Garry Marshall: Hall of Fame Tribute
There’s a funny thing about Garry Marshall. Actually, a lot of funny things.
Ask him why his 1972 series, Me and the Chimp, was a failure; he’ll tell you he cast the wrong chimp. He once wrote a letter of encouragement to James L. Brooks, telling him to buck up because (their mutual friend) “Mike Eisner is not as happy or as good-looking as you.” These days, he says, he watches his whole life pass before his eyes — “every night on Nick at Nite.” He never, ever makes left turns (“too dangerous”).
Tony Randall, star of The Odd Couple (Marshall adapted it for TV), once observed that even Marshall's contract was funny. Seems Marshall paid himself only $100 a week for directing, producing (and often rewriting) Couple. He drew $25,000, however, for warming up the studio audience.
Carl Reiner, of all funny people, once got a lesson in funny from Marshall. An offhand Marshall remark inspired Reiner to write what was probably the classic episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. As Reiner remembered in an interview with Esquire: "He said to me one time, 'I like stuckinna. You know what stuckinna is? Your finger's stuckinna bowling ball, you're stuckinna elevator … ' He once had his toe stuckinna faucet. He just said stuckinna and left the room." Reiner then wrote the episode where Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) got her toe stuckinna bathtub faucet.
Everyone from his sister Penny to Tom Hanks will tell you that Marshall also eats funny ("he destroys cheesecake," says Henry "The Fonz" Winkler) but perhaps that's better left for another article.
Garry K. Marshall has always been funny, but funny hasn't always been his life's work. The creator and executive producer of Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, Joanie Loves Chachi, The Odd Couple — and director of features including Pretty Woman, Beaches, The Flamingo Kid and Dear God — started out stuckinna profession called journalism. Specifically, sportswriting.
"Well, I thought that if one was to live, what a nice place to live but Yankee Stadium!" remembered Marshall, who was raised on the Bronx's Grand Concourse. "I loved Yankee Stadium. You could get both football and baseball there. Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden were my two meccas. I thought, if you can get paid to be here, well … "
So he set about writing sports articles for the DeWitt Clinton High paper, and later at Northwestern University in Chicago, earning a B.S. in journalism. Funny journalism, you might say.
"I had two things I liked to write: sports and humor," he said, “but I didn't quite know how to go about humor. There was no humor arena. So I wrote sports, but within sports, I wrote humor. I was sports editor at Northwestern, and our football team was 0-11. I had to write jokes.”
Marshall’s life hardly started with a laugh. A frighteningly sick child, he was in bed, it seems, for fully half of his youth — with allergies, asthma, three bouts of pneumonia. To say little of endless stitches from an array of sports injuries (mostly baseball).
"If I wasn't coughing, I was bleeding," he laughed, speaking from his office before casting his latest movie, The Other Sister, with Diane Keaton. “But I always looked on the positive side of life, which was if I wasn't sick in bed, things were going well! That's why I never took adversity seriously. Look, I'm healthy; I'm all right. They just cancelled my show, but I'm not sneezing! I kind of approach everything in life that way.”
Inspiration for that attitude, he proclaims, came largely from a nice lady who ran a dance studio down in his basement to bring in extra money for her kids. She was Marjorie Ward Marshall, Garry's mother.
"Mom had a great sense of humor. She told me that making people laugh was a wonderful thing. And then later in life, I found they paid you for this."
They also paid you, the young man found, for drumming — something he did with jazz combos and Dixieland bands to help support himself during school and in his early years in Hollywood. He almost literally drummed his way into the U.S. Army, serving in the Armed Forces Network in Korea — playing drums with army combos (and writing for Stars and Stripes). "I was much better with drumsticks," he says, "than with a gun." After the war, though, it was still journalism that beckoned, not jokes. Marshall dutifully tried to make something of his degree by joining the New York Daily News as a copyboy, and eventually, a reporter. After all, he was graduated from Northwestern's prestigious Medill School of journalism.
But, he says, “I just wasn't very good at it. The other guy who was with me as a copyboy in New York, Bob Brunner, also wasn't very good at it, and we're still teamed up. [He produced Happy Days, and just recently wrote a script with Marshall for Disney.] I tried very hard to be a serious journalist. My parents paid to send me to college. But I think there are times in life when you just say, ‘I’m only this good.’ I could have reached great heights of mediocrity as a journalist.”
