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    Opie Backs Darth Vader

    Ron Howard's sticking by his kid actor brethren.

    The erstwhile Opie has blasted Newsweek for tagging 9-year-old Jake Lloyd--who plays the young Anakin Skywalker in the upcoming Star Wars prequel--as "Mannequin Skywalker."

    "Downright irresponsible," actor-turned-director Howard charges in a letter to the magazine printed this week.

    At issue is a January 18 Newsweek item titled, "The Kid Can't Act." The brief recounts buzz from "insiders" who say the word on Lloyd is that "he stinks," and that his bad acting is redeemed only by residual cuteness.

    Lloyd snagged the pivotal role of Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader, after costarring with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1996 comedy Jingle All the Way.

    Rumor that Lloyd's Star Wars performance tended to the wooden side surfaced on the Internet months ago--about the same time people were claiming director George Lucas shot the film out of focus.

    "For Newsweek to attack a child's performance based on rumor and without even having seen the movie is shameful," Howard writes.

    The Apollo 13 filmmaker says he has seen Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace, and says, "in my opinion, Jake is terrific."

    Howard feels Lloyd's pain as perhaps only someone who spent his Wonder Years in the public eye can. Howard played Sheriff Taylor's good son Opie on The Andy Griffith Show from 1960-68, literally growing up before the nation. He knows the child star game well.

    "I can assure you that Jake is quite capable of reading, understanding and feeling the full humiliation of a piece like that," Howard writes.

    That Howard would stick up for a player in a George Lucas project is also not surprising. He starred in Lucas' American Graffiti and collaborated with him on the 1988 fantasy Willow.

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