Ron Howard almost wasn't on 'The Andy Griffith Show'
You can thank Ronald Reagan for getting Ronny Howard cast as Opie.
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Opie Taylor is one of the most iconic sitcom kids of all time. Featured in bittersweet stories like "Opie the Birdman" and "Opie and the Bully," Opie tugged at hearts of audiences everywhere who just wanted the best for Sheriff Andy's boy on The Andy Griffith Show. But according to Ron Howard, who famously took the role as a young child star, there was a pretty good chance we'd never have met him as Opie at all.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Howard discussed what led to his casting on the 1960s series. It turns out that it was actually one of the "most fun of all" jobs Howard took before The Andy Griffith Show that – by a series of serendipitious circumstances – led Howard to be chosen as Andy Griffith's son.
The show was called General Electric Theater, and the episode "Mr. O'Malley." It featured Ron Howard as a boy named Barnaby who desperately wants a dog, but his workaholic dad won't allow it. Luckily, Barnaby has a "fairy godfather" (played by Bert Lahr), an imaginary friend who shows up to save the day. The only trouble is, try as he might, he can't seem to grant Barnaby's wish. Howard said in the interview, "They were great scenes. I just loved them.”
If you caught this episode when it aired in 1959, it's possible you didn't realize what you were watching was a pilot for what was meant to be a series that followed the adventures of young Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley, which were based on a popular 1940s comic created by Harold and the Purple Crayon author Sonny Crockett, called Barnaby. What's more, Howard said he'd already agreed to do the series if it sold, so had the episode struck a more significant chord with viewers, Howard never would've been considered for The Andy Griffith Show.
But that's not how history played out. Instead, Howard said the episode concluded and Ronald Reagan, the host of General Electric Theater, surprised the child star by calling out his performance: "At the end of the day, somehow Mr. O’Malley could never figure out how to get me a dog, but [in the episode] my father gets the message and gets me a dog, and I think Mr. O’Malley did it. And it was a pilot for a TV series. And Ronald Reagan was then hosting that show, and I guess I didn’t have much of a credit, but Ronald Reagan had seen the episode and at the end, he just adlibbed this thing and said, ‘And special thanks to little Ronny Howard who did a wonderful job as Barnaby,’ or something like that."
Howard continued, "So that led Sheldon Leonard to call my agent and say, ‘I’m doing a series with Andy Griffith and we need a son. And I don’t think that [Mr. O'Malley] series is gonna sell. So I’m willing to take Ronny Howard in second position and put a hold on him.’"
Who knows if Leonard would have been so sold had Reagan not heaped some praise on the boy? Howard said the General Electric Theater basically served as his audition, since he never had a formal one for The Andy Griffith Show. Instead, Howard recalled this amusing encounter he had with The Andy Griffith Show co-creator Aaron Ruben when they first met:
"I remember going in and meeting Aaron Ruben and for some reason, he said, ‘How tall are you?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know how tall I am.’ But I could stand under his desk, so he thought that was kind of funny that I could stand under his desk, and he said, ‘Okay, we’ll measure my desk later.’ But I don’t remember anything like an audition for The Andy Griffith Show."
In case you're curious what led to Howard's auspicious casting in this General Electric Theater episode, you should know that as usual, it all ties back to Howard's actor dad Rance. Howard said General Electric Theater director Sherman Marks ran an acting school his dad had attended and sometimes Ronny would go down and observe. That's how he ended up catching Marks' eye, then Leonard's, and finally, Andy's.
Howard took on just a handful of roles before The Andy Griffith Show, appearing in shows like The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Twilight Zone, Dennis the Menace, Playhouse 90 and Johnny Ringo. Of them all, he liked General Electric Theater best, saying, "I don’t have a single stressful recollection surrounding any of those early jobs. And then, most fun of all, was this part that I got to do on this show called General Electric Theater."