Ron Howard Revealed He Had to Win Over Bette Davis During One of His First Directing Gigs

by Craig Garrett

Ron Howard has an Academy Award for directing, but one classic Hollywood star wasn’t convinced that the Happy Days star had directing chops. It’s tough to imagine anyone doubting Howard’s directing ability. He’s helmed box office hits like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Solo: A Star Wars Story. Howard also is a critical favorite with films like A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13. However, in 1980, Hollywood legend Bette Davis just knew him as a sitcom actor. 

As a recent MeTV article points out, Ron Howard had to prove he had what it takes. Skyward, a 1980 television movie starring Bette Davis and Suzy Gilstrap, was directed by Ron Howard. The film recounts the inspiring tale of how Julie Ward, a paraplegic young woman who aspires to fly a plane, teams up with an elderly flight instructor (Davis) to learn the ins and outs of being a pilot. The tv movie had Happy Days DNA all over it. Anson “Potsie” Williams wrote the story while Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunnigham herself) appeared in the film.

Ron Howard was excited to be working with the iconic Davis. The young director contacted Bette Davis before they started filming. He learned that she wasn’t as enthusiastic about working with him as he was with her. 

Bette Davis insisted on calling the young director “Mr. Howard”

Ron Howard explained the ordeal in a 2014 interview at the Tribeca Film Festival. “[Davis] loved the script, but… she didn’t much like that there was this 25-year-old from a sitcom that was directing her,” he said. “I was talking to her on the phone and I said, ‘Well, Ms. Davis, I’ll protect you as the director and make sure you’re prepared and that your performance will not suffer,’ and she said, ‘I disagree, Mr. Howard, but I don’t think there’s much I can do. Unfortunately, I like the script and I want to do the movie.’”

Howard attempted to establish a more personal rapport with Davis by repeatedly asking her to call him “Ron.” However, it seems that Davis wasn’t ready to be on such familiar terms just yet.”‘No,’ [she said],” Howard recalled. “‘I will call you Mr. Howard until I decide whether I like you or not!’ and she hung up!”

The moment Ron Howard knew he had won Bette Davis over

Davis continued to irritate Howard during the first day of filming. In rehearsal, she made a number of jokes about Howard’s youth, saying that she was shocked to see a “child walking towards her!” While staying cool on the outside, Howard had terrible nerves. He took to downing handfuls of Tums to soothe his stomach.

During a pivotal moment in a scene, he gave a direction that Davis wasn’t completely sold on. Always the professional, she took the direction from young Ron Howard.”You’re right, that works much better. Let’s shoot,” Davis said. The set’s mood shifted as soon as they started rolling and filmed a great scene. Having successfully wrapped the first day, Howard caught Davis once more before she headed out.

“I said, ‘Well, Ms. Davis, great first day. I’ll see you tomorrow.'” Howard recalled. “She stubbed out her Camel cigarette and said, ‘Okay, Ron, see you tomorrow!’ and gave me a swift pat on the [rear end]!”