Ron Howard, Brian Grazer search for a 'Breakthrough' in anti-aging therapies in NatGeo science series


For his latest film, Ron Howard reached far into the past — all the way back to Opie Taylor.

Howard, the 61-year-old director who won an Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind,” is, along with his longtime producing partner, Brian Grazer, the guiding force behind “Breakthrough,” a new six-part science series that premieres Sunday on National Geographic Channel.

Howard directed “The Age of Aging,” the film on medical research into anti-aging therapies. To illustrate the effect that aging has over a lifetime, he includes a slide show of himself growing older over the years. There’s a shot of Howard in character as small-town Opie, whom he played as a child star on “The Andy Griffith Show” in the early 1960s. There he is playing the clean-cut teenager Richie Cunningham on “Happy Days.” And there are recent photos, where the middle-aged director has laugh lines and thinning hair. Think of it as a baby boomer highlight reel.

“We’re all aging,” Howard said with Grazer in his Beverly Hills office, explaining what attracted him to the topic. In fictional terms, he explored the subject in “Cocoon,” his 1985 hit comic fantasy about seniors who magically throw off the pains and limits of advanced years after an encounter with aliens.

Howard narrates the NatGeo film, so the reference to his real self also prevents people from thinking “it’s another episode of ‘Arrested Development,'” he joked, alluding to the Fox sitcom that he narrated and helped produce.

More seriously, Howard believes that his new TV film can illuminate the scientific advances, particularly in genetic research, that some doctors think will slow down aging and greatly extend human lifespan in coming years. But the tale is not without the kind of drama that can lure a director of scripted narratives.

“Aging is very controversial, and the medical community and the research community don’t even quite know what to do with it,” Howard said.

The topic was so vast that he and his team decided to focus on scientists engaged in cutting-edge research, such as Laura Deming, a science prodigy who enrolled at MIT at age 14 and now studies aging. Interspersed are vignettes of real-life patients struggling with the natural declines of age.

“We began to say, ‘Let’s acknowledge the more extreme possibilities, but let’s take a very serious look at the most responsible scientists that we can find, who actually believe they can make a difference, and let’s follow them,’ and in following them we actually uncovered some actual suspense, conflict and drama,” Howard said.