Friday, May 5, 2017

A Post-Feud Bette Davis Goes Skyward

The enthusiasm with which TV audiences and critics have greeted Feud, and its unfurling saga about the making of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, proves that megawatt stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford never fall completely out of fashion. The opportunity to see Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange go toe to toe as legends of the past is something to be cherished. All this excitement reminded me of a little-known episode in Davis’s great career. In 1980, some eighteen years after the filming of Baby Jane,  Davis signed on to star in one of fledgling director Ron Howard’s first movies for television. 

Howard, who had made his directorial debut with a 1977 Roger Corman car-chase flick, Grand Theft Auto, tried to further his career with a series of modest movies for television. Cotton Candy (1978) and Through the Magic Pyramid (eventually released in 1981 but made several years earlier) did him no favors. But in 1980, having just made an emotional departure from the cast of Happy Days, he embarked on a gutsy project that was to star a true Hollywood dragon lady. The film was called Skyward.

Skyward was made for NBC under the terms of Howard’s new three-year contract. It was produced in conjunction with Howard’s former Happy Days co-star Anson Williams, who was also looking for new career options. While making a personal appearance, Williams had once chatted with a glum young man in a wheelchair, who complained, “I’m tired of looking up.” From this, Williams devised a story idea about a disabled boy and an old black man who teaches him to fly an airplane. Writer Nancy Sackett transformed this barebones premise into a two-hour teleplay about a wheelchair-bound girl, overprotected by her well-meaning parents, who finds a new lease on life when she learns to pilot a bi-plane. Skyward was a landmark production because it was the first television drama in which a handicapped character was portrayed by an actor with a genuine disability. For the role of sixteen-year-old Julie Ward, Howard chose Suzy Gilstrap, a plucky teenager whose spine had been crushed by a falling tree during a school outing. Howard showed courage in hiring as his leading lady a paraplegic who was also a complete acting novice. He was equally brave when it came to casting Bette Davis as the veteran stunt pilot who shows Julie how to take to the sky. 

Howard has often recounted what it was like, at age twenty-six, to direct the seventy-two-year-old Davis. Then near the end of her long and lively career, Davis accepted this part because she had never before played an aviator. She loved the script, but was suspicious of her director’s youth and inexperience. At first, she was icily polite, refusing to call him anything but “Mr. Howard,” because “I don’t know whether I like you yet.” 

On the set, she loudly questioned his ideas—until he sweet-talked her into trying one scene his way, and she found herself pleased with the results. From that point forward, life improved immensely. At the end of the shooting day, she patted him on the rump and said, “See you tomorrow, Ron.” 
What Howard quickly discovered was that actors—even legendary ones—will respond well when they are treated as trusted collaborators. Skyward was praised by critics for broaching big issues while avoiding cheap sentimentality, and roundly applauded by groups that advocate for the disabled. The film’s official premiere took place in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with a yearlong federal focus on disability issues. In Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed “Skyward Day.” 

 On the subject of Happy Days, a not-so-happy farewell to Erin Moran, whose career soared when she was cast as Ron Howard’s kid sister on that long-running series.

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