Garry Marshall Gave Us Happy Days

Before "Pretty Woman," the entertainment great produced classic 1970s sitcoms.

Garry Marshall's destined to be best remembered as the gruff fairy godfather director whose 1990 "Cinderella"-style romantic comedy "Pretty Woman" transformed Julia Roberts into a superstar.

But the greater impact of the entertainment great, who died Tuesday at age 81, rests in a string of 1970s sitcoms that eschewed fairy tales in favor of ordinary people (and one preternaturally energetic alien) brimming with heart and wit.

No, Marshall didn't produce the searing social realism of his contemporary Norman Lear ("All in the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons") or the sly sophistication of Grant Tinker’s MTM stable of hits ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Bob Newhart Show," "Rhoda"). And Marshall's take on the 1950s proved far lighter than the Korean War-set dark comedy "MASH."

But Marshall's TV output lived up to the title of his marquee show: He gave viewers happy days. Still, his ability to elicit laughs belied a deceiving depth and an enduring lure found in the strongest of his work.

The television version of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" co-developed by Marshall was "Seinfeld" before "Seinfeld" – and not just because of the New York setting and fast-and-sharp dialogue. The underrated show served up two equally passionate characters with opposing and equally unlikable traits: neat freak Felix Unger (Tony Randall) and unrepentant slob Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman).

Marshall kept the undercurrent of the sadness of divorce that ran through Simon's play and movie while building on the uneasy, but ultimately reassuring and reliably funny friendship of two men trying to share an apartment without driving each other crazy.

The 1950s-set "Happy Days" arrived in 1974 as Milwaukee's answer to "American Graffiti," with early episodes rooted in tweaking the mores of a supposedly simpler time (in the first episode, high schooler Richie Cunningham nervously studies Mickey Spillane’s risqué “I, the Jury” before a date with a girl with a reputation). Before The Fonz turned into an almost cartoon-like icon (remember the Fonzie action figure that gave a thumbs up?), we met him as a lonely mechanic spied eating Christmas Eve dinner out of a can.

Henry Winkler’s lovable tough became part of the Cunningham Family, which stood as the steady center of the 11-season run, even after Fonzie – and "Happy Days" – invented the concept of “jumping the shark.”

The show’s first spin-off, "Laverne & Shirley," presented another odd couple: two blue-collar dreamers played by Penny Marshall (Garry's sister) and Cindy Williams. Their antics, modeled after Lucy and Ethel of "I Love Lucy" fame, provided an extra meta layer of 1950s nostalgia. But when the Shotz Brewery duo sang, “We're gonna make our dreams come true,” they were their own women for their time and any time, sharing a relatable goal.

Via “Happy Days,” Marshall produced the most bizarre spinoff in TV history with the oddest small-screen couple of all: “Mork & Mindy.” Forget the strangeness of the extraterrestrial Mork being transported from Richie Cunningham’s dreams to late 1970s Colorado via a giant egg. Marshall knew enough to give Robin Williams a platform for his comedy-changing riffing and get out of the way.

Marshall’s only weakness was not always heeding that pesky shark, and letting the show go on too long. But he more than made up for it with knacks for gentle humor – and for spotting and tapping talent. He also served as a role model for his sister and Ron Howard, who went on to distinguish themselves as noted movie directors.

The gravelly voiced director-producer proved adept in front of the camera. The recent surfacing of Albert Brooks’ films on Netflix offered a reminder of Marshall’s great scene in 1985’s “Lost in America.” Brooks, whose wife just gambled away their next egg, tries to convince casino manager Marshall to return the money – spurring an absurd discussion about the role of, as Marshall’s character puts it, “Santy Claus.”

Garry Marshall was no Santy Claus, but he gave generations of TV viewers the gift of laughter, delivered by great performers and wrapped in shows well worth their fond place in the collective memory. 

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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