One-On-One with Garry Marshall Part I
Toluca Lake’s house of comedy The Falcon Theatre, owned and operated by legendary writer/director GARRY MARSHALL along with his daughter Kathleen, is in its 12th sensational season. Just in time for Halloween, The Mystery of Irma Vep will entertain audiences with a unique blend of spoofs on movies, classic literature, theater and more. Each live performance includes mummies, vampires and werewolves!
A product of the Bronx, Marshall’s childhood prepared his unique wit for both the small and silver screen. A communications major at Northwestern University, he then went for basic training at Fort Knox, served in the Army as a tank commander then quickly moved to radio because “you had to clean the tanks and I wasn’t very good at that!” His incomparable Hollywood career spans six decades; with a number of projects in the works and the incredible success of the Falcon Theatre, he is showing no signs of slowing down. It has just been announced that Marshall will be featured in the upcoming Rose Parade! He will ride in the Director’s Chair aboard the City of Burbank’s ‘Lights…Camera…Action!’ float entry on New Year’s Day. Here is Part One of his candid interview exclusively for The Tolucan Times….
What sparked your interest in the entertainment business?
My mother had the best sense of humor of anyone I ever met! My father’s sense of humor was nothing; he made documentaries on the smelting of steel – want to see how many laughs smelting of steel in Pennsylvania gets you? (Smiles)
But you actually took up sports writing first.
I was the sports editor of the paper at Northwestern and the team was 1 and 11. When you’re that bad you have to write something humorous so I did. I combined humor and sports. Now Northwestern is 4-1 (at the time of this interview) and doing very well!
Did you ever think that being a sports columnist was your calling?
I tried to be a journalist, but in my class there were four [future] Pulitzer Prize winners. Bob Mulholland, [former] Head of NBC, Les MacNeil of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions… they were brilliant and better than me. But, they always asked for my stuff to be read out loud because I was the funniest! (Laughs)
So then you started writing jokes for Phil Foster?
He was my mentor. If I wrote a joke and he had a newspaper, he’d hit me on the head and say, “What did I tell ya? You can’t go that way!” That’s how he taught me. I wrote the book Wake Me When It’s Funny because Phil would say to me, “Here’s the thing, write about contact lenses, I’m taking a nap. Wake me when it’s funny.” He told me to help other young people coming up so I always have done that … and I helped him in return too; I put him on Laverne & Shirley! We were friends until he passed away; he was a good guy.
How did Joey Bishop hire you?
A guy I knew in the Army got me in touch with a manager who happened to be handling Joey so I brought him my diploma and he said, “Well, that’s very nice. See on the back it’s blank? Write some jokes on it and come back tomorrow.” I did and he gave me a shot! I was working for Jack Paar on The Tonight Show happy as a clam, but I had an ambitious partner, Fred Freeman. Bishop had a TV sitcom and wanted us to come out to Hollywood. I figured he was serious because comics used to call and want us to come out to nightclubs in Chicago or Atlanta. They would send us plane tickets, but we didn’t have any money so we’d cash them in and take the bus! We did that with Joey a couple of times, but he was on to us. When he needed us right away he said, “I’m sending you plane tickets; don’t cash them in!” I came out to Hollywood [in 1961] with a typewriter, a suitcase, and never left.
Early on you worked on The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Lucy Show.
That was with my new partner Jerry Belsen because Fred went back home to work with Jackie Gleason. I had the luck of working with Lucille Ball and Carl Reiner, a master and great mentor, at the same time! When I was doing The Dick Van Dyke Show, which was very sophisticated, I didn’t want to do Lucy’s slapstick and the producer said to me, “Didn’t you just get married? Lucy is an insurance policy.” He was right; I still cash checks from that show!
What made you turn The Odd Couple play into a TV show?
Belson and I produced and directed two movies, but neither were hits. TV seemed like a better business so we developed The Odd Couple with those wonderful characters for Paramount Studios. My partner decided he wanted to still make movies so we broke up. Then I created Happy Days….
How did you come up with the concept for Happy Days?
Nobody knew what reruns were back then and when they started airing I would think “Mary Tyler Moore is brilliant, but looks funny in that ‘70s skirt now.” So how do you do a rerun that doesn’t look old? Nostalgia like The Waltons; a period piece. The studio wanted me to create a show about Norwegians in the 1930s, but there were no Norwegians in the Bronx in my neighborhood; Italian, Jewish, and Irish — that was it! I said I don’t do ‘30s Norwegians, but I do the ‘50s! I knew how to write for regular people, but it didn’t sell. Along came a play called Grease and a movie called American Graffiti. ABC said, “We have that; where is that?” (Laughs) They took Happy Days off the shelf and I rewrote it. Michael Eisner said Happy Days needed someone from the other side of the tracks. In my neighborhood a lot of hitting went on (Laughs) … the toughest kids didn’t say anything; one day they’d hug you, the next day they’d hit you so I created ‘Fonzie.’
Young people get bored and when they’re bored they do drugs so I said that everybody on the Happy Days set had to learn to be a producer, try writing, directing. Five very successful directors came out of that: Ron Howard, Scott Baio, Anson Williams, Donny Most, and my sister Penny [Marshall].
Did you create Mork & Mindy because of Robin Williams’ one episode of Happy Days?
My son stopped watching Happy Days when he was just seven because there were no space people from Mars. I asked, “How can anyone be from Mars? It’s the 1950s!” and he suggested it could be a dream! I pitched it to my writing team that ‘Fonzie’ doesn’t have any new adversaries, “let’s get an alien from another planet.” We tried to get actors like Jonathon Winters, but we couldn’t so my sister Ronny [Marshall Hallin] found us Robin Williams who had no credits. Ronny was our producer and never gets enough credit.
Who is responsible for “Nano Nano”?
I would go to the sandbox in the park and say to the kids, “Listen, I’m going to say five words. You tell me what I said … Yukee Gobby Wiggly Gege Nano Nano.” They remembered that one (“Nano Nano”). Robin also came up with stuff. Henry [Winkler] and Ron understood here comes a new guy; give him room. Many would say, “Why should he have a funnier line than me?” but Ron and Henry just let Robin go! When I introduced the cast at the end, 300 people stood up for the day player!
And how amazing to cast your sister perfectly in Laverne & Shirley!
Penny is the best at many things! I wanted to do a show about girls from the other side of the tracks; we needed Fonzie’s friends … and Richie [Cunningham] needed it! Penny and Cindy [Williams] were a writing team, I asked them to do one episode and they were good together.
Part Two of On-On-One with Garry Marshall includes the success of “Pretty Woman,” his memoir, upcoming shows at the Falcon Theatre and his unique connection to Tennessee Williams.
Visit FalconTheatre.com or call (818) 955-8004 for Tickets and 5-Play Subscriptions.
The Falcon Theatre is located at 4252 Riverside Dr. in Burbank.