A waiter at the Watergate restaurant sums it all up:

"Most directors work all their lives and never work with Bette Davis -- and here's little Opie. . ."

The waiter giggles. Actor/director Ron Howard, 26 -- in tweedy jacket, strawberry-blond hair grazing his ears -- laughs good-naturedly.

Howard grew up as Opie, the sheriff's son on "The Andy Griffith Show," and grew into Richie -- all-American '50s kid and friend of Fonzie -- on "Happy Days," which he quit after last season. He is sitting at lunch on one stop of a cross-country tour for his NBC made-for-TV movie "Skyward," hours before donning a tuxedo for last night's American Film Institute premiere.

"We're going to look rented tonight," says Anson Williams, 31 -- producer of "Skyward" and Howard's friend and co-star on "Happy Days" -- who a year and a half ago broached his idea to Howard: the story of a paraplegic teen-age girl who wants to learn to fly an airplane.

They are perpetually youthful faces. Howard -- collegiate-looking, down-to-earth, articulate. The quiet self-assurance and the slightly thinning hair smooth the edges of the boyish look. Once being identified as a perpetual Opie "bothered me a lot," he says, but now, after directing his fourth film (his first was for Roger Corman), "I feel I get a certain respect." But did he get respect from Bette Davis, who at 72 plays an ex-stunt pilot in this movie?

They sent her the script even though NBC told them they would never get her. "We heard her on a TV talk show saying she was tired of playing crusty-old-lady parts," says Williams.

"I think she was a little dubious," says Howard. "She kept calling me Mr. Howard. She knew how old I was."

Williams grins: "'Babies,' she said."

But one day, Howard continues, she said, 'Okay, Ron, see you tomorrow,' and she gave me this little slap on the rump. From that point on, I'd gained her confidence."

Later, the cast assembled before a press conference -- Davis, Howard Hesseman, Ben Marley and Suzy Gilstrap, a 14-year-old paraplegic who plays the heroine.

NBC says "Skyward" -- planned for release Nov. 20 -- is an example of its "unequivocal support in providing employment to the disabled." "We made a decision we wanted to look for someone who was paraplegic," Howard said -- otherwise, "it would have been hypocritical." After he and Williams spent months looking for the right actress, they found Gilstrap. "The casting director's secretary's cousin had a friend who teaches people wheelchair tennis," Howard said. Gilstrap was one of the students.

"I had enormous qualms," Davis said in her thundering low voice. "This is the first time in years I haven't had director approval. I just decided to do it. Over the phone, I was very rude with Ron Howard. I couldn't imagine this kid directing." Her verdict now: "He's very talented."

As for movies today, Bette Davis said, "It's not easy to learn to be an actress today. I think if I were starting today, I wouldn't do it."

After the movie was given a premiere showing at AFI, the cast was endlessly photographed at a reception in the Kennedy Center atrium. At one point Bette Davis was ushered over to a chili stand -- she cooks chili at a diner in the movie -- for pictures.

Davis leaned over a pot of chili to talk to Suzy Gilstrap who was also brought over for a photograph. "Did it feel strange seeing yourself?" Davis asked her. "I've never been able to stand seeing myself. I loathe it."

Davis showed up in a long flowered dress with pearls and short white gloves that she kept on for autographs. But she had lots of good things to say about the film and the producer and the director. "I am really proud to be part of this project," she told the audience before the film began.

Among the guests at the premiere and reception, which was given by the U.S. Council for the International Year of Disabled Persons, was actress Nanette Fabray. "Bette Davis and I made a picture in 1940 called 'Elizabeth and Essex,'" said Fabray, who was in town to be sworn in as a member of the National Council for the Handicapped. "I still had braces then."

The movie got a sustained round of applause and some dabbed at their eyes when the house lights went on. Gilstrap, who was crippled when a branch broke her back three years ago, was also besieged by well-wishers.

"Working in the heat in Dallas and playing the big emotional scenes were the hardest part," Gilstrap said. Last month she filmed a segment of "Little House on the Prairie." Now she returns to ninth grade in Irvine, Calif. "It will be kind of boring after all this," she said, giggling.

"The dance scene really got to me," said her father Chuck Gilstrap, about a scene in the film where Gilstrap is at a school dance with her boyfriend. Gilstrap doesn't have any problems with his daughter's budding acting career. "Whatever she wants to do -- within the bounds of what I think is reasonable for a 14-year-old."

He glanced across the room at his daughter. "Sometimes she looks like she's 18," he said. "I don't know if the accident made her more mature or what. One of her expressions is 'Go for it.' So if she wants to, that's fine."