Remembering Rance Howard
By Jim Clark
Rance Howard, died in Los Angeles on November 25, 2017. He was 89. With his passing, we recognize the loss of someone who was one of the quiet keys to the success of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
With a simplicity and grace typical of his father and also a flair for new-fangled technology that Rance largely and happily finessed, Ron Howard announced his father’s death on Twitter that Saturday afternoon:
“Clint & I have been blessed to be Rance Howard’s sons. Today he passed at 89. He stood especially tall 4 his ability to balance ambition w/great personal integrity. A Depression-era farm boy, his passion for acting changed the course of our family history. We love & miss U Dad.”
Then again, son Clint’s comments on Facebook shortly afterward hinted that maybe Rance’s technology skills did in fact exceed the horse-and-buggy days:
“I sincerely appreciate all the kind words and hope you all realize what a loss this has been. If I don’t get back to you, it’s because there are hundreds of folks who have reached out here on Facebook and I’m not as fast on the keyboard as the Old Man. And he had a manual! My page may go unattended for a spell. I hope you understand.”
That Rance Howard had an enormous impact on his two sons’ lives is obvious. But it’s also really hard to overstate the crucial role that Rance played in the solid foundation of “The Andy Griffith Show.” And no one sang praises about Rance louder than Andy Griffith himself.
Andy often and emphatically credited Rance with not only helping Ron become a brilliant child actor, but also with shaping how the character of Opie was developed. (There will be much more about this aspect of Rance’s life in words directly from Ron and Clint Howard in a tribute following this article.)
Always a parent (but often in ways not always apparent), Rance and Jean Howard made sure that at least one of them was on the set the entire time that either Ron or Clint was working.
Rance was usually the one with Ron on the TAGS set (and he was always there when Clint was also there performing as Leon), which is also one way Rance himself happened to be asked to play a few small roles on TAGS. But when Rance needed to be in Florida in the late 1960s to work on “Gentle Ben” with Clint for two seasons, Jean took the reins with Ron on TAGS.
There is probably no better example in all of Hollywood history of a family working so well as a team to pursue careers in acting. Even so, Ron and Clint have always been careful to point out that, when they were growing up, the family always lived on Rance’s earnings. Whatever money Ron and Clint earned went into their own personal accounts. Doing things the right way was simply the Rance Howard way.
A son of the former Ethel Cleo Tomlin and the farmer Engle Beckenholdt, Harold Engle Beckenholdt was born in Duncan, Okla., on November 17, 1928. Young Harold was first drawn to acting in a junior high Christmas production. He eventually changed his name to Rance Howard when he decided to pursue acting as his profession.
Rance studied drama at the University of Oklahoma, and sooner than later he had honed his talents to a level high enough to be performing with Henry Fonda in a national tour of Mister Roberts.
Rance and future wife Jean Speegle met as teenagers in Oklahoma. Both were part of a touring repertory company that did plays for children. They were married while on tour. For their wedding ceremony, Jean dressed as Snow White and Rance was a huntsman.
Rance and Jean got off the road and initially settled in New York City, where Rance found work with “Kraft Theatre” and other shows of the late 1950s. Jean focused on running a household and raising a growing family.
Ronny began to show both great interest in and talent for acting. Rance taught Ronny technique and helped him learn his lines, which was especially necessary, because Ron could not yet read.
The first filmed work for both Rance and Ron (definitely for Ron) was the 1956 film Frontier Woman, which was shot in Mississippi and was not strictly what could be called a Hollywood production. Rance played the bad guy, Prewitt. Ron, about a year-and-half years old at the time, was cast against type as a crying infant. (Though filmed first, the movie was released after Rance’s first TV work for “Kraft Theatre,” which had been broadcast from New York that spring.)
The young couple eventually decided California was the place they ought to be. The family’s first big break on the West Coast came when Ronny was cast as Opie on TAGS.
