Remembering Garry Marshall, TV’s Mr. Nice Guy

9th Annual Film In California Conference
Garry Marshall attends the Ninth Annual Film in California Conference at CBS Studios on May 21, 2016 in Los Angeles. Photo: Tibrina Hobson/2016 Tibrina Hobson

Garry Marshall, the beloved TV producer and film director who died yesterday at the age of 81, was known for being a nice man who made movies and television shows that too could be described as, among other things, nice. If you were looking for material that was edgy or steeped in gritty realism, Marshall was not your guy. From his early days in the 1960s as a writer for The Tonight Show With Jack Paar and The Dick Van Dyke Show to his long career as a director of theatrical crowd-pleasers like Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries, his focus was on making people laugh by creating pieces of pure, traditional entertainment.

Many people may appreciate Marshall primarily because Pretty Woman introduced the world to Julia Roberts and her 1.21 gigawatt smile, but what made Marshall a legend, first and foremost, was his domination of the TV sitcom in the 1970s. If you were alive in that decade and had a television, you were watching at least one of Marshall’s shows, and probably more. They were great ones: the adaptation of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple that introduced a generation to the unique goose honk of Tony Randall as Felix Unger, blowing his nose; Happy Days, the comedy responsible for, among other things, creating one of the great American idols in the medium’s history, Arthur Fonzarelli; Laverne & Shirley, an I Love Lucy–influenced show that celebrated, with a big heart and incessant goofiness, the power of female friendship; Mork & Mindy, the comedy that first gave America the precious gift of Robin Williams. All of them were the work of Marshall, who either created, co-created, or executive-produced them and, occasionally, directed their episodes.

Both Laverne & Shirley and Mork and Mindy, as well as the short-lived Blansky’s Beauties and Joanie Loves Chachi, were spin-offs of the juggernaut that was Happy Days. Marshall was never shy about using his primary engine to power new TV vehicles, and part of the reason it worked so well is because it spoke to what may have been Marshall’s greatest gift: his ability to spot talent.

Think of the television careers alone that got launched or boosted by Marshall: Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Cindy Williams, Penny Marshall (who happened to be his sister), Michael McKean, Robin Williams. (That doesn’t even get into the film careers he jump-started, including Roberts’s and Anne Hathaway’s.) What made the Marshall-land sitcoms so successful wasn’t the great jokes or the occasionally Evil Knievel–esque plot lines or even the catch phrases, although there were many of those. (Think: Fonzie’s “Ayyyy,” “Sit on it,” “Yowza yowza yowza.”) What made us tune into those half-hour slices of warmhearted silliness, week after week, were the characters and the always-game actors who infused them with so much humanity.

Since the news of