The Ron Howard comedy Night Shift (1982) is significant for two reasons: it marked the first collaboration between the young director and producer Brian Grazer and it was the feature film debut of Michael Keaton. The first reason is important because it was the beginning of a partnership between Grazer and Howard that continues to this day and has resulted in many films of theirs garnering not only critical acclaim, but some serious box office results and even a few Academy Awards. The second reason saw the debut of a major talent in the form of Keaton who comes to life on-screen with killer comic timing and the ability to play brilliantly off his fellow actors. The end result is a sweet comedy about seedy subject matter that, at first glance, doesn’t seem like the right material for Howard, but armed with a fantastic screenplay by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, he makes it work.
It helps that initially Howard plays it straight by showing the mean streets of New York City as a pimp frantically tries to avoid two persistent enforcers (one of whom is played by Richard Belzer). The sequence ends with the two thugs throwing him out a window while tied to a chair. He plummets in agonizingly slow motion only to crash through a basketball hoop down below. Queue the catchy theme song performed by Quarterflash – written by none other than Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. It plays over the opening credits as the camera follows a city morgue car driving through the streets at night, which sets a funky kind of vibe to offset what just came before.
Mild-mannered Charles Lumley III (Henry Winkler) works at the City Morgue where one night he meets Belinda (Shelley Long), a prostitute who comes in to identify the body of her pimp that took the swan dive in the film’s prologue. Charles feebly tries to protest being switched over to the night shift despite his six years on the job in favor of his superior’s dimwitted nephew (“That Barney Rubble – what an actor!”). To make matters worse, he has to break in a new co-worker – Billy “Blaze” Blazejowski (Michael Keaton) who comes bounding into the City Morgue office full of energy, his Walkman blasting “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” while he rattles off all sorts of questions at Charles, At one point, he picks up a framed picture of Charles’ fiancée and asks, “Hey, Chuck, who’s this? The wife? to which he replies, “Fiancée.” Without missing a beat, Billy says, “Nice frame.”
After Charles discovers Belinda beaten up in the elevator of the apartment building they both live in, the two neighbors get to talking and she laments at the loss of her pimp. It has made life for her and her girlfriends tough because they have no one to protect them from their clients. Charles tells Billy who comes up with the idea that they become pimps or “love brokers” as he puts it. Charles is understandably skeptical – it could be yet another of Billy’s scatterbrained ideas, but is swayed by Belinda’s charm as they become close friends over breakfast every morning. Armed with Charles’ financial acumen and Billy’s boundless enthusiasm and people skills, they become pimps and realize that they are quite good at it, but soon run afoul of the guys that took out Belinda’s previous pimp.
In his personal life, Charles is engaged to a woman that clearly controls their relationship as evident in a scene that sees Henry Winkler channeling a nebbish Woody Allen in what would’ve been a pretty good audition tape for one of his films. Charles comes home every day and narrowly avoids being mauled by a neighbor’s dog that seems to roam the hallways of the apartment building unsupervised. Basically, he’s a doormat who lets every one in his life walk all over him and doesn’t seem to mind all that much. He’s resigned himself to this lot in life.
Known at the time for playing the cool Arthur Fonzarelli on the popular television sitcom Happy Days, Winkler is cast wonderfully against type as a meek guy who is too busy making everyone else happy and not paying attention to his own needs. With his often nervous, mild tone of voice and button-down attire, Charles is miles away from the smooth-talking, black leather jacket-clad Fonz. After playing such an iconic role, I’m sure he wanted to avoid being typecast. Winkler does a nice job of showing Charles’ gradual transformation from pushover to someone that becomes more assertive in his personal and professional life with help from Billy and Belinda who give him a push at just the right moments.
Billy fancies himself an idea man and carries around a tape recorder because he gets so many ideas on a given day. (“I can’t control them. It’s like they come charging in. I can’t even fight ‘em even I wanted to.”) He comes up with some real doozies, like the solution to eliminating garbage on the streets of New York – edible paper. Or, putting mayonnaise in a tuna fish can, which only sparks an even better idea – feed mayo to live tuna (“Call Starkist.”). It’s a fantastic introduction, not only to the character of Billy, but also to Michael Keaton who arrives like a force of nature, bouncing off of Winkler’s reserved Charles and reacting to everything like an over-caffeinated kid.