For the record, Rance himself appeared in four episodes of TAGS (as the Bus Driver in “Cousin Virgil,” as the Governor’s Chauffeur in “Barney and the Governor,” as a Treasury Agent in “A Black Day for Mayberry” (in which Clint also appears) and as a Party Guest in “The Rumor.”
In addition, Rance earned a story credit for “The Ball Game” in the eighth season (and truth be told, he essentially wrote the script as well, but wasn’t given the credit he deserved). Rance also previously had a quick part (Don’t blink!) as a member of the camera crew in “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” the pilot for TAGS that was part of “The Danny Thomas Show.”
Rance likewise performed in “Happy Days” with Ron and with Clint in “Gentle Ben,” in which he played series regular Henry Boonhauer in 30 episodes and for which he also wrote the story or teleplay for five episodes.
Rance had well over 300 film roles in close to that many different productions. His roles were fairly evenly split between TV series and movies. He loved to play cowboys. He was also often cast as detectives, drivers, and clergymen. (He played the preacher who married Barney and Thelma Lou in Return to Mayberry.)
Rance appeared in two memorable episodes of “Seinfeld,” and he had good guest parts in episodes of hits such as “Bat Masterson,” “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza,” “The Waltons” (five episodes as Dr. McIvers), “Murder, She Wrote,” “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “ER,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Babylon 5” and “Bones,” just to scratch the surface.
Rance appeared in 15 of the professional movies that son Ron has directed, including Grand Theft Auto (Ron’s first as director), Splash, Apollo 13 (which also included memorable performances by wife Jean and son Clint), A Beautiful Mind, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Parenthood and Frost/Nixon.
It’s probably a safe bet though, that far and away Rance’s favorite part in one of Ron’s movies was as the homesteader Tomlin (also Rance’s mother’s maiden name) in Far and Away, in which Rance gets to ride like the wind across the Oklahoma prairie to stake his claim. (Much of Far and Away was inspired by Beckenholdt family lore.)
Rance and son Clint have also had roles in many of the same movies, above and beyond movies directed by Ron. Apple Seed, which completed filming this fall, is their most recent project together.
Six films in which Rance had parts were nominated for Best Picture Oscars, including three directed by Ron (Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and winner A Beautiful Mind), one starring Ron (The Music Man), Chinatown (another Best Picture winner), and Nebraska, a 2013 nominee.
Rance also popped up in TV commercials from time to time, including memorable ones for Skittles, Chrysler, and Disneyland.
Rance starred in two movies released in 2017 (Broken Memories and Chasing the Star), and he is in four movies currently in post-production with expected releases in 2018, including Apple Seed, in which Rance had a leading role and which had wrapped filming shortly before his death. He also had won parts in three other films that had not yet started filming.
Of Rance’s role in Broken Memories, Ron recently commented, “This is definitely the best role of his life.” About his dad, he added later: “He has an undying love of the process, which has made him appreciate every day on a film or television set.”
Ron continued, “And he’s never lost the youthful excitement for being a part of a process that tells a story that reaches audiences in different ways and reflects the work of a team of collaborators that share that excitement and that always rubbed off on me, that joy of being lucky enough to be among the storytellers.”
Actress Bryce Dallas Howard, Ron’s daughter, also had this to say about her grandfather in November: “He’s had a 65-year career where he has never broken out as a movie star.”
She continued, “He’s never made the money that people dream of, and yet he’s carved out this incredibly unique and remarkable and beautiful career of a character actor. He’s an example of that stick-to-it-ness and what that adds up to in a life.”
All who knew Rance were struck by his generosity and humility. Though he preferred to stay out of the spotlight when not working, Rance was always gracious about participating, usually quietly, as was his way, in projects he considered worthwhile. (Numerous times over the decades that generosity involved hospitality or assistance with endeavors associated with Mayberry and often with members of TAGSRWC. For that, we fans are forever grateful.)
