By Jim Jerome
Updated April 09, 1984 12:00 PM

When Disney studios cast its $9 million bread upon the unlikely waters of Splash, nobody expected it would net a monstrous audience. Yet everyone from toddler to critic is hooked on the buoyantly sexy boy-meets-mermaid romantic fantasy that has become the most delightfully gentle surprise hit of the year. The Splash smash seems certain to make a star of its mermaid fin fatale, sensuous Daryl Hannah, 23, a 5’10”, 120-pound dazzler. Splash may boost the career of Tom Hanks, pushing 30, who plays the lovelorn produce merchant with whom the mermaid falls in love, and it has given John Candy, 33, who plays his flashy lech of a brother, his best role ever. Most of all, it marks the emergence of director Ron Howard, 30, saddled for years with a rep as a good-natured juvenile, as a new force in Hollywood. “People buy the fantasy,” says Howard, who still seems stunned by Splashmania raves and revenues. “The mermaid story has always been a negative thing, the love you can never have. We flipped that and it came out fresh.”

It nearly spoiled many times along the way, as major studios threw the project back for being “too silly.” One daunting obstacle hardly helped the pitch—there already was a $30 million film in the works titled Mermaid. That project boasted what Howard understates was “a heavyweight package” of players: Warren Beatty, star; Robert (Chinatown) Towne, writer; Herbert Ross, director; Ray Stark, producer; Jessica Lange “discussed” as the mermaid and E.T. creator Carlo Rambaldi, the mechanical designer. A threatened actors’ strike, however, had delayed progress.

Howard teamed 22 months ago with Splash producer Brian Grazer, writer Bruce Jay Friedman and new writers Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, who had worked on his Happy Days series and his 1982 film, Night Shift. “Beatty and those guys didn’t build their careers by racing to beat strike deadlines,” says Howard. “We, on the other hand, were happy to win a footrace.”

The stakes had soared for Howard, who had passed on directing jobs for Mr. Mom and Footloose (combined grosses to date: $110 million) in order to fight for Splash. Once Disney productions agreed, Howard, who had been Opie on The Andy Griffith Show for eight years, nonetheless balked at the association. “It seemed just too perfect. Little Ronny Howard grows up to make films for Walt Disney studios. That bothered me. It seemed counterproductive.” But when Howard was convinced that Disney wanted a new mature image as well, he plunged in and promptly blew Mermaid out of the water with his Splash gem. “It’s great when a studio gambles like that,” he says. “I always go for the underdog.”

Splash has ended Howard’s days as one of those. For his next film, Cocoon, a $10 million sci-fi extravaganza, Howard snagged a reported $1 million fee. He now suddenly finds himself in the rarefied “lunch with Steven” bunch. “Spielberg sent me a note,” he says with unchecked exuberance, “and had lots of complimentary things to say about Splash. I had it read back to me by phone twice in New York.” The mutual admiration led to a lunch at Spielberg’s new corporate power base in Los Angeles, during which Ron sought some special-effects advice for his upcoming Cocoon project.

It’s still a little dizzying. “I’m enjoying this but not reveling in it quite yet,” says Howard, who had gained Hollywood insiders’ respect for capably directing less successful films like 1977’s Grand Theft Auto, Night Shift and the 1980 TV film with Bette Davis, Skyward. “It’s not like people always ran around saying I was a joke, but this is the realization of the potential people thought I had. It is real gratifying,” he says. “It has definitely raised my stock, as well as Disney’s.”

Howard, who played Richie on the Happy Days series for seven years, knows one smash hit and a seven-figure fee could give anyone the creative bends. “It’s not so much the money,” he says, “because I could never make on a film what I made—and walked away from—on Happy Days for a year. It’s more getting suckered into the false pressure of feeling my next movie has to be as commercial as Splash to be good. And people may start agreeing with everything I say. That can really haunt you.”

