Working With Bette Davis Was A Nerve-Wracking Ordeal For Director Ron Howard

Steven Spielberg famously got his start as a director via the trial by fire of guiding Joan Crawford through the pilot episode of Rod Serling's "Night Gallery." The screen diva put him through his paces but good, but the filmmaker hung in there, likening the experience to "pitching to Hank Aaron your first time in the game." The only performer who might've been more daunting for a tyro director during that era was Bette Davis. Ron Howard learned this when he was assigned to manage the two-time Oscar-winner in the 1980 made-for-television drama "Skyward."

Howard was not quite as wet behind the ears as Spielberg was when he took on Crawford. The "Happy Days" star had been in show business his entire life stretching back to "The Andy Griffith Show." He made his feature-directing debut with 1977's action-comedy "Grand Theft Auto," and called the shots on a TV movie called "Cotton Candy" a year later. He was capable and fairly confident, but could he handle a notoriously fussy legend like Davis?

"Skyward" is not high art. It's a sweet little TV movie written by Howard's "Happy Days" co-star, Anson Williams, about a young paraplegic (Suzy Gilstrap) who yearns to become an airplane pilot. Davis plays the flight instructor who develops controls suited to her disability. It was a quick, but important shoot in that Howard hadn't quite convinced studios that he was ready to handle a major Hollywood production. He needed to deliver a quality picture. This meant he needed to earn Davis' trust.

Fasten your seatbelts

As Howard told Empire in the magazine's December 2022 issue, Davis lived all the way up to her feisty reputation. She was unhappy when the director hired the first-time actor Gilstrap, which led to an icy telephone conversation. According to Howard, "She kept calling me 'Mr. Howard' on the phone, and I said, 'Miss Davis, please just call me Ron.' She said, 'I will call you Mr. Howard until I decide whether I like you or not,' and hung up. Man, I was sweating bullets."

Howard's showbiz vet father, Rance, gave him some succinct advice: "[He] said, 'Trust your instincts, trust her, but let her know you're there to do a job." Howard did his homework and discovered that Davis' favorite filmmaker was William Wyler (who'd directed her to a Best Actress Oscar in 1938's "Jezebel"). Wyler was an old pro who showed up to set every day in a suit, so Howard, eager to curry his star's favor, did likewise even though they were shooting in the nasty August heat of Dallas. Davis did not suddenly become cooperative at the mere sight of a director in natty threads. As Howard remembers:

"[T]he first direction I gave her, I came up behind her quietly to suggest an adjustment, and she made this huge, over-the-top, startled sound, loud enough for the whole crew to hear. She said, 'Oh my god, you surprised me. I turned around and what did I see? This child hovering over me! And I wondered, 'What, of any value, could this child offer me?'"

Davis then unleashed a classic Bette Davis cackle, which Howard returned in kind. He then gave her the note and retreated behind the camera where he began popping Tums.

There's a bit of William Wyler in Ron Howard

Later in the afternoon, Howard noticed that Davis was struggling with the timing of an exit. Once again, he gave her an adjustment. This time, she took his direction, and the scene worked perfectly. When they wrapped for the day, Davis said, "Okay, Ron, see you tomorrow."

Though there was still some choppy air over the next ten days, Howard did his job, as did Davis. Finally, on the last day of the shoot, his star gave him a compliment that he's likely been dining out on for decades: "She said, 'You can be another Wyler. Keep it up.' Huge confidence boost."

We can quibble over who possesses the most impressive body of work (I'm taking Wyler on the strength of "The Best Years of Our Lives" alone), but Howard definitely possesses Wyler's chameleon-like ability to effortlessly shift between different genres. Howard can nail a bawdy sex comedy like "Night Shift," then turn around and do a sweet-natured, fantastical rom-com like "Splash." He's made sweeping epics like "Far and Away" and intimately-charged dramas like "Frost/Nixon." He's also on the hook for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and the despicably disingenuous "Hillbilly Elegy." 

When the script is good and the cast is right, Howard is as capable as any of his peers. He may not be a visionary, but he loves making movies, and more often than not, I love watching his.