Rance was preceded in death by first wife Jean, who died in 2000 and by second wife Judy (the former Judy O’Sullivan), whom he married in 2001 and who died of Alzheimer’s in January 2017.
A memorial celebration of Rance’s life is planned for early 2018.
A few days after Rance died, Ron tweeted. “Our family genuinely appreciates the outpouring of supportive tweets regarding #RanceHoward ‘s passing. For those who’ve asked, contributions to The Actors Fund, www.actorsfund.org/RanceHoward or Alzheimer’ of America would be lovely, but your kind words alone have been a gift.”
And then on November 30 (also the day that Jim Nabors died), Ron and Clint offered the world an amazing gift of words of their own.
The following tribute that the brothers wrote about their father was released for publication on November 30, 2017. We cannot think of a more perfect way to conclude a salute to Rance Howard than with these loving words of his two proud sons.
The Howard Boys Remember Their Dad
By Ron Howard and Clint Howard
“Having Opie sass back to Andy might get a few laughs, but it’s like every other sitcom and it hurts the father/son relationship.”
Aaron Ruben, Sheldon Leonard and Andy Griffith were surprised. Where did this 32-year-old father of child actor Ronny Howard find the nerve to chime in and pitch changes to their new CBS sitcom? Where did this guy come from?
Our Dad, Rance Howard, born Harold Beckenholdt (11-17-28), was an Oklahoma farm boy who caught the acting bug at age 12, performing in a Christmas pageant in the town’s one-room schoolhouse.
A brief stint at the University of Oklahoma was highlighted when he met his first wife, Jean, at a scene study class. They married in Kentucky while touring as actors in a children’s theater company and ultimately landed in New York. Dad’s big break came when he was cast as Lindstrom in the original Broadway hit Mister Roberts.
Dad noticed his first son Ronny loved being around rehearsals, and had a natural aptitude for acting. Despite their reservations, Rance and Jean allowed him to work professionally and Dad was suddenly juggling two acting careers.
Ronny began working on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and little brother, Clint, soon followed in the business.
While flourishing as an actor and writer (penning episodes of “The Flintstones”), he and Mom faced their unique parenting challenges making sure the boys lived as “normal” a life as possible. Park league sports was a valuable release that they made room for. Mom and Dad helped us navigate the tricky waters of the entertainment business like few parents have ever done. Not one day in either of our juvenile careers was a hired, legal guardian used.
Rance and Clint acted together in “Gentle Ben,” and a decade later he helped Ron launch his directing career by teaming with him to write Grand Theft Auto for Roger Corman.
When our Mom, Jean, developed heart disease, Dad devoted himself to caring for her. Sadly, he had to say goodbye after a 52-year journey. He met playwright Judy O’Sullivan and was blessed with a second loving marriage before Alzheimer’s took her earlier this year.
Dad joined SAG in 1949 and acted in over 140 films and 177 television shows. From “Zane Grey Theater” through Chinatown, Ed Wood, “X-Files,” Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and leads in Broken Memories and the upcoming Apple Seed, Dad continued to evolve his craft.
The effects of West Nile Virus lead to a rapid decline and ultimately heart failure. He wrapped his final acting role and was stricken 36 hours later. He was 89 when he passed.
Oh yeah, back to 1960, after a lunchtime confab with the producers, Andy Griffith approached the 32-year-old father from Oklahoma to reply to his post read-through comment. “You’re right, Rance. Instead of the usual sitcom approach, we want to base the relationship between Andy and Opie on what we see with you and Ronny. I’m glad you spoke up.” The men shook hands and remained friends their entire lives. Dad faced life and the travails of the entertainment business with enthusiasm, dignity and fearlessness. For that, we’ll be forever grateful.”
And just one more thing…
…for when you have about nine minutes to watch a rare Howard Family video compilation shot by Jean and Rance Howard during location shoots for “The Andy Griffith Show.” It’s truly amazing footage. Yet another reason for us to be forever thankful for TAGS and the Howards!