The human comedies of Garry Marshall brought sauciness to the mainstream
Garry Marshall wore many hats in movies and television over the last 60 years, as a writer, director, producer and actor. His successes were as mainstream as they come: “Happy Days,” and its hit spinoffs “Laverne and Shirley,” “Mork and Mindy” and “Joanie Loves Chachi,” on TV; big-screen hits like “Pretty Woman,” “Beaches” and “The Princess Diaries.” His last film before his death Tuesday at 81, “Mother’s Day,” the third in a holiday-themed trilogy, was released in April.
But there was something spiky and offbeat about his work, too, and especially about his person. Years in Hollywood notwithstanding, he came off as an Italian-American — technically an Italian-German-English-Scottish-American — from the Bronx his whole life. He was a class act with ragged edges.
Like many of his generation, and the generation just before, who came up writing for comics and then for television — a crew whose members included Mel Brooks and Neil Simon — he was a trained craftsman with a fondness for quirks.
In New York, Marshall worked for nightclub comedians Joey Bishop and Phil Foster and for the Jack Paar-era “Tonight Show.” In Hollywood, partnered with Belson, he wrote for the Thunderbird of family-workplace sitcoms, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — creator Carl Reiner’s son Rob Reiner would marry Marshall’s sister Penny Marshall — the sharp, sophisticated “The Danny Thomas Show” and Lucille Ball’s post-Desi “The Lucy Show.” Ball’s brand of slapstick farce would exert a huge influence on “Laverne and Shirley,” in which Penny Marshall was a co-star.
While its commercial success did help to set new styles, there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about Marshall’s work; indeed, much of it moved forward by looking back, to the romantic film comedies of his youth, to older TV shows — “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley” are not only set in some sort of impression of the 1950s, but, with a little late ’70s-early ’80s sauciness, they work themselves in old-fashioned ways. They are human comedies — almost always comedies — it is easy to find yourself inside.
“In the education of the American public, I am recess,” he told Larry King in April, appearing on King’s show to promote “Mother’s Day.”
At the same time, there was something effortlessly, endlessly hip about him. He showcased and was showcased by a wide range of comic talent. Lenny and Squiggy, “Laverne and Shirley’s” two stooges, were played by Michael McKean and David L. Lander, from the underground comedy group the Credibility Gap; “Mork and Mindy” unleashed the frenzy that was Robin Williams onto the world, and also made a home for Williams’ oddball mentor Jonathan Winters.
As an actor, he appeared not only on “Two and a Half Men” and “Hot in Cleveland” but also on the less conventional “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “Louie” and “Bojack Horseman.”
He often portrayed figures of (sometimes exasperated) authority, a man in charge — a network head on many episodes of “Murphy Brown,” a talent agent in the film “Soapdish,” a ball club owner in Penny Marshall’s “A League of Their Own,” a memorable casino manager in Albert Brooks’ “Lost in America,” a masterpiece of partnering in which Marshall gets laughs by playing the straight man.
He appeared this year as Matt Perry’s — that is, Oscar Madison’s — father on CBS’s rebooted “Odd Couple,” on which he was also a consultant.
Talking about it with King, he half-jokingly said, “Look at this circle of life.”
Ron Howard and Anson Williams in the Garry Marshall creation, “Happy Days.” The series spawned “Laverne and Shirley” and “Mork and Mindy.”
Actor and director Garry Marshall’s myriad successes were mainstream but still offbeat.
Marshall’s sister Penny starred as Laverne in “Laverne and Shirley.”