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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Pretty Happy Days Diaries (1934-2016)

Sadly, we lost writer/director/producer/actor Garry Marshall on Tuesday. As they say when broadcasting the local obituaries on Irish radio, he was in his 82nd year. Let us enumerate some of the many things for which we owe him.

• Laughs! First and foremost, Marshall was just a funny guy. Even if he had never become a filmmaker, we would probably still be celebrating him as a comedic actor. Beginning as an uncredited hoodlum in the third James Bond movie Goldfinger and following up with bit parts in TV shows like The Dick Van Dyke show and Hey, Landlord and Good Morning, World, his New York manner and Bronx accent always made him a great comic presence. He frequently showed up in his own movies and sitcoms and was memorable as a casino manager in Albert Brooks’s Lost in America and as a detective in his sister Penny’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash. I particularly enjoyed his recurring role as network executive Stu Lansing on Murphy Brown. As a writer, he worked on a lot of classic shows, including Make Room for Daddy, The Lucy Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and a whole bunch of others.

• The Fonz! As the creator of Happy Days, he gave us Henry Winkler’s retro street hood character that seemed to dominate pop culture for ages. Which is to say he gave us the 1950s in the 1970s. Some people think he got the idea from American Graffiti, but Happy Days came first, as a segment on Love, American Style and, in fact, Ron Howard was cast by George Lucas on the strength of his performance as Richie Cunningham. It was only after Lucas’s movie turned out to be such a major hit, though, that Happy Days was greenlit as a regular series.

• Jumping the shark! That means we can thank Marshall for the whole thing about the shark. It’s official. Marshall conceded that it was his idea to have the Fonz jump over a shark in an infamous 1977 Happy Days episode, thereby initiating a useful, if obscure, phrase to describe any show, franchise or phenomenon that had conspicuously gone past its natural expiration date.

• Spinoffs! We thought James L. Brooks, creator of the seminal Mary Tyler Moore show was the king of sitcom spinoffs, but Marshall was no piker. Not only was Happy Days something of a spinoff of Love, American Style, but it in turn spun off Laverne & Shirley (starring sister Penny and Ron Howard’s fellow American Graffiti star Cindy Williams), Mork & Mindy and Joanie Loves Chachi. So we may even be able to thank Marshall for giving prominence to onetime teen idol Scott Baio, thereby providing one of the speakers at the recent GOP convention.

• Robin Williams! Speaking of Mork & Mindy, let’s thank Marshall for Robin Williams. Sure, he was going to be huge star in any event, but our Garry gets to claim credit for the break that launched him into the world spotlight and kept him there to this very day.

• That song about did I ever tell you you were my hero? You know, that song that you inevitably hear at seemingly every wedding or funeral or in inspirational videos? No, Marshall didn’t write “Wind Beneath My Wings.” That was Jeff Silbar and Larry Henley. Marshall didn’t even introduce it. It was first sung by Roger Whitaker in 1982 and then by at least four other artists, including Lou Rawls and Gladys Knight & the Pips. But it was included on the soundtrack (sung by Bette Middler) in Marshall’s 1988 tearjerker about friendship, Beaches. After that, the damn song was inescapable.

• The sympathetic whore! Garry Marshall was not just about retro teenagers and wacky extraterrestrials. He was also about prostitutes with hearts of gold. Well, one anyway. At a recent slumber party of teenage girls in our house, I was requested to provide the 1990 romcom Pretty Woman for the evening’s entertainment. Yes, it’s that durable. As a dad who takes his responsibilities seriously, I did put the movie on for the girls but was quick to admonish them that, while it was okay to enjoy it, they should bear in mind that a sex worker is not a proper role model. Nor is a woman who gets a rich guy to buy her expensive things on Rodeo Drive.

• Julia Roberts! Speaking of Pretty Woman, we should probably thank Marshall for Julia Roberts. Yes, she was an established Hollywood actor before this flick, but it is entirely arguable that she would not have been as successful without that star-making vehicle. So thanks. That probably explains why she always felt obliged to be in Marshall’s latter-day Hallmark movies.

• Anne Hathaway! Some people think that Anne Hathaway is the new Julia Roberts. Well, we can thank Marshall for her too. Her starring role (opposite Julie Andrews) in Marshall’s 2001 YAcom The Princess Diaries was definitely pivotal in her career.

• Hallmark cards masquerading as movies! Garry Marshall’s last three feature films had titles yanked from the greeting card section of your local stationer’s: Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day. While not completely devoid of entertainment value, these multi-star, multi-plot extravaganzas were formulaic and largely predictable. That’s okay. A lot of people enjoyed them even if snooty, anal-retentive (ahem) critics did not. Think of these flicks as comfort food for audiences reared on gentle sitcoms and sentimental romcoms. Sadly, due to the great man’s passing, we will not seeing similar movies bearing titles like President’s Day, Arbor Day, Rosh Hashanah, Ramadan or Kwanzaa.

All kidding aside, God rest you, Garry Marshall. You brought a lot of smiles and laughter and more than a few sentimental tears into the world.

-S.L., 22 July 2016

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