One of Ron Howard’s earliest directing gigs gave him the opportunity to work with Hollywood icon Bette Davis, and it went down as one of his most memorable experiences for all the wrong reasons.
The project was a television film named Skyward, which stars Davis and Suzy Gilstrap in the leads. The story follows Davis as a flight instructor who teaches a paraplegic woman how to fly.
When Howard called Davis to offer her a role, she was less than thrilled to be working under the direction of such a young man who had made a career as an actor, not a director. And she wasn’t scared to share those feelings.
“She loved the script. But… she didn’t much like that there was this 25-year-old from a sitcom that was directing her,” he told The Associated Press, per Slash Film. “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.’”
Ron Howard Quickly Earned Bette Davis’ Respect
The former Happy Days star tried to smooth things over and asked Davis to call him “Ron,” but she refused saying, “I will call you Mr. Howard until I decide whether I like you or not!’” Then she promptly hung up.
Ron Howard explained that the first day of filming with Bette Davis was even more awkward than expected. The actress showed up and ensured everyone on set understood that she had a grudge against their director. She passive-aggressively poked fun at his age, calling him “a child” and made him so nervous he felt physically ill.
Fortunately, Howard was able to remain calm and professional on the outside. And the tables turned when he proved he could stand his ground.
At one point, Howard asked Davis to change how she was acting in one of her scenes. She didn’t agree with Howard’s point of view, but she accepted his request. In the end, she confronted him and said, “You’re right, that works much better. Let’s shoot.”
From that moment on, the dynamics shifted, and Bette Davis dropped her attitude when Ron Howard caught his star on her way out the door that day.
“I said, ‘Well, Ms. Davis, great first day. I’ll see you tomorrow.’” Howard said. “She stubbed out her Camel cigarette and said, ‘Okay, Ron, see you tomorrow!’ and gave me a swift pat on the [buttocks]!”
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