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Garry Marshall ’s ‘Happy Days in Hollywood’

Director Garry Marshall arrives at the premiere of "Valentine's Day" at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on February 8, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times on May 12, 2012.

He brought us some of the most memorable names in television sitcom history — so much so that we came to know and love them on a first-name basis: Felix, Oscar, Richie, Fonzie, Laverne, Shirley, Lenny, Squiggy, Mork, Mindy.

He is Garry Marshall , who — as creator, writer, producer, executive producer and/or director — was responsible on some level for a host of iconic ’70s and ’80s television series including “The Odd Couple,” “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy.”

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Laughter was the name of Marshall ’s game from his earliest days. “I had to figure out a way to make money writing jokes,” he writes in his memoir “My Happy Days in Hollywood,” recalling his childhood years as a sickly kid who found comfort in classic radio comedy programs. “I probably listened to radio more than anything because I could do it from my bed. I thought Jack Benny was hilarious.”

In the book, Marshall traverses his life’s path — from his upbringing in New York to his college years at Northwestern University (his three children also are grads) to a stint in the Army and to Hollywood, where he experienced the good, the bad and the bankrupt. One very “pretty woman” would help to revitalize his career (more on that later).

The cast of the hit TV series “Happy Days.” | FILE PHOTO
The cast of the hit TV series “Happy Days.” | FILE PHOTO

Through it all, Marshall made sure of one thing: His sets were happy places to work. And if that meant hitting someone in the face with a pie (Marshall institutes mandatory pranks among the actors and crews on all his sets), so be it.

“At the end of the day, everyone hugged everyone,” the 77-year-old Marshall said during a recent phone conversation. “I can’t work with people I don’t like or people who can’t smile or laugh. It’s like a big family when you work on a show or movie, and I love my family. That’s why I [often] cast my real family members in my films. They’re people I know and love who will make me smile when I’m working.”

Marshall ’s real-life Italian family (original surname is Maschiarelli) included his father, an advertising art director who traveled across the country a lot; his mother, a housewife who taught dance lessons in their living room, and his sisters Ronny and Penny (who would also make careers for themselves in the entertainment industry). Show business, however, was not exactly what his father had in mind for his children.

“My dad hoped I’d be a lawyer or a businessman,” Marshall writes. “In general, my dad thought entertainment was a waste of time and did little to support my mother’s dance studio or our performing aspirations.”

Marshall followed his heart. His joke-writing talent took him out of the Bronx and into New York’s pioneering television days of the 1950s and ’60s, working series such as “The Tonight Show with Jack Paar” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and eventually to Hollywood, where his film credits would come to include “The Flamingo Kid,” “Beaches,” “Pretty Woman,” “The Princess Diaries,” and most recently “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Day.”

It was a path to success lined with struggles.

“I was working for $38 a week in New York when I started out,” Marshall recalled. “It’s hard to have date money for a Friday night. So I’d tell a girl, ‘You wanna go watch [New York City] night court? On Fridays they did felonies, so you dressed up a bit.”

The tough times only made him stronger, he said, and more determined to make people laugh, especially when it came to his television projects.

“With ‘Happy Days,’ we were just trying to do a show that the family could watch together and talk about afterward,” Marshall said. “Nowadays everybody watches different things, all these reality shows about nothing. Everybody’s talking and texting during reality shows because there’s nothing to pay attention to.”

Penny Marshall (left) and Cindy Williams star respectively  as Laverne and Shirley, two spunky but romantic working girls employed in a Milwaukee brewery in the 1960s in the new ABC Television Network comedy series, “Laverne and Shirley. | FILE PHOTO
Penny Marshall (left) and Cindy Williams star respectively as Laverne and Shirley, two spunky but romantic working girls employed in a Milwaukee brewery in the 1960s in the new ABC Television Network comedy series, “Laverne and Shirley. | FILE PHOTO

While “Happy Days” was a joy, “Laverne and Shirley” became Marshall ’s problem child, and perhaps the least enjoyable set he would ever work on.

“With ‘Laverne and Shirley,’ what can I say? It was the ’70s. Everybody was drinking. There were drugs,” Marshall said.

In the book, he writes: “There some good days on the show, but most were days filled with quarrels, fits, and fires I needed to put out. Penny and Cindy [Williams] were not out of touch with reality. They knew they were mean to the writers and they knew they were driving me crazy. But with most of the cast getting stoned and drinking too much, it was hard to make heads or tails out of anything.”

But it remains a series that Marshall says was among his proudest accomplishments. “We were told we broke ground with that one because there had never been a comedy show built around two blue-collar working women,” Marshall said. He calls his sister Penny a “comedic genius,” and Penny and Cindy two of the funniest comedians he has ever worked with.

“Pretty Woman” stars Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. | FILE PHOTO
“Pretty Woman” stars Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. | FILE PHOTO

If television was the root of Marshall ’s show business success, films took it to a whole new level. “Pretty Woman,” perhaps his most beloved film, made Julia Roberts a star, relaunched Richard Gere’s career and solidified Marshall ’s status as a director. And to set the record straight about that famous jewelry box scene in the film, Marshall said: “It was probably the best prank we ever pulled on a film set. Julia was in her 20s at the time, and the night before, she had been out and about rather late, so on set she was a little tired, and Richard said I’ll snap the box on her fingers to wake her up. So that’s what he did. The camera was rolling, because I thought it would be great footage for a gag reel, but then Julia howled that beautiful laugh of hers, and we liked it so much that we kept in the film. The studio liked it so much they put it in the film’s trailer.”

In the end, Marshall said he is pleased with the way his life turned out.

“I watched some ‘Odd Couples’ recently and they hold up pretty good,” he said. “I think if you make stuff that lasts, you’ve done pretty good with your life.”