SI: Had your parents not left Oklahoma for Hollywood to pursue acting when you were four, you believe you would have ended up as a basketball coach, right?
Howard: I would have been a high school coach and an English teacher. I coached basketball in Burbank [in a parks department league] for six seasons starting when I was 14. My dad managed the team and had the official responsibility, but he let me do all the coaching.
SI: As a former child actor, do you feel anything in common with athletes who become pros as teens?
Howard: Yes and no. For me there's always been "take two." Athletes are living and dying moment to moment. I have so much respect for professional athletes because of the kind of pressure they endure.
SI: What made the story of Jim Braddock so compelling to you?
Howard: Because I didn't feel Braddock was being driven by ego. It was all about survival during a period that has always fascinated me--the Depression. I decided it was this family survival story. The struggle to keep warm and feed the kids was as brutal as what we were depicting in the ring.
SI: Cinderella Man is your first film in which sports plays a central role. What challenges did you encounter?
Howard: Boxing has been utilized so effectively in so many films that I couldn't count on that being enough to excite an audience. I approached it a little more like combat than a sport. I kept saying it's like this guy gets dropped behind enemy lines and has to fight his way home each time.
SI: Thanks to your film Apollo 13, the phrase "Houston, we have a problem" is heard every time a Houston sports team encounters trouble. Does that make you smile or horrify you?
Howard: It makes me smile. I'm so happy they are saying that instead of "Sit on it, Potsie." --Richard Deitsch
JEAN-PAUL AUSSENARD/WIREIMAGE.COM (HOWARD)
GEORGE KRAYCHYK/UNIVERSAL STUDIOS (CROWE AND HOWARD)