Don’t be surprised by Ron Howard directing a ‘Star Wars’ movie – his connection began 45 years ago

Paul Le Mat, left, Cindy Williams and Ron Howard in 1973’s “American Graffiti,” which began shooting 45 years ago Monday. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Universal

Paul Le Mat, left, Cindy Williams and Ron Howard in 1973’s “American Graffiti,” which began shooting 45 years ago Monday.

Some “Star Wars” fans were surprised by the news. Within days of Lucasfilm firing Phil Lord and Chris Miller as directors of next year’s untitled young-Han Solo spinoff film last week, Ron Howard was chosen to step in.

The hire might have raised some eyebrows – why did an accomplished producer-director like Howard want to take on such a challenging, high-stakes rescue project midstream? But to anyone who knows Howard’s history with “Star Wars,” his interest rings as entirely natural.

The source of his curiosity was born 45 years ago Monday, in fact: the day that “Star Wars” creator George Lucas and his teenage star Howard began shooting “American Graffiti” on the evening streets of San Rafael, before turning to other nearby locations in Northern California during a briskly paced, 28-day shoot.

As Howard told a Cannes Lion audience Friday: “I’ve been around the ‘Star Wars’ universe from the beginning.”

At one point during the shoot of “American Graffiti” – which is mostly set during a single night of cruising the streets of Lucas’ own adolescent Modesto in 1962 – director and star were outside the soon-to-be-iconic Mel’s Drive-In in San Francisco, and Howard asked Lucas what his next film might be.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I want to do a science-fiction movie,’” Howard said, “‘but a really fun one like ‘Flash Gordon’ with the effects of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001.’ I thought, ‘That sounds like a kind of crazy idea.’”

As Howard listened, one of his fellow actors on the shoot would prove to be a drinking and pranking rogue: a Los Angeles “carpenter to the stars” named Harrison Ford, the future “young Han Solo” in the flesh. Back in the summer of 1972, though, a cowboy-hatted Ford was driving not a Millennium Falcon but rather a black ’55 Chevy sedan.

Howard had landed the role of college-bound graduate Steve Bolander after open auditions with Lucas and casting director Fred Roos, who years earlier had cast Howard’s then-biggest claim to fame, “The Andy Griffith Show.”

“Ron Howard was a bit confused when he auditioned,” Brian Jay Jones, the Maryland-based author of the 2016 biography George Lucas: A Life, tells The Washington Post. “Lucas was pitching it as a musical, and Howard kept telling him, ‘Even though I was in ‘The Music Man,’ I don’t sing.’ Lucas kept saying: ‘No one sings. But it is a musical.’”

“Howard said he didn’t really get it until after he saw the film – that Lucas had used the rock music to help convey both mood and story,” Jones continues. “Howard said that was one of those epiphanies – that moment he knew this was a guy who thought outside the box.”

Meanwhile, serving as a producer on the film was Lucas’ “big brother” of a pal Francis Ford Coppola, whose involvement helped secure financing. A year earlier, Lucas had stayed with Coppola in New York while pitching “American Graffiti” to the president of United Artists. Coppola had a swagger when dealing with Hollywood suits – a trait that would directly form Lucas’ creation of the swashbuckling Han Solo.

As “American Graffiti” got underway, Howard was planning to study film at Lucas’ alma mater, the University of Southern California.

“‘American Graffiti’ was an opportunity for them to talk film,” Jones says, “even as Howard watched USC’s boy wonder at work.”

Howard also had to adjust to Lucas’ approach; the “Graffiti” actors didn’t always know which camera was the right one.

“Howard really admired the way Lucas shot film, that ‘documentary style’ as Lucas called it – setting up multiple cameras, not always telling his actors which one was doing the work, and then putting them to work,” Jones says. “Lucas thought it resulted in a much more naturalized performance. Howard said that it was a bit disorienting at first (but) then became liberating.”

The next year, “American Graffiti” would become a highly profitable, Oscar-nominated smash, of course, providing money that Lucas would pour into 1977’s “Star Wars.” And the film’s success would spur Howard’s long-running, nostalgic-for-sock-hops TV series, “Happy Days.”

Howard reprised his role for 1979’s “More American Graffiti,” and then – as his directing career took off in the ’80s – came back into Lucas’ orbit while making 1985’s “Cocoon,” which featured Oscar-winning effects from Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic.

“While they were reviewing the special effects (for ‘Cocoon’), in fact, Lucas mentioned Howard’s directing ‘Willow,’” Jones says. “That was the point – right after ‘Cocoon’ – that he and Lucas sealed the deal on the question and a handshake.”

Howard’s 1988 “Willow,” though a box-office disappointment, would receive Oscar nominations for visual and sound effects.

By this point, Lucas and Howard were speaking the same filmic language.

“Howard says by the time they finished postproduction on ‘Willow,’ he felt he’d completed his doctoral work in movies – especially in visual effects, intuition and ‘storytelling rhythms,’” Jones says.

The next decade, Lucas weighed whether to have some of his friends – including Howard – direct the “Star Wars” prequels.

Howard’s response: “You direct it, George – you direct it.”

Now, nearly a half-century after Lucas and Howard first spoke of “Star Wars” during that shoot with Ford, the student-turned-master inherits his shot at young Han Solo.

It’s been a long time coming.