Garry Marshall, the writer/director responsible for creating a slew of classic TV sitcoms in the 1970s-1980s, then followed that up by helming several hit comedy movies over a generation, died Tuesday following complications from a series of strokes. Marshall was 81.
Among his TV creations: The Odd Couple, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy.
Marshall was born in the Bronx on Nov. 13, 1934, to a family that had changed its surname from Masciarelli. His father, Anthony Masciarelli, directed industrial films. His younger sister, Penny, would herself go into show business, too, starring in Garry’s Laverne & Shirley, and eventually become a director, too.
As for Garry, he left New York City for Northwestern University, where he learned journalism. After graduation, he joined the Army and served in South Korea, returning home to NYC and working at The Daily News while starting a comedy career in the city’s nightclubs. He got his first break in the business writing jokes for Joey Bishop. That led to a writing gig for Jack Paar’s version of The Tonight Show.
“I was a journalist. I was a drummer. I was everything. I didn’t know what the heck I was,” Marshall once told the Los Angeles Times. “But with Jack Paar, the job was very specific — no confusion. You came in each day. You wrote five pages of jokes. You handed the pages in. … The pressure was to write five pages of jokes every day. I did it and I thought, ‘This is what I like to do.’”
When Marshall went Hollywood in the early 1960s, he formed a writing team with Jerry Belson. Together, they worked on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Joey Bishop Show, The Danny Thomas Show, and The Lucy Show. They went next-level, though, when they successfully adapted Neil Simon’s play, The Odd Couple, for television in 1970 starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, winning multiple Emmys over five seasons and 114 episodes.
He followed that up by creating an even bigger smash-hit sitcom, Happy Days. and a TV icon in Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli (played by Henry Winkler). That ABC series spawned not one but two spin-offs, each of which also became hits on their own: Laverne & Shirley, and Mork & Mindy; the latter catapulted Robin Williams to superstardom and added a fourth camera to multi-cam sitcom shooting. Marshall was responsible for three of the top-four most-viewed TV series in the 1978-1979 season.
Marshall’s onscreen creations were comfort food for viewers.
That was perhaps even truer for his film output in his later years as a director. Beginning in 1982 with the madcap Young Doctors in Love, and continuing with The Flamingo Kid, and a filmography of Nothing in Common, Overboard, Beaches, Pretty Woman, Frankie and Johnny, Exit to Eden, Dear God, The Other Sister, Runaway Bride, The Princess Diaries, Raising Helen, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement, Georgia Rule, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and Mother’s Day.
Sure, not all of those films hit big. And with his final three films, he wasn’t considered the coolest director, by any means.
But then again, he also created The Fonz, the coolest TV character set in the past generation to appeal to the current one.
Ron Howard, who starred as a young man on Happy Days and later became a director himself, said of his mentor Marshall: “From his Bronx inspired wording to his staggering sense of humor and wisdom, Garry was at once both unpretentious and inspiring. He was a world-class creator, mentor, philosopher and friend. The mantra he shared with those he worked with who had succeeded in the entertainment industry was priceless. ‘Success is fantastic,’ he’d say, ‘but never forget that life is more important than show business.’ Those of us who were lucky enough to be in Garry’s orbit have all been made better people for that gift. He will leave a hell of a void…but a lot of laughs and a lot of meaning buried underneath those laughs, too.”
Marshall received two lifetime achievement awards from the WGA, the Valentine Davies Award and Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, as well as the PGA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
He had acting credits, too. Among his more memorable supporting roles, a casino boss in Albert Brooks’s Lost in America, team owner Walter Harvey in his sister’s A League of Their Own, network president Stan Lansing on TV’s Murphy Brown, and more very recently on Louie, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Hot in Cleveland, BoJack Horseman, and the new version of The Odd Couple, playing Oscar Madison’s father.
He wrote two memoirs — Wake Me When It’s Funny: How to Break Into Show Business and Stay There (1995) and My Happy Days in Hollywood (2012) — and had just finished rewrites on the book for the forthcoming Broadway musical version of Pretty Woman.
Here’s Garry Marshall, in his own words recorded years ago by the Archive of American Television, talking about his career-making turns creating The Odd Couple and Happy Days.