Keaton is a revelation as Billy Blaze, playing a scene-stealing hustler who seems to coast through life on his wits. The actor nails his character in scenes like the one where Billy unconvincingly conveys Charles’ plan to Belinda and her friends. He starts off by hilariously breaking down the word “prostitution” in what amounts to a lot of nonsense. Fortunately, Charles steps in as the obvious brains of the operation by telling these women that they can make ten times what they make now, which definitely gets their attention. That being said, Billy isn’t all flash and bluster as demonstrated in a nice moment he has with Charles and Belinda where he reflects on his dysfunctional parents, which gives us a little insight into what motivates him.
The admittedly raunchy premise is tempered by the sweet romance that develops between Charles and Belinda. Unlike his fiancée, she doesn’t boss him around, but instead treats him as an equal. Before she became a household name with Cheers, Shelley Long was delightful as Belinda, the hooker with a heart of gold. She brings a nice amount of charm to the role and has good chemistry with Winkler.
Brian Grazer and Ron Howard first met in 1978, but nothing came of the encounter. Three years later, Grazer, ambitiously trying to make a name for himself as a producer, sought out Howard once again with an idea he had for a film. It was inspired by an actual news item about two guys that ran a prostitution ring out of a New York City morgue. Howard wasn’t immediately taken with the idea, but liked the notion that it would defy people’s expectations of him.
Howard had been trying to develop screenplays with two writers that had worked on Happy Days – Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. They took Grazer’s idea and wrote a script that the aspiring producer shopped around Hollywood. Most of the studio heads liked the premise, but weren’t crazy with the idea of letting “the kid from Happy Days” direct. However, Alan Ladd Jr. over at Warner Bros. decided to take a chance on Howard after George Lucas vouched for him.
When it came to casting Night Shift, Grazer and Howard pursued John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, but when they were unable to get them opted for Michael Keaton and Henry Winkler. At the time, Winkler had grown tired of playing a character like the Fonz and wanted to portray someone “more like myself.” He remembers that Mickey Rourke auditioned for the role of Billy Blaze and came in with a transistor radio tied with twine around his neck. Keaton was a stand-up comedian and made the decision to play Billy Blaze like someone who was hyperactive. The energy he conveyed in dailies freaked out studio executives so much that they pressured Howard to recast the role. However, the young director believed that Keaton was an “improvisational genius” and convinced executives that through editing his scenes the comedian would be a crowd-pleaser.
Night Shift enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Pauline Kael felt that it wasn’t “much of a movie but manages to be funny a good part of the time anyway.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Keaton is a former improvisatory comedian whose timing is as good as his gags and who doesn’t miss a beat when he is sparring with Mr. Winkler.” Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “This isn’t as snappily directed or as caustically conceived as the subsequent Risky Business, which has a similar theme, but it’s arguably just as sexy and almost as funny.” Finally, Variety wrote, “Though the plot line hardly sounds like a family film, this is probably the most sanitized treatment of pimps and prostitution audiences will ever see. None of this much matters, because director Ron Howard and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, all TV veterans, are only bent on giving the audience a good time.”
Most of the film’s humor comes from the contrasting personalities of the straight-laced Charles and the wild and crazy Billy Blaze. Eventually, his constant chatter gets on Charles’ nerves and he tears into Billy in a rare moment where he loses his cool. It’s a rare moment of friction between the two and they quickly bond from it as a result. Howard picks the right moments to insert a bit of reality, be it the rough patch that Charles and Belinda hit in the last third of the film or the eventual reappearance of the thugs that killed Belinda’s pimp. These scenes threaten to upset the delicate balance that Howard manages to maintain for most of the film. These moments remind us what’s at stake for these characters and provides some much-needed conflict that Charles and Billy have to overcome.
Leave it to Ron Howard to make a feel-good comedy about prostitution, succeeding where the similarly-themed Doctor Detroit (1983) failed. This is due in large part to the winning appeal of Keaton and Winkler who make an excellent comedic team. Like most of Howard’s films, there’s a strong, humanistic core at the heart of Night Shift as Charles brings some compassion and decency to a profession not exactly known for such things. I suppose that’s what makes this film a bit of wish fulfillment, escapist fare to help us forget about our humdrum lives for a couple of hours. The film proved to be a modest hit for Grazer and Howard, leading to their next, even bigger commercial hit, Splash (1984).
Gray, Beverly. Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon …and Beyond. HarperCollins. 2003.
Heisler, Steve. “Random Roles: Henry Winkler.” A.V. Club. April 29, 2009.