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Howard ignored advice, pursued acting

Veteran actor to narrate Deere documentary

Rance Howard
Rance Howard

For some rookie actors, making it big in the entertainment industry is a lot like trying to bait a Greek muse: The choral notes lead to a relationship dark and twisting, and they bury one in shards of shattered dreams.

That was the gist of an argument heard by then-University of Oklahoma student Harold Rance Beckenholdt. It was an attempt by college staff to dissuade him from following a path to “heartbreak” in the acting business.

Beckenholdt, who later changed his name to Rance Howard, became known for roles as an actor and writer in movies and TV throughout the 20th century.

His career began in 1956 with his debut in “Frontier Woman.” Roles progressed to “The Music Man” in 1962, and to “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Cool Hand Luke,” and “Bonanza” in following years.

The father of actor/director Ron Howard and actor Clint Howard stayed relevant in his career with roles in “Cocoon,” “Apollo 13,” “Independence Day,” and more recently, “Nebraska.”

In a phone interview with Sauk Valley Media, Howard, also the grandfather of red-haired actress Bryce Dallas Howard, of “Spider-Man 3” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” fame, remained grounded with a down-to-earth demeanor.

Although he was bound to rub shoulders with celebrities at fundraisers and award shows, the 85-year-old never let the gold, glitter or glam of that life get to him. The man Howard is today has a lot to do with where he came from: Agriculture and agronomy run deep through his veins.

Familiarity with those topics was what brought him to work with Chris Burke and Fourth Wall Films on the upcoming John Deere documentary, he said.

“I grew up on a farm,” said Howard, an Oklahoma native born during the Great Depression into a family that raised hogs and cattle, and sturdy crops like wheat, barley and oats.

When Deere had adapted the plow to a thicker Midwest soil, it had been a paramount change.

“I’m very familiar with plowshares and how important they are,” Howard said. “It’s something that I could relate to and identify with … My dad used to take his plowshares to the blacksmith to get them sharpened a couple times a year.”

Howard’s dad used to work the farm with a walking plow, guided by two handles and pulled by a team of horses. He thought tractors weren’t a good idea because the wheels would pack the ground, Howard said.

Although wheat was their cash crop, corn sometimes would be cultivated.“You have a great a corn climate there [in the Sauk Valley],” he said.

Howard got the acting bug performing in plays of his one-room country school.

He attended the University of Oklahoma but didn’t graduate. He spent five semesters at the drama school, when he “began to hear professors and teachers downplay the idea of students being professional actors.”

“They said that being a professional actor was ‘so heart-breaking’ and ‘depressing’ and such a cut-throat business that they didn’t want to send their students into that professional world. They wanted us to be above that.”

He wasn’t dissuaded.

His lifetime of experience will be what Howard draws on when he narrates the documentary about John Deere’s early life.

“I like the honesty and truth and detail of the farm life and farming. I am so familiar with that myself that I really relate to it,” he said.

“When I narrate it, I’ll just try to make as real and honest as I can.”

A Reagan connection

Rance Howard first met Ronald Reagan during an episode of “General Electric Theatre,” an anthology series that presented a different story every week. Reagan spent time on set because he was the host.

“My young son, Ronny, had a role as Barnaby Baxter in ‘Mr. O'Malley,’” Howard said, referring to the show “Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley” with Bert Lahr.

At the very end of the episode, actors with smaller billing already had been presented, but his son had not. Reagan improvised and gave a “special thank you to little Ronny Howard.”

“He was very nice and very amiable … a conversational kind of guy," Howard recalled. “Just a regular guy. That was my introduction to Ronald Reagan.”

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