Ronny Howard nearly played a popular comic strip character instead of becoming Opie
"Barnaby" first appeared in liberal papers… and almost kept Opie from Andy Griffith.
Crockett Johnson began his art career illustrating communist publications and ended it making mathematical abstract paintings, but in between, he created two enduring, adorable cartoon kids. The most widely known is Harold, the imaginative four-year-old with a magic crayon in Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955). But more influential, perhaps, was his earlier creation, Barnaby.
Barnaby, a comic strip about a cute five-year-old with a fairy godfather, first appeared in 1942 in the pages of PM, a leftwing newspaper funded by Marshall Field III that also featured the work of Dr. Seuss. Barnaby would later heavily inspire Charles Schulz's Peanuts and Bil Keane's Family Circus. You can see that in the similar look of the toddlers.
But even at the height of its popularity, Barnaby only appeared syndicated in a few dozen newspapers around the country. In comparison, Blondie could be found in more than 800 papers at the time. Still, the strip proved popular enough to spawn a stage adaptation, Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, which played in East Coast theaters in 1946.
Jump forward 13 years. Future governor and president Ronald Reagan was hosting General Electric Theater, an anthology series on CBS that put stage plays, short stories, and novels on camera.
That's just what happened in season eight, on December 20, 1959, with "Mr. O'Malley." The holiday-season episode adapted Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley for the small screen and gave audiences a chance to see Barnaby in the flesh. If it seems odd that the production would confusingly swing the spotlight onto Mr. O'Malley, that was likely because a bigger star portrayed the character. Bert Lahr, beloved from his role as the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, played the guardian angel in the raincoat and wings.
CBS had hopes to turn this pilot episode into a sitcom, Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley. The actors were locked in for the possibility.
In hindsight, the little boy is more notable. The show cast a five-year-old to play the five-year-old Barnaby. Finding a kid that age who can act and carry a story can be a challenge. Fortunately, they cast "Little Ronny Howard."
"Little Ronny Howard is cute as Barnaby," a critic wrote in the TV Key Previews column, "and you'll undoubtedly recognize the voice of Mel Blanc as McSnoyd the invisible leprechaun."
"Ronny Howard has been professional since he was two years old," The Tribune wrote. "He first appeared with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rance Howard of Burbank, Calif., in the Baltimore, Md., Hilltop Summer Theater production of 'The Seven Year Itch,' when his father was the resident director there."
So the boy was three years deep into his acting career at that point. Which is why other Hollywood power players had eyes on the youngster.
Producer Aaron Ruben placed a second hold on Ronny for his upcoming The Andy Griffith Show. (This according to his dad, Rance Howard himself.) He gambled that CBS would not pick up Barnaby as a series — and he was right. So, he got Ronny for his Opie.
"I remember going in and meeting Aaron Ruben and for some reason, he said, 'How tall are you?'" Ron Howard recalled. He didn't know how tall he was, but he could stand under Ruben's desk. So he stood under Ruben's desk. "We'll just measure my desk later," Ruben said. But Howard did not remember anything like an audition for The Andy Griffith Show, according to the podcast Two Chairs No Waiting.
Apparently, Barnaby was all they needed to see.
Watch The Andy Griffith Show on MeTV!
Weeknights at 8 & 8:30, Sundays at 6 & 6:30 PM*available in most MeTV markets
Fantagraphics Books has been publishing a complete reprinting of the original Barnaby comic strip, in a handsome (but ungodly expensive) hardcover edition.
So far, there are four volumes, covering the years 1942 through 1949.
One more volume is expected, to bring Barnaby to its conclusion in 1952.
The books contain extensive glossaries, explaining the various topical and satirical references, for the benefit of 21st century readers (and more than a few 20th century readers) who'll need the explanations.