(First and foremost, I need to acknowledge that yesterday was a sad -- though non-alphabetical -- day in Movieland. Almost simultaneously we lost lovely Annette Funicello, star of the Mickey Mouse Club and AIP beach party movies, as well as the not-especially-lovely Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher, needless to say, was no movie star, but she was a forceful enough national leader to be played by Meryl Streep on the big screen, in The Iron Lady.)
Movie fans don’t often think of Ron Howard in the context of Roger Corman. They’re surprised to hear that Howard, at twenty-two, made his directing debut on Roger Corman’s dime. (Well, Roger spent more than a dime on Grand Theft Auto -- but not a whole lot.)
Little Ronny Howard, of course, became famous at five for playing Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. Years later, he was a genuine teen idol as good-guy Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. That’s how he came to the attention of Chuck Griffith, who was the writer-director of a New World redneck car-crash comedy called Eat My Dust. The central character is a young joyrider who steals a souped-up car and ultimately gets the girl. Ron Howard seemed like perfect casting, if he would accept a role in a raucous low-budget action flick. Ron, when not appearing on Happy Days, was then attending USC Film School, determined to parlay his industry connections into a directing career. Only problem: the big studios that admired his acting chops refused to take him seriously as a director.
Ron told me all about how it happened -- how when he received the Corman offer to star in Eat My Dust he marched into the New World office and played Let’s Make a Deal. What he wanted, in exchange for starring in Eat My Dust, was the chance to direct a script he’d written, a holiday project called ‘Tis the Season. Roger made a counter-offer: he’d allow Ron to write a script on a topic of Roger’s choosing. If all went well, Ron could vault into the director’s chair. And so it was. On the strength of the box office success of Eat My Dust, Roger okayed the idea of a second teen car-crash movie, Grand Theft Auto, with Ron directing as well as playing the leading role. As always, the budget was low and the schedule was tight. My biography, Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, contains a great story from Allan Arkush, who directed second unit He told me how Ron’s careful planning made a logistically complicated shoot come off like clockwork. Said Allan, “You literally had one costume per character. You couldn’t let the stuntman have the entire outfit. So you’re like – where are the pants gonna be at four o’clock?”
Ron Howard, of course, has gone on to become a major Hollywood director, with such big-budget films as the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind and the blockbuster The Da Vinci Code to his credit. When he made Apollo 13, he decided to follow a hallowed tradition of Corman alumni by inviting his old boss to play a cameo role. That’s why you’ll see Roger cast, appropriately enough, as a wily congressman quizzing NASA about cost containment.