Ron Howard saw Richard Thomas as a role model
"While I am not following in his footsteps, I’d like a career like his."
When Happy Days premiered, The Waltons was the top show in the country for nostalgia fans.
For Ron Howard, who was excited about starring in Happy Days, one of the highlights of his acting career happened during a TV episode that aired nine days after his new TV series premiered.
That’s when he appeared on The Waltons across from John-Boy actor Richard Thomas.
In a scene they shared in an emotional episode of The Waltons called "The Gift" where Howard’s character has leukemia, Thomas had to cry on cue, and Howard couldn’t hide his admiration for the other young actor in the scene who showed Howard a few new tricks while he was onset.
"I have tremendous admiration for Richard," Howard told The Boston Globe in 1974. "It was quite a thing playing with him. He had to cry in a scene with me, then he cried again for my benefit when I was doing a closeup. I never had anyone do that before."
Helping Howard stay in the scene was second nature to Thomas, who by then was in the second season of The Waltons and proven out as a true pro at conjuring compelling drama.
At the time, the comparisons from TV critics between Howard and Thomas were obvious, with one representing the lighter side of nostalgic television and the other playing the heavier hand.
When Happy Days premiered, though, despite Howard’s star power, not every critic cheered.
TV critic Bettelou Peterson wrote in 1974 that she preferred shows that praised a return to old values like The Waltons. She was "not so keen, ya know what I mean" about the "questionable taste" of showing what went on between teenage boys and girls in the Fifties, although she noted that the scenes Happy Days painted did not "necessarily" ring "untrue."
History shows that many more people sided with TV critics like Paul Jones, who proclaimed "Nostalgia is for everybody – if it’s well done." In 1974, he counted both Happy Days and The Waltons among television’s best examples.
"Happy Days, which is based on the lives of teenage boys in the 1950s, is a very pleasant show," Jones wrote. "It is popular not only among young people, but TV fans of all ages."
"The Waltons is another example of nostalgia which is good," Jones said. "The Waltons is all about life in The Depression, an era which I remember not too fondly, yet an era which provides great romance and excitement for television viewers who have made The Waltons one of the top-rated shows on TV."
Howard said amidst this seeming battle over what made for great nostalgic TV, he never got to the point where he wanted to be Richard Thomas, but he did see Thomas as a model for the type of roles he hoped to get beyond Happy Days.
"He is a high-quality actor and I feel I am, too," Howard said. "While I am not following in his footsteps, I’d like a career like his, rather than one like David Cassidy or Bobby Sherman, who may be teenage idols, but whose popularity span is short."