Some of you might think the directorial career of child-actor-turned-sitcom-star-turned-veteran-filmmaker Ron Howard began when he had a young Tom Hanks fall in love with Daryl Hannah’s sexy mermaid in the 1984 comedy Splash. But he actually dropped two feature films before that. He directed and starred in Grand Theft Auto 45 years ago, a Roger Corman-produced car-chase comedy where he was one-half of an eloping young couple—and getting chased down by people looking to stop it. But 40 years ago this month, he directed the studio comedy Night Shift, which I have to admit I caught on cable way too many times as a youngster.
The first movie he worked on with producer and longtime partner Brian Grazer, Howard got his Happy Days co-star Henry Winkler to star as Chuck Lumley, a former Wall Street broker who’s now working as a nighttime city morgue attendant. His meek, simple life gets predictably turned upside-down when he meets two people: Bill “Blaze” Blazejowski (Michael Keaton), his new fast-talking, side-hustling co-worker; and Belinda Keaton (a pre-Cheers Shelley Long), a prostitute who lives next door in his building.
Chuck becomes concerned for Belinda and her business dealings, which start getting rough after her pimp—named Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jones—is killed by two thuggish associates (one played by comedian and longtime TV cop Richard Belzer). When he tells Bill about it, Bill gets the idea that they should be “lovebrokers,” serving as business managers for Belinda and her crew of pimpless streetwalkers. A reluctant Chuck goes along with the plan, and he and Bill run this business out of the morgue.
For some reason, comedies about prostitution were all the rage in the early ‘80s. The movie version of the Broadway musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, was also in theaters around that time. The following summer, Tom Cruise became a star as a kid who turns his parents’ house into a brothel in Risky Business, while Dan Aykroyd played a college professor pretending to be a dangerous pimp in Doctor Detroit. (That same summer, he also starred in Trading Places, where his love interest was Jamie Lee Curtis’s heart-of-gold hooker.) Just like Whorehouse, Shift was based on a true story: In 1976, two city employees and a laborer were charged with operating a call-girl ring out of a morgue. (“It was a very well run, professional operation,” a detective told the New York Times.) The story goes that Grazer saw this item and instantly thought this was big-screen material.
Night Shift has its flaws. Clocking in at damn-near two hours, it takes a while for its farcical premise to take off. While Howard (who has a brief cameo as a saxophone-playing beggar who shakes down Chuck) shows off an assured confidence behind the camera, he really should’ve taken a machete to the script (written by Happy Days scribes Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel). And while this R-rated comedy, filmed and set in the Big Apple during the grimy-as-hell ‘80s, has its share of naked boobs and butts (especially in a morgue-party scene that has Howard’s younger brother Clint and a young Kevin Costner playing frat brothers), it’s mostly a mild, playfully naughty affair. It’s basically a “clean dirty youth movie,” as then-Rolling Stone critic Michael Sragow called it in his review. Still, it was surprising at the time to see fresh-faced Opie Cunningham (that’s what Eddie Murphy kept calling Howard in this SNL skit) direct a film about the world’s oldest profession, with the Fonz losing the leather jacket and cool-guy mannerisms to assume the role of a weak-willed doormat who becomes a mild-mannered whore-wrangler.
Made for $8 million, it took in $21 million. The reviews were mixed: Janet Maslin called it “a halfway funny movie,” while Siskel and Ebert thought it was stupid, dated and too long. But most were won over by Keaton’s turn as a scheming yet sympathetic motormouth. “Thanks to Michael Keaton,” wrote Sragow, “who invents inspired, unpredictable space-cadet shticks, the movie still has its share of laughs.” Even Siskel wrote, “based on this one role, I would now pay to see Keaton in just about anything. Anything except Night Shift.”
Shift also gave us one of the biggest pop hits of the ‘80s—although that song became a hit when it was covered by someone else. Still riding high off the Oscar-winning success he achieved scoring the 1981 Dudley Moore hit Arthur, songwriting legend Burt Bacharach provided the music for Shift. He and wife/songwriting partner Carole Bayer Sager also composed three songs for the movie: An opening theme by ‘80s rock band Quarterflash, a montage number by jazz/soul great Al Jarreau and a love theme by rock legend Rod Stewart. That last track was called “That’s What Friends Are For,” which was covered a few years later by heavyweights Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder. While that cover, released as a charity single for AIDS research, became a Grammy winner and the biggest hit of 1986, the forgotten Stewart original is still some well-done pop schmaltz that also deserves some love.
Night Shift, which you can either rent/buy or just watch for free on YouTube, may not be one of the most memorable titles in Howard’s long, successful career as a filmmaker. (How many of you even knew this movie existed before you read this?) I’m sure Howard would much rather you remember him for helming such acclaimed, Oscar-winning films as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. But there are some of us who will always remember him as the guy who got Fonzie, Batman and Diane Chambers to star in a comedy about hoes.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.