Friday, June 4, 2021

Ron Howard Pops His Clutch in “Grand Theft Auto”

Back in the days when Ron Howard still had hair, he knew he wanted to graduate from acting roles into the director’s chair. Sure, he’d won the hearts of the nation while playing a red-headed moppet named Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. Then, having passed through the difficult teen years that all child-actors dread, he emerged as the star of American Graffiti and, soon thereafter, TV’s long-running Happy Days, which made him a heartthrob to pubescent girls. But along the way he’d become intrigued with the idea of directing, even  (as a high-schooler) winning $100 in a Kodak contest for an original short film called A Deed of Daring-Do, in which a young boy (played by brother Clint) imagines himself the hero of a movie western. (Before he agreed to star in Ron’s film, the always rambunctious Clint had demanded 50% of the gross and when the money came Ron was forced to cough up half of his prize money.)  

 Although by 1976 Ron Howard was a genuine TV star, no studio chief wanted to hire him as a director. Enter my former boss, Roger Corman, at the rough-and-ready New World Pictures. He was after Ron to star in a teen car-crash flick called Eat My Dust, to be directed by Corman veteran Charles B. Griffith.. Most young actors starring in hit sitcoms would not have jumped at the chance to make a Corman cheapie, but Ron saw Eat My Dust as a golden opportunity.  He told Roger he’d agree to appear if it led to the opportunity to direct a later film. To make a long story short, Eat My Dust led to Grand Theft Auto, with Ron directing as well as starring, from a script he’d crafted with his father Rance.


There aren’t many young men, on the brink of a major career move, who’d be willing to collaborate with their dads. But the Howards prized professionalism as well as family loyalty: father and son were equal partners in the writing process, and both Rance and Clint Howard took on featured roles, along with such friends of the family as Garry Marshall and Marion Ross of Happy Days fame. And Ron’s wife Cheryl stepped in at a key moment when the crew was about to mutiny over the terrible chow served during the Antelope Valley location shoot. Commandeering a relative’s local kitchen, she whipped up enticing meals for 85 hungry movie-makers.

 The story of Grand Theft Auto is rollicking and complicated: a young man named Sam Freeman (Howard) and his wealthy girlfriend Paula decide, over the objection of her parents, to get married, so they hijack her daddy’s Rolls Royce and take off for Las Vegas. Soon they’re being hotly pursued by angry parents, a snooty would-be fiancé, some cops, a phony preacher, a radio DJ, and all manner of other folk, culminating in a demolition derby at a Las Vegas racetrack. As a twenty-two-year-old newbie director well aware he was not making Citizen Kane, Howard worried that he wouldn’t be respected by his cast and crew. But others marveled at Ron’s ability to stay cool, and to use his considerable organizational skills to manage a paltry budget. Second-unit director Allan Arkush, who was filming car-crashes at the same time that Ron was shooting dialogue scenes, remembers that, unlike in a major studio film, “you literally had one costume per character. You couldn’t let the stuntman have the entire outfit.” So Ron’s advance planning helped them always know “where are the pants gonna be at four o’clock?”

 I learned all these stories while researching my biography, Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond. It was published in 2003, but this year has appeared for the first time in an audiobook format. If you’re interested, and are one of the first to write to me at with the words “Ron Howard audiobook” in the subject line, you may win a free link to the brand-new audiobook. Such a deal!   

 My recent interested in Grand Theft Auto was sparked  when I was invited to guest on the delightful B-Movie Cast podcast. Here’s how to give this segment a listen:




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