‘Happy Days’: Ron Howard Landed Major Movie Role Because of the Pilot Episode

by Suzanne Halliburton

Here’s some Ron Howard trivia. Back in the early 1970s, there was this show called “New Family in Town.” Don’t remember it? You’re not alone.

Ron Howard starred in the pilot. It stayed in the TV reject bins for awhile. No network picked it up. But director George Lucas heard about the pilot and asked to see it.

He was kicking around a movie about teenagers living in the early 1960s. Bet you do remember American Graffiti. Lucas, who was a few years away from Star Wars, based American Graffiti on his life growing up in Modesto, Calif.

Basically, American Graffiti told the story of the happenings of several teenagers over one night. Lucas tried hard to make the movie. Every major studio rejected the idea except for Universal.

The movie, which premiered in 1973, was super successful. It starred Ron Howard and several other up-and-coming actors, including Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford. Future TV stars Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips and Suzanne Somers also were in the movie.

American Graffiti picked up a nomination for an Academy Award for best picture. In 1995, the Library of Congress added the movie to its National Film Registry. The movie fits nicely into the qualifications of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

So why is the pilot “New Family in Town” that no one wanted relevant to the super successful American Graffiti? Without the success of the movie, the pilot likely would’ve never received the green light. The movie might not have enjoyed success if Lucas didn’t see Ron Howard in the pilot.

Ron Howard starred alongside Marion Ross and Anson Williams in the TV pilot. Eventually, it evolved into an episode of “Love, American Style,” which had stand-alone episodes.

Figured Out How Ron Howard Relates To All This?

Have you figured out yet why this all sounds so familiar? ABC loved the success of American Graffiti. And although the movie was about teenagers living in California in the early 1960s, the network figured a show about Midwestern youngsters living in the 1950s would sell, too.

“New Family In Town” morphed into “Love in the Happy Days.” And when it premiered in 1974, it was “Happy Days”. Ron Howard could play a teenager from anywhere, be it Modesto or Milwaukee.

Ron Howard became another iconic character to American audiences — Richie Cunningham. Fonzie, played by Henry Winkler, upstaged Richie. But the whole show was a huge hit. It stayed on the air from 1974-84. Howard left the show in 1980. Writers had Richie join the military and marry his girlfriend, Lori Beth.

Ron Howard wanted to be a director and not an actor. Four years after he left “Happy Days”, Howard began a successful string of movies. There was Splash (1984), then Cocoon (1985). Backdraft came in 1991. In 1995, Howard directed Apollo 13. And then came A Beautiful Mind in 2001. Howard won Oscars for best director and best film for that.

And to think, part of Ron Howard and his success could be linked to the pilot no network wanted to pick up.