Skip to main content
Bette Davis, left, and Ron Howard
Bette Davis | Herb Snitzer/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images and Ron Howard | Stefania D’Alessandro/Getty Images

Hollywood legend Bette Davis worked with renowned filmmaker Ron Howard just when he was starting out in his career as a director, starring in what would be one of her final films.

While they got off to a bumpy start, the All About Eve actor warmed up to Howard, in the end paying him the ultimate compliment any rookie director would want to hear.

Ron Howard and Bette Davis worked on this television film together

Davis appeared in 1980 in one of Howard’s first directorial efforts, the television film Skyward.

Having just ended his role as Richie Cunningham on the long-running Happy Days, Howard began in earnest to focus on his growing interest in directing. His show co-star Anson Williams had written the story for Skyward and Howard agreed to direct.

Bette Davis in 1975
Bette Davis in 1975 | Central Press/Getty Images

The television film’s story centered on a flight instructor, played by Bette Davis, teaching a young girl with a disability how to pilot a plane.

“Anson Williams really wanted to get Bette Davis to play the part of this flight instructor,” Howard in 2006 told the Archive of American Television. “It’s the story of this elderly flight instructor who kind of grudgingly agrees to teach a paraplegic girl to fly.”

Skyward, Howard said, was instrumental in helping “convince studios that I could direct features.”

Davis and Howard butted heads at first

Bette Davis in 1932
Bette Davis in 1932 | John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

The Hillbilly Elegy director described Davis as initially prickly toward him as a director when they began working on Skyward.

Because of his relative novice status as a director, Davis fervently questioned Howard’s direction if she didn’t agree with it.

“I gave her another direction and she was kind of upset about it,” Howard said. “I said, ‘Please try it,’ and she said, ‘OK I’ll try it.’ She liked it and very loudly said, ‘You’re right, you’re right, it makes the scene much better.’

“And by about four o’clock, I wrapped Miss Davis for the day. I said, ‘Miss Davis, you can go home now.’ She said, ‘OK, Ron, see you tomorrow.’ And it was very significant that she called me ‘Ron’ and not ‘Mr. Howard.’ And, she patted me on the ass. So that was the big icebreaker.”

The veteran actor compared Howard to a Hollywood great

The biggest icebreaker between the two was yet to come as Davis told the Splash director he had the chops to become another William Wyler.

Wyler, a famed director of the golden Hollywood age, won Oscars for his work on the films Mrs. Miniver in 1943, the post-World War II film The Best Years of Our Lives in 1947, and the epic film Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston in 1960.

Davis herself had worked with Wyler on three films throughout the years and had enormous affection and respect for him, as Howard learned during the “eight nervous-making, tense days” of their collaboration.

Director William Wyler in 1948
Director William Wyler in 1948 | Universal-International/Getty Images

‘The Andy Griffith Show’: Mayberry Phone Book Is Really An Easter Egg Fans Missed

“She was very complimentary in the end,” Howard said. “She said something that meant a lot to me in the moment and later I realized just how complimentary it was. She said, ‘You could be another Wyler.’

“I later found out that she’d done a lot of her best work with William Wyler, the great, great director. And even later, I found out that at one time she’d been in love with William Wyler and really put him on a huge pedestal.

“So that was probably the greatest compliment she could pay to a new director.”