Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Remembering Rance Howard, or Father Really Does Know Best

Rance played Bruce Dern's brother in one of his last films

For me Thanksgiving weekend ended on a sad note, with the news that Rance Howard had passed away at the age of 89. Rance was not a household name, like his famous son, Ron. But anyone acquainted with the Howards is well aware that Ron’s steadiness and common sense are part of the family legacy. Jean Howard once said of the grown-up Ron, “He’s the most determined person I ever met in my life. I think he gets this from his dad.”  

Rance Howard started out in an unlikely place for an actor, and with an unlikely name. He was a Oklahoma farm boy, born Harold Engle Beckenholdt, who discovered the magic of cinema when merchants screened free movies to lure the country folk to town on Saturday nights. He first met his future wife, Jean Speegle, when they acted together in productions at the University of Oklahoma. Later they toured in a bus-and-truck theatre troupe, starring in child-friendly productions of Cinderella and Snow White. Sometimes the troupe was short on dwarves, so the tall, lanky Rance would get on his knees to fill in. 

Later, after son Ronny entered their lives, Rance and Jean moved to New York City to further their careers. At one audition, Rance discovered that a small boy was needed for a featured role. Because he and his four-year-old son enjoyed performing comic scenes from Broadway hits, it seemed appropriate to bring Ronny in to meet director Anatole Litvak. That’s how Ronny Howard got his first screen credit: the movie was The Journey, starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. 

When the family moved to California, Rance nabbed small parts in a number of films and TV dramas, but it was Ronny who was the breakout star. The nation fell in love with the cute redhead who played Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. Rance was a familiar presence on the set, playing a few roles and even writing an episode called “The Ball Game” that became his son’s very favorite. Even more important, he was there to supervise Ronny, ensuring that his son was always a consummate professional and never a spoiled brat. When I was researching Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, I spoke to a number of Hollywood performers—Shirley Jones for one—who remembered Rance gently coaching from the sidelines, helping Ronny handle emotional scenes but never usurping the director’s prerogative.

When Ronny Howard the actor evolved into Ron Howard the director, the family unit remained close. Ron’s first directing gig came out of a deal he’d made with B-movie legend Roger Corman. Ron, then at the height of his acting fame on Happy Days, was being sought to play the lead in a teen car-crash comedy called Eat My Dust. Eager to move into directing, he accepted the role with the understanding that if the film did well he’d have the chance to write and direct a movie on a subject of Corman’s choosing. It turned out Roger wanted more of the same. And so Ron and his father were soon hammering out Grand Theft Auto, about a young couple who steal a Rolls Royce and head out to Las Vegas to get married, with a good many people in hot pursuit. 

I was fascinated to learn, when I questioned Corman story editor Frances Doel, how well the two Howards functioned as a team. It’s not many a 23-year-old, on the brink of a career breakthrough, who can work comfortably with his dad. But Rance Howard was clearly a very special man.

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