Garry Marshall, who brought some of the most remembered and successful sitcoms of the 1970s to American television and directed some notable films such as Pretty Woman, died on Tuesday in Burbank, CA, of complications from pneumonia following a stroke, according to Variety. He was 81.
Marshall’s programs, which pretty much dominated ABC-TV for the entire decade of the 1970s, consisted of The Odd Couple and Happy Days and its spinoffs, Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy. With each of them came a kind of innocuous hilarity that had healthy doses of mild slapstick, easily resolved narratives, and always an emphasis on a slight surreal aspect of fun. Unlike say the socially conscious programs of the time that were being churned out by the stable of TV pioneer Norman Lear (like All in the Family and Maude), Marshall’s sitcoms, although they were rather perfunctory and innocuous by way of social redemption or awareness, held almost equal footing in terms of ratings success. And indeed, like many of the characters on Lear’s programs (Archie Bunker, Maude, Fred Sanford), Garry Marshall also helped create and was instrumental in bringing characters that were and have remained almost as iconic, such as The Fonz, Mork from Ork, Laverne, and Shirley.
Starting as a TV writer and occasional director, it was in 1970 that the Bronx native first tasted some success in the industry with the television adaptation of the Neil Simon Broadway smash The Odd Couple, starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Originally running for five years on ABC, it wasn’t until it found huge success in syndication a few years after its cancellation that the show became regarded as one of the most well written and performed sitcoms in American history. Another adaptation of a Simon play, Barefoot in the Park, was also made for TV by Marshall and company in 1970, sporting an all-African American cast (one of the few TV shows to do that at that time) to less success.
Happy Days was next, which came on the heels of the 1950s nostalgia craze that had been ushered in the early 1970s by films like George Lucas’ American Graffiti. The show started slowly when it premiered in early 1974, originally based on a pilot that had aired on a comedy anthology series on ABC called Love, American Style (another one of Marshall’s projects). But it wasn’t until the character of Arthur Fonzarelli, aka The Fonz, played by then relatively unknown actor Henry Winkler, was pushed more into the forefront, trading lines, scenes, and story narrative with the show’s main star Ron Howard, that the show became a hit and turned The Fonz into an American icon. The success of Happy Days catapulted Garry Marshall’s reputation in the industry as a maverick.
The show’s first spinoff, Laverne and Shirley, which starred Marshall’s sister Penny, a celebrated actress and director in her own right, took the two formulas that Marshall used prior with The Odd Couple and Happy Days, and melded them together, creating another heavyweight sitcom success. Mork and Mindy introduced the world to the comedic talents of the late Robin Williams, with his portrayal of the quirky yet sympathetic Mork from the fictional planet Ork, a fish out of water story done to the most inane and yet hilarious level. The character gave the naturally improvisational Williams plenty of room to extend his comedy chops and while the program lost steam after its first few seasons, it still was another early success and another shining feather in the cap of Garry Marshall.
Turning to film directing as the 1980s surfaced, with movies like Young Doctors in Love, The Flamingo Kid, and Nothing in Common, which turned out to be the legendary comedian Jackie Gleason’s final film, it wasn’t until 1990’s Pretty Woman that Marshall enjoyed the kind of dazzling success he had found on the small screen two decades earlier. Making an absolute star out of Julia Roberts and amping up the career of Richard Gere, the film remains one of the most beloved romantic comedies to this very day, grossing almost half a billion dollars. It led to following successes like Runaway Bride (in which he was reunited with Roberts and Gere), The Princess Diaries (which jumpstarted Anne Hathaway’s career), and the holiday-themed ensembles Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Day, and Mother’s Day, among others. Filled with a contingent of popular actors and celebrities, each of those aforementioned three holiday films is like a lesser tier Woody Allen film in a way, in that most of Hollywood’s cognoscenti would line up to get the chance to work with the filmmaker regardless of the script or project, which is a true testament to the power, appeal and unbridled success of Garry Marshall.
He leaves behind his wife Barbara, who he was married to for over 50 years; two sons and a daughter, all of whom work in the industry; six grandchildren; and sisters Ronny and of course Penny. But most importantly he leaves behind a legacy in Hollywood, especially in television, as a shining light, a creative force who made projects for everybody — pigeonholing wasn’t his strong suit — and created projects to be enjoyed by everyone, with an emphasis on laughing in the most sweetest possible way, devoid of political bent, cynicism, and dark negativity, components which seem to drive a lot of humor these days. The approach Garry Marshall took seems to harken back to an earlier time in the industry, and thus rightfully and deservedly, just adds to his allure and legend and which allowed him for the most part, to hit the bullseye every time. Thanks for all the laughs, Garry, and for all the “happy days.”
RIP Garry Marshall
November 13, 1934 – July 19, 2016