Even his colleagues could see there was something funny about Marshall. Too funny to stay at a newspaper. Daily News columnist Robert Sylvester told him "you'll never write so good — you fool around too much — so you should write for me." Marshall cracked wise for Sylvester's column, and pursued a comedy career on the side — contributing quips to nightclub comics Phil Foster and Joey Bishop. He also did stand-up in Greenwich Village (an idol was Lenny Bruce), but his material was too heady. The waiters and band were laughing, but the audience just smiled. Foster pulled him aside and suggested keeping a sharp eye on everyday human behavior for source material, and, Marshall says, "it turned my life around.” So did Foster and Bishop's efforts to get Marshall hired as a joke writer on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar.
Thus was career choice critical mass reached. Young Garry was drumming on the weekends, working at the paper every day at 3 p.m. for $45 a week, and making a little extra cash — $450 a week — writing for Paar. When he finally got his first byline in the News, Marshall presented it to his parents as proof they hadn't bankrolled his degree for nothing — and then promptly quit journalism to work for Paar. Bishop soon beckoned from Hollywood, inviting the 24-year-old joke-man to join The Joey Bishop Show. Bishop sent a plane ticket; Marshall cashed it in and took the bus, to have apartment money.
He arrived in Tinseltown tentatively, “Luckily I was young enough, and had no baggage, so I packed my things and went to Hollywood. I was very fortunate in all the things I lacked. I lacked ambition, assertiveness. I was too shy, I was afraid to talk to people … Hollywood — part of it — is selling yourself, and I was not good at it. I made up for it, though, by picking very good partners.”
They included writing partner Fred Freeman and creative partner Tom Miller ("the guy in my life who would say, 'Come on, we can sell this!'"), but Marshall's best better-half was one Jerry Belson. The two were to work together for eight years, writing more than 100 episodes of The Danny Thomas Show, The Lucy Show, The Bill Dana Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show. (Even without a partner, Marshall wasn't bad. His very first script, for Danny Thomas, won a Writer's Guild Award.)
Aside from being prolific, Marshall brought another attribute to the job — one leftover from journalism: he met deadlines.
Still, this didn't help much with Lucille Ball and Reiner — at first. Winning them over "was a high point in my career," he said. “Lucy didn't know who we were, and didn't like us at first. Later, she did. Carl didn't like us — said we were jokesmiths, and Van Dyke was stories. We had to prove ourselves, and [Van Dyke producer] Sheldon Leonard helped by believing in us. Finally, Carl said, ‘You know, I was wrong, you guys got the hang of it.’ I think that was when I took a deep breath, and said to my wife, ‘Well, look at that. Carl likes us. Lucy likes us. Danny Thomas likes us. Those are three people who hire. I think the drugstore guy liked me, too, but all he did was give me more pills for my allergies.’"
Things were hardly all easy-come from there, though. Among the 16 Emmy nominations, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and over a thousand half-hour TV episodes in his 22-year TV stint, there were failures. The first show he created, Hey Landlord (1966-67), finished 99th in the ratings. Over the years, there were to be the infamous Me and the Chimp (briefly) in 1972, the short-lived Blansky's Beauties in 1977 and Nothing in Common, cancelled after four episodes in 1987. The Odd Couple was Marshall's first big success, in 1970, but it wasn't until the first season of Happy Days —1974 — that he was established as a major TV comedy producer. ("Thirteen series, four hits — not a bad batting average," he says.) To this day, Marshall carries two articles in his wallet to help keep perspective on an unforgiving business: the one that announced Landlord was 99th, and the one reporting the week his shows finished 1-2-3 in the Neilsens. (They were, in January, 1979: Laverne & Shirley, Happy Days, and Mork & Mindy. Another of his shows, Angie, was fifth.)
"All the shows except Mork and Mindy were very difficult to get on the air," he said. “I was at the 100th-year ceremony of my high school recently, and they honored me. They were talking about how my shows were 1-2-3 in the ratings. And Sherwood Schwartz, producer of Gilligan's Island, got up and said, ‘You know you clapped a little when they say what he did, but you don't know how hard that is to do! I mean it! It's very hard to do! I don't think you realize.’ Then he started to tell them. Only another creator would know how hard it is to put shows on, get them to stay on, the whole hassle.”
Next to being funny, the top priority in Marshall's life (not counting avoiding left turns) is family. Well, maybe it's the top priority. He'll be the first to say that without a support system that includes sister Penny, sister Ronny (also a producer), his wife and three kids, and sundry other friends and relatives, Marshall might have wound up funny — but also probably poor. It was in 1962 that he met and married Barbara, his next-door neighbor in Hollywood. Introduced by a friend who was dating Barbara's roommate, they married later that year, and have stayed that way for 35 years. (It was a match made in heaven: "She's a nurse," says Marshall, "and I'm a hypochondriac.")
Penny Marshall says the family support cuts both ways. "When I came out to Hollywood," she remembered, “He was the one who took me under his wing. Without him, I wouldn't have a life or a career. I actually thought he was always just being nice. He did say to me at one point, “I'm not that nice. I wouldn't give you a part if I didn't think you could do it. I'm not risking my career for you.” He said, ‘You get a temp job, acting classes, and unemployment — that's how it works.’”
Marshall's family is famous for extending beyond his family. This is a man who, after all, ran his shows — notably Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Joanie Loves Chachi, Mork & Mindy — rather like summer camps, complete with in-studio, morale-promoting contests and baseball leagues. He gave out buttons to cast and crew reading, "LIFE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN SHOW BUSINESS."
"Many of my shows took place during what I call the drug years, the crazy years," said Marshall. “People get hits, they get money, there are problems. I've been accused of running my shows like a camp, but that's what I did. I arranged for sports. They all had softball teams. We set a tone. One of the best accolades I ever got was by Lowell Ganz, one of my head writers. He said, ‘Garry taught us how to write, and he taught us how to live.’ They understood that family was important. They saw my family in their face (his father worked on his shows for a time, and Mom tap-danced on Laverne & Shirley), so they knew I wasn't making it up.”
Winkler, who Marshall refused to consider for the role of The Fonz in Happy Days until he saw Winkler don that leather jacket, is unabashedly familial in talking of Marshall: "However I got that part, my entire family is better for having known him," he said. “The most important thing that comes to mind about Garry Marshall is the enormity of his heart and spirit. There is no limit to his loyalty. If you've been part of his life, then you are part of his life forever. That includes going to him for counsel on a personal or professional level. It's phenomenal. He's like your uncle, your brother, the don of the family. It truly is an honor to kiss his ring. Oh my God, if you're working with him in a professional situation, he analyzes the problem, then gives you 232 solutions. Then you've got another problem because 23 will be good, and you've got to decide which one to use.”
Family, of course, has also been a central theme of Marshall programs — and their audiences. The man will forever be remembered for keeping unpretentious, feel-good family shows alive in the '70s (and '80s and '90s, if you count reruns); shows that promoted charity, togetherness, loyalty and other things that don't usually translate into ratings. (There was even a deliberate family structure in his casts. He made a point of always having one adult character on hand, "in case things got crazy.")
"If television is the education of the American public, I am recess!" he fondly declares. “I wanted to make people have a good time. Two things I wanted out of people: one, to have a good time, and two — more important — I wanted to make sure parents and children could watch together. I still think that is important, and I don't think they have those kind of shows anymore.”
Curiously, critics have been famously grudging in their praise of Marshall's work — in part, perhaps, because of the "family" tag. "Criticism," Marshall said, “has been my co-pilot. Someone once said in an article about me that I was one of the most maligned and attacked writers and creators in the business! Which I think is true. My shows are always attacked — except The Odd Couple — and still are.
“It's been a struggle to do the type of work I do, which went against the grain a lot. I remember in the ‘70s everybody wanted feminist leads — let's have wonderful women on TV with brains and beauty! I said, ‘I don't think so.’ I think most women would rather have somebody like them, who is struggling, trying to make ends meet, and the only thing they've got going for them is friendship. And that's why I did Laverne & Shirley!”
Marshall left full-time TV production in 1982 to produce features and do a little acting. The pressure to get a hit, with shows being cancelled after one or two airings, was simply untenable to him (after all, Hey Landlord lasted 36 episodes despite being 99th in the ratings) — to say nothing of chronic schedule shuffling. You can imagine how much the man relishes appearing as Stan Lansing, head of a network on Murphy Brown:
"There is one scene where I got crazy and knocked the whole schedule for all the shows on the floor," he laughed. "And we quickly pick them up and put them back, then I looked at them and said 'Not bad! Not a bad schedule.' Network people loved that scene. Pretty much that's what they do!"
Meanwhile, Marshall keeps a foot in TV's door, having recently executive produced the movie Twilight of the Golds for Showtime, and is toying with the idea of bringing Arthur Fonzarelli back to the little screen as an adult in Fonzie Forever, with Winkler.
For now, there are plenty of laurels to rest on, if he chooses — many of them chronicled in Wake Me When It's Funny, his biography (now in paperback), co-authored with daughter Lori (also a Medill journalism grad) — and one more presented by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
"You know," said Garry Marshall, emotion plainly in his voice, “One of my greatest happinesses is that I meet parents who say, ‘I grew up watching your shows, and sometimes they were a little corny, but I make my kids watch 'em. Because they've got the right stuff. You said the right stuff.’”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Garry Marshall's induction in 1997.
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