Ironically, what spooked Howard as a youngster in California was the ocean deep. “It always scared me,” he says. “I never wanted to go surfing out by the breakers.” The monthlong underwater shoot in the Bahamas added a new challenge to his considerable directorial gifts. He and the cast and crew trained for scuba diving, and Howard, weighted down in his wet suit, learned to direct on a set 30 feet under. In Hannah he found a perfect athlete. While reading for the part, she had told Howard that as a Chicago kid she tied her feet together, swam in her family pool with fins on and made mermaid sounds. Howard didn’t buy it but hired her anyway. It wasn’t until he asked her to watch an audition of aquaballerinas for underwater double work that he knew he had a perfect catch. “I asked her to jump in just for size and shape,” he recalls. “She started dolphin kicking, smiling and gliding. It was lyrical and beautiful. I told her, ‘Do yourself, the movie and me a favor. Get in shape with the tail and do as many of the shots as you physically can.’ ”

Hannah swam through four of five daily dives of 45 minutes each and only was replaced by a double in a silhouette shot. No splashdance here. Hanks, who still smoked, found himself “pounding on my chest—that was the hand signal for ‘I need air’ rather vigorously. I grew up in awe of Jacques Cousteau and the American Sportsman shows on TV. Scuba was something I would maybe do on a dare after enough beers. But as a job I found the diving a real challenge.”

Kissing Hannah at 30 feet below was no problem. “You still hold your breath, still close your eyes. Same old stuff. She was so natural and giving. She made it easy to act like I love her.” Howard rigged an underwater lifeline that snaked through the set. This enabled Hannah or Hanks to swim through the scene, then move off-camera to the nearest point on the lifeline for an oxygen pit stop. Howard used hand signals and a slate to communicate. Just staying on the set proved difficult in strong currents. “It was sometimes hard to keep people in the frame when we got caught up in currents,” Howard says.

Hannah had to lie still for three hours daily as technicians greased her up to put on her 35-pound rubber fin. “At lunch they’d yank me out on a crane and plop me on the deck,” groans Daryl. “I couldn’t eat because I couldn’t go to the bathroom. I just lay there shivering with barnacles in my hair, soaking wet.” She had to be cut loose from the fin at day’s end.

John Candy, who didn’t figure in any swimming scenes, moans jokingly that he “got no Bahamas trip and no underwater scenes with Daryl. It was a closed set anyway. They wouldn’t even let me in.” Candy thinks they were afraid he’d start acting like his lech character, “just for researching the part.”

If the rubber fin chafed and bruised Hannah’s bronzed legs, she was pained as well by what she didn’t wear. “She wasn’t happy with the amount of nudity in the film,” says Howard, “though she had done a fair amount in [two of her previous films] Summer Lovers and Reckless. She was extremely uncomfortable and determined to put an end to it.” Howard worked hard to change her mind. “I never lied to her about what was in the shots, and every shot was storyboarded. She didn’t like them but did them fast and very professionally.” She also pasted Band-Aids over her nipples and makeup over that.

Hanks spent 10 hours naked in a lab tank for one riotous scene in which the mermaid and her lover are examined by a marine biologist. “You just kinda do it,” he says. “It gets real dull after a while. But for Daryl it’s tough. There are lots of lecherous men on sets. She had her ground rules, like, no screaming and pointing.”

Scenes on land were rough as well. Hanks nearly wiped out a BMW laden with cameras while squealing through the Wall Street district in a car chase scene. And Hannah, a devout vegetarian, broke down and wept when she had to bite through a real lobster shell and swallow for a restaurant scene. “I’m so pathetic. I can’t even bite a cupcake if its got a frog’s picture on the icing,” says Daryl. “She could not swallow,” adds Howard. “So Brian Grazer and I rushed into the kitchen, scooped out the lobster meat and replaced it with baked potato and hearts of palm. You can’t tell it isn’t lobster.”

It’s also hard to notice that the two lovers who plunge into the murky East River to escape police aren’t Hanks and Hannah. “We literally could not get insurance because of the diseases we’d get,” says Hanks. “We used doubles, who got shot up with gamma globulin to fight off tetanus, bubonic plague, hoof-and-mouth disease.”

All three actors are quick to credit Howard’s comic instincts and his keen actorly insights as deeper keys to Splash’s success. “He has seen absolutely everything that can possibly happen on a set,” says Hanks, “because the man started doing it three months before he was born or something like that.” Hanks sighs and, with his irrepressible flair, adds with a mock scowl, “Ron will be huger than all of us, and we’ll really be bitter about it in the future. Ron’s the king.”

Maybe, but the three principals are sudden superstars. As Hanks puts it, “I didn’t think it would be a stinker, maybe a little cartoonish, but the first weekend I get a call: ‘Six million bucks at the box office.’ You’re in your first big film. It’s beyond my comprehension. That’s a lot of money. You can’t get it much better, right outta the box. It’s perfect.”

Hanks, the son of a San Francisco Bay area restaurateur, spent three seasons with a Cleveland-based Shakespeare rep group before a series of Off-Off-Broadway shows got him to L.A. and into ABC’s cultishly popular Bosom Buddies series. Married, with children ages 6 and 2, he lives in the San Fernando Valley. Asked if Splash has affected him, he says, “Yes, I’m now sullen and arrogant. No. Not true.” Yet he peculiarly won’t give his wife’s name beyond saying it is Sam and that she is an actress. “It won’t help her career to be known as an appendage named Mrs. Tom Hanks.” (She is, in fact, Samantha Lewes.) Are scripts already piling up? “Yes, the deluge has begun,” he says. “There is an immediate rush to get me all sorts of scripts with no financing.” In fact, his next will be Bachelor Party. “It’s as raunchy as you can get within the realm of decency.” And do his friends treat him differently now? “They ask to get in for free,” he jokes. “Sorry, guys. I didn’t have points in Splash. The last time they gave an actor points I think was Fess Parker for Davy Crockett.”

John Candy feels a different sort of splashdown effect up on the farm he owns north of Toronto. “As a matter of fact,” he cracks, “there hasn’t been any change. I’m getting a little worried.” Candy grew up around Toronto and is a veteran of such films as Stripes and Going Berserk and the wildly popular SCTV show. Married and the father of a 4-year-old girl, he will spend the next few months in L.A. developing three projects for Disney’s Touchstone division as writer and actor. But he’ll always go back North and East. “It’s 87 in L.A. today,” he says. “And I’m buying more firewood here. I must have something wrong with my head.”

If Hanks and Candy always seem on, Hannah offscreen tends to resemble a clam. Intensely private and aloof, she shies away from any inquiry not aimed at her career. Daryl concedes only that she lives in a small one-bedroom rented house “in the L.A. area” (actually above Sunset Blvd.); that she has a boarder (screenwriter David Sten) living in a space attached to the garage; that since coming to L.A. three years ago she has roomed, at different times, with Susan Saint James and Rachel Ward.

The daughter of wealthy Windy City tugboat and barge company owner Don Hannah, Daryl saw her parents divorce and remarry, giving her a total of seven siblings. In Chicago she attended the progressive Francis W. Parker School (as did Flashdance’s Jennifer Beals) and took acting classes at the Goodman Theatre. Moving to L.A. and USC, she started with small roles in films (The Fury, Blade Runner) and TV (Paper Dolls). Her current relationship is with rock star Jackson Browne, 34, in whose recent video, Tender Is the Night, she appears. Browne is divorcing second wife Lynne Sweeney by whom he has a 2-year-old son, Ryan.

In conversation, Daryl’s voice is sweet and soft, her eyes furtive and remote. Walking along the beach at Malibu for a photo session, she is quick to appease a camera, even quicker to elude a line of questioning. The camera loves her; the tape recorder can’t get close. Since Splash she has “been offered lots of really wonderful roles and stuff, which is great. I’m all for it, you know. It’s like a license to play for your whole life.” Her new film, The Pope of Greenwich Village (she plays Mickey Rourke’s aerobic dancer wife), is due in June, and she’s just signed to star as the prehistoric heroine of The Clan of the Cave Bear, based on the 1980 Jean Auel best-seller. And as for that mermaid story she told Howard at her audition: “I know he didn’t believe me,” she says girlishly, “but it turns out it’s true.”

Hannah strolls along the beach, and a tiny girl scampers up to her and gapes. Then she drops to the sand and draws a circle hugged by long straight lines. Hannah bends down and examines the form. “What’s that?” she asks the youngster. “I’m drawing you,” the girl says. “What’s your name?” Hannah asks. “Kate.” The girl looks off to her mother. “Mommy, it’s the mermaid girl. Look.” Kate’s mother walks over. “Kate’s the family artist.” Then she introduces herself. She is Julie Towne, Mermaid screenwriter Robert’s ex-wife; Kate is their daughter. Hannah’s face registers none of the wrenching irony in the chance meeting.

Moments later, Howard is told of the chance encounter. He looks at the girl and the woman heading toward home, scans the beach and flashes a wide satisfied grin. “Hmmph,” he shrugs. “Small world, eh?”