archive of American Television. “And how I felt. He was giving me the method then.”

“Those emotional scenes came from a personal, very real place for me. I wasn’t faking stuff.”