‘So we figured, well, Fonzie’s gotta jump over something.
What do we got? We can’t have him jump over cars, so … how about a shark? Sharks were big then! It was after Jaws, c’mon!” and Garry Marshall guffaws in a richly guttural gurgle. “And that phrase really took on a life of its own; it gets used in a political context, about ideas and products, and in every field it’s applicable – all from Fonzie! I mean, it was not our best episode, I’ll be honest [another huge chuckle] but still. We jumped the shark – leave him alone!”
If you expected a testy or weary response to the question of how Marshall, 81, came to be associated with that notorious episode of Happy Days, then you don’t know Garry Marshall, a man who freely admits to having enjoyed a charmed life. Sure, his movies get panned heavily these days. His latest, Mother’s Day, his 18th movie as a director, currently boasts an aggregate rating of 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the last couple, his other “holiday movies”, Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, fared little better – but that’s just the critics’ ratings. The figure that would matter to Marshall, if he cared, is the 50% rating the movie nets among regular ticket-buyers. “They all make a dollar. This movie didn’t do as well as the last one, but we didn’t fully open in Europe yet, so we’ll see. It did good in Belgium and it killed them in Budapest – don’t ask me why!”
Marshall has always driven the critics a little crazy. Eight per cent is a ridiculous rating for Mother’s Day, which is certainly sentimental and emotionally manipulative, but not egregiously so; if it catches you in the right mood and you love your mom enough, you’ll have a pretty nice time. But he’s been hearing this stuff all his life, ever since Happy Days took its critical lumps while making him, in relative terms, an imperial figure in 1970s network television. He got rich in spite of it, and remains beloved by everyone who has ever worked with him, something he attributes to a piece of wisdom passed down by his grandfather, Willie Ward: “the power of nice”.
The spoils of nice are all around his production office in Burbank, California, next door to the Falcon theatre, which Marshall bought and restored when he got a little money in the bank, and opposite the original Bob’s Big Boy restaurant beloved of David Lynch.
“My wife is a nurse and showbiz doesn’t impress her all that much,” he says of Barbara, his wife of 53 years, “so she makes me keep all of this stuff at the office, not at home.” “All this stuff” is the history of a happy life in TV and movies. Halfway up the stairs, in a boxy wooden frame, is a red Happy Days crew jacket, and nearby are enlarged photos of Fonzie and Richie, Mr and Mrs C, Laverne & Shirley, Mork from Ork: the whole gang. At eye level on the ground floor are posters for all his movies, from his 1982 debut, the soap opera spoof Young Doctors in Love, to The Flamingo Kid, the holiday movies, and that monster, star-making mega-hit for Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman, plus his all-time best-girlfriends’ fave: Beaches. In stills from his sets, one can track the progress of that same welcoming smile through his life, the hair getting a little lighter, then a little whiter, as the years elapse.
The man who welcomes me in with a warm chuckle and a hand clasped around my elbow is the 2016 edition, white-haired, a little stooped, jowlier, more World’s Cutest Grandpa than big-time Hollywood power player, but still with plenty of vigour. After 50 years out here on “the coast”, his Bronx accent, embedded in a rich and phlegmy growl, hasn’t eroded one whit.
The Bronx looms large in Marshall’s universe. He grew up there in an apartment with his parents, his grandparents, brother Ronny, and Penny, a postwar addition dubbed (says Penny) “an accident”. There was showbiz in the family: his mother ran a tap-dance school in the basement of their building while his father (who’d anglicised their Italian family name from Masciarelli) directed industrial films. His mother would make him watch the comics on The Ed Sullivan Show and take him to nightclubs, and raised her kids with sarcasm and an innate aversion to boredom. They weren’t rich, but they did OK.
“I made up Happy Days out of my own head, even though I didn’t grow up in that kind of household. But I didn’t do too badly. My mom and dad stayed together – now, it might have been more sensible of them if they had got divorced, but anyway! We were pretty well taken care of. We ate. We never missed a meal. But Happy Days was an Italian-American kid from the Bronx’s fantasy of middle-class life out in the midwest.”
He came to know the midwest as a student at Northwestern university in Illinois, and followed that with army service in mid-50s, postwar Korea, then got into joke-writing, with his partner Jerry Belson, for comics such as Joey Bishop and Danny Thomas.
The pair ended up, inevitably, in TV in Los Angeles, working alongside Carl Reiner and lifelong friend Dick van Dyke on his hugely successful, eponymous 1961-5 sitcom, then on The Lucy Show, Lucille Ball’s Desi-less followup to I Love Lucy. The pair’s first taste of success was The Odd Couple, based on Neil Simon’s play and the Lemmon-Matthau movie it produced. In time, it spawned The New Odd Couple, a 1981-2 flop with a black cast, and a successful new version, with Matthew Perry as Oscar Madison and Thomas Lennon as Felix Unger, currently running on CBS. The 1970 show also netted Penny a recurring role, after their mother called Garry and said: “Your sister is back here dating morons! Get her a job!”
But Happy Days was the charm, with five spin-offs, two hits – Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy – and some flops, including Joanie Loves Chachi.
“Oh, they spun off everything in those days,” Marshall recalls. Laverne & Shirley arose when he had dinner with new CBS exec Fred Silverman, one of the most influential suits in TV history (and also one of the most belittled: Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury dedicated months of strips to damning him and all his works in the mid-70s). Silverman had been at ABC, and Good Times, which Silverman scheduled against Happy Days, had put a dent in ratings. “So I suggested these two occasional female characters from Happy Days get their own spin-off. And he bought it right away, without a pilot even. And the blue-collar characters? He understood that right away. There were fancy ladies and pretty girls on TV before that, but no blue-collar women till us.” Mork & Mindy followed, giving the world the improv genius of Robin Williams (certain pages of the script were blank except for the words “Robin does his thing …”).
Since 1982, though, he has worked in movies, transferring that well-honed, TV-bred instinct for what audiences will eat up to the new medium, and mostly making a killing doing it. And in the process he became king of the romcoms, big softie that he is.
And it’s a family affair, as Marshall sees it, and not just because of Penny, who directed some huge hits – Big, Awakenings, A League of Their Own – in her own career. The long histories of collaboration in his life have now transcended generations: Tony Randall’s daughter has a part in Mother’s Day, and Kate Hudson has known Garry since she was seven years old. “On Mother’s Day, I had Kate’s little daughter sitting on my knee yelling: “Mommy, action!”, and almost 30 years ago, on Overboard, I had Kate herself on my knee, aged seven, doing the same thing for her mom and dad, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. Circle of life, I call it. Wonderful!”
One valuable lesson he learned as a young man. “Danny Thomas tore up one of my monologues in front of me, and it upset me. But the head writer dragged me over to the window and showed me these construction workers and said, ‘Look at those guys. They’re out there, outside, 40 floors up. And you’re in here. Look around you, it’s warm in the winter, there’s doughnuts, there’s coffee, a bathroom whenever you need it! You think there’s a bathroom over there when you’re up top? No! So shuddap, you’re in a good spot. You could wind up on a girder in a hard hat.’ So I always remember that. Sometimes you gotta remember how lucky you are.”
Mother’s Day is released in the UK on 10 June
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010