Garry Marshall was someone I had hoped to work with, or at least meet, at some point. Writer, producer, actor, director, and sometimes musician, Mr. Marshall did it all. A true Renaissance man in the entertainment industry. Most people know him as the guy who directed Pretty Woman, but he was responsible for so much more.
Every screenwriter – actually, any writer – should buy a copy of his first autobiography, Wake Me When It’s Funny. Each chapter is titled with one of his showbiz rules. Read this book and take voluminous notes. Marshall knows what he’s talking about.
It’s been years since I’ve read it, but certain parts of it have stuck with me.
And he wrote for some of the best, particularly Lucille Ball, Carl Reiner, and comedian Phil Foster, most famous for playing Penny Marshall’s father on the classic sitcom Laverne & Shirley.
Foster may have had the most influence on Marshall’s early career than any of the other comedians with whom he worked. He knew what he wanted and his writers knew better than to bring him anything other than “A” material, often saying, “Wake me when it’s funny.”
Marshall helped shape the face of television in the 1970s and 1980s, rivaled by only that other great sitcom creator, Norman Lear. While Lear’s shows dealt with social topics like politics and race, Marshall’s shows went towards nostalgia with a focus on story and characters.
The Odd Couple was the first show Marshall produced and developed for television. I would argue that it was the smartest sitcom ever to air until Frasier spun-off in 1993. The Odd Couple only ran five seasons, but it is some of THE BEST writing and acting you will ever see.
While Marshall neither wrote nor directed every episode, his influence was present in every frame. This show is where he honed his craft. One rule he decreed was that during taping in front of a studio audience, the actors were not allowed to break character. He simply didn’t want to ruin the fantasy for his viewers. Out of all the shows Marshall did, Tony Randall and Henry Winkler each broke that rule once.
They never did it again.
From there, Marshall created Happy Days and its spin-off, Laverne & Shirley. Both were set in the 1950s. This wasn’t an accident. America was just out of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal was the big news. Dark, cynical times. Marshall took America back to a happier, simpler time when the biggest problems were asking a girl out to the Saturday dance, not disappointing your parents, and working to pay the rent.
During his time in television, Marshall created two writing rules to which I adhere. One is: Never have a character just say “Oh” in a scene. The other is: Never have a character look at a clock or their watch as a means to get them out of a scene. Why? Because it’s boring. It’s an easy out. Writers are supposed to be creative, and he expected those working for him to be on point.
Marshall respected his writers. Most importantly, he helped them flourish. During pitches for episodes, Marshall would seat new writers behind veterans. When the new writers had an idea, they wrote it on a slip of paper and passed it to the veteran who would then present the idea. If the idea was a hit, all credit was given to the newbie. If it wasn’t, the veteran took the heat. No doubt this gave new writers an education in how the business works while making them more confident.
Movies were next. And Marshall was behind some of the modern classics. Beaches. Overboard. Pretty Woman. The Princess Diaries. Runaway Bride.
He worked with many. Ron Howard. Richard Gere. Kurt Russell. Goldie Hawn. Kate Hudson. Joan Cusack. His lucky charm Hector Elizondo. Michelle Pfeiffer. Al Pacino. Jennifer Aniston. Bradley Cooper. Zac Efron. Juliette Lewis. Jason Alexander. Laura San Giacomo. Larry Miller. Tony Randall. Jack Klugman. Even the great Julie Andrews.
He launched many careers. Robin Williams. Henry Winkler. His sister Penny Marshall. Rob Lowe. Michael McKean. Anne Hathaway. And most notably, Julia Roberts. It’s like he had a gift for finding talent.
He was an actor’s director. Often he’d ask actors what hidden talents they possessed and have them incorporated into their characters. Like Richard Gere playing the piano and juggling. To promote community between actors and crew, Marshall held softball games on set. Baseball was dear to him.
The late ’90s were some bad times for me personally. Everything seemed upside down. Nothing made sense. It was mental chaos. Thank God for Garry Marshall. A local Pittsburgh station broadcasted back-t0-back reruns of The Odd Couple and Laverne & Shirley every week night. This was a safe time for me. An hour where the world went away and everything was funny and joyous and any troubles were solved in twenty-two minutes. I hated it when they stopped playing those shows.
Halfway through my first year of film school in New York City, the bad times returned. Depression. OCD. Not very fun. I was so anxious I could hardly sleep. Around 1 a.m. I was flipping through the local New York channels and happened across The Odd Couple. It had been years since I’d seen an episode but they were just as hilarious.
Garry Marshall had made me laugh again.
He still does and always will.
Thank you, Mr. Marshall, for the entertainment you’ve given the world. You will be missed.