Garry Marshall: A Balance Sheet

November 13 is the birthday of the late Garry Marshall (Garry Masciarelli, 1934-2016). It’s not hard to remember the date; he dunned it into us at the top of every episode of The Odd Couple. This post will be an elaboration of a sentiment I expressed when he passed away in July of last year: essentially, it’s that I had been guilty of taking him for granted; his work had actually played a formative role in my life.

Still, I don’t do hagiography. His work is a mixed bag. It wasn’t appropriate to speak of his drawbacks on the occasion of his passing. I won’t ignore them today, nor will I skip over his virtues! And we’ll begin with the latter. He was old school show biz in a way that I can well appreciate. First, he was a gagwriter for guys like Joey Bishop and Jack Paar. His mother had a tap dance school! So it’s central to understand that his entire frame of reference is show business, entertainment. He formed a writing and producing partnership with Jerry Belson, and began to write scripts for The Lucy Show and the Dick Van Dyke Show. He wrote specials for Bob Hope and Danny Thomas. Writing for these great comedians was the foundation for what he would later do.

Marshall’s first original series with Belson was Hey, Landlord (1966-67), interesting now chiefly as a period piece and for historical purposes, and for cool appearances by people who would later be famous, like Marshall’s sister Penny, and her husband Rob Reiner. The team finally struck it big in 1970 with The Odd Couple (which I blogged about here). And then in 1974, Marshall, now on his own, blasted into the stratosphere with his nostalgic ’50s sit com Happy Days (1974-1984). Between that project and its many spin-offs, and The Odd Couple, Marshall revealed his genius as a television producer. Genius is not too strong a word. As a writer and a director? Not so much. But as a producer, most definitely. For a while there, Marshall was minting gold. Not just the comedy kind. The kind you put in the bank.

For Happy Days, he hired Ron Howard, star of the recent George Lucas hit American Grafitti (1973), and of course The Andy Griffith show ten years earlier, to tap into Baby Boomer nostalgia for the time before hippies. That Baby Boomers WERE hippies is one of history’s intriguing ironies, and I have a strong instinct that, in a way, this trend, this mania, was a portent of the coming of Ronald Reagan just a few years later.

And it was a craze. As anyone my age can tell you, my generation’s equivalent to the Beatles or Elvis was Fonzie (Henry Winkler), a fictional character, who wasn’t an actual rock star, just a Jewish guy playing an Italian greaser who talked about “cool” so much that it hammered all meaning out of the word. Fonzie was a sort of superhero to us as kids, and we weren’t even alive during the 1950s. The show was definitely my pathway into all sorts of great music from that period, though.

Two of the Happy Days spin-offs did just as well at the Mother Ship: Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983) which made a stars out of Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams (who, like Howard, was in American Grafitti), and Mork and Mindy (1978-1982) which made a star out of Robin Williams. There were two other spin-offs that didn’t do as well: Joanie Loves Chachi (1982-1983), which I am astounded to learn only lasted a year; and Blansky’s Beauties (1977) starring Nancy Walker, which I never even heard of until now. Not every series he created hit it big. There was Me and the Chimp (1972) starring That Girl’s Ted Bessell (and a chimp); The Brian Keith Show (1972-1974); and Angie (1979-1980), which I loved and blogged about here. 

“You know I’d go from rags to Riches, If you would only say you care”

One thing you should know about Garry Marshall is that, somehow, no matter what story he’s telling, everybody is Italian and from the Bronx (like Garry Marshall). So, while Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley are ostensibly set in Milwaukee, Fonzie talks like he’s from the Bronx, Laverne Dafazio talks like she’s from the Bronx, Shirley Feeney dates a guy named Carmine Ragusa who wants to be Tony Bennett. And of course then there’s Donna Pescow as Angie. And “Chachi”?  Along with John Travolta, and Coppola and Scorsese, Garry Marshall can be counted among the opinion-makers who made it very hip to be Italian in the 1970s. And I’m from Rhode Island. The work of Garry Marshall was very popular back where I’m from.

One of Marshall’s flaws is that he beats a dead horse. Let us not forget that the phrase “Jumping the Shark” owes its existence to a Garry Marshall show. “More schmaltz!” His lack of judgment in that regard afflicts most of his output when he decided to be a film director. One exception: my buddies and I very much enjoyed The Flamingo Kid (1984) when it came out. I think we related it to our own experience — we were teenagers in a beach town. It’s telling that it’s one of Marshall’s more personal and autobiographical works. Frankly, I’m glad that it stars Matt Dillon and not Scott Baio. Casting people like Scott Baio is precisely the kind of bad judgment I’m talking about. Frankly, none of his other movies, including very popular ones like Pretty Woman (1990) do anything for me. His last ones, the ones themed around holidays, are worst of all. He tried to make contemporary movies where cabbies say things like “Where to, mac?” Very often he tried to be romantic but only comes off as sleazy. His movies, along with his sister’s, Ron Howard’s, and Rob Reiner’s form a kind of school, I suppose, but only Reiner’s are any good (he’s better than his father, too — a topic for a different post).

There’s this thing in business called The Peter Principle. That’s when you get promoted beyond your ideal job description. Marshall went from gag writer to comedy kingpin to creative control. But it strikes me that total auteur (writer/ director/ producer) was stretching beyond his inner resources. His sweet spot was producing sit-coms.

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