'Willow' at 35: How George Lucas enlisted his 'American Graffiti' star Ron Howard to direct follow-up to 'Star Wars' trilogy

Howard says Lucas was the first producer ever to give the former "Happy Days" star final cut on a film.

Warwick Davis in 'Willow,' left, Ron Howard directing Val Kilmer, right (Everett Collection)
Warwick Davis in Willow, left, and Ron Howard directing Val Kilmer. (Photos: Everett Collection)

Ron Howard was hardly a neophyte when he was enlisted by George Lucas to direct Willow (1988), the famed fantasy adventure about an aspiring sorcerer (Warwick Davis) who teams up with a hardened warrior (Val Kilmer) to protect an infant princess from a maleficent queen. The film, Lucas’s follow-up to the original Star Wars trilogy, was released on May 20, 1988.

Howard had already directed consecutive hits Splash (1984) and Cocoon (1985), and, of course, had been working in showbiz since childhood as an actor on TV staples The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days. In fact, Howard, who’d also costarred in Lucas’s film American Graffiti, was wrapping production on Cocoon when Lucas approached about helming Willow, an idea (originally called Munchkins) that the Star Wars creator had been kicking around since 1972.

But Willow’s lengthy, globe-spanning shoot, elaborate sets and complex action sequences made it an entirely formative experience for the burgeoning filmmaker.

“I grew a lot through that movie,” Howard told Yahoo Entertainment during a 2016 Director’s Reel interview (watch above, with Willow beginning at 3:03). “And the next movie I made [1989’s Parenthood] was easy. It was like I had nothing left to fear after I had navigated the 137 days of production or whatever it was to make Willow.”

Howard remains grateful to Lucas, who, despite the massive success of Star Wars, had trouble selling the idea to a major studio (after various rejections, MGM agreed to finance half of the film’s $35 million budget, while Lucas covered the rest).

“I was very flattered that George brought me into the project. He was going to bankroll this movie with his own money, which he did. So it was a huge endorsement from him," he said. “He was also the first studio company and producer to give me final cut, which was a pretty remarkable gesture.”

Willow was not a box-office behemoth à la Star Wars — it was the 12th highest-earning film in the U.S. in 1988 — but it was still a success, grossing $137 million worldwide. It also had long and lucrative shelf-life on home video. (Howard, meanwhile, got his own crack at the Star Wars universe when he replaced fired co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller on 2018's Solo: A Star Wars Story.)

A one-season sequel series, also called Willow, launched on Disney+ in 2022, with Davis returning to the title role and Howard serving as an executive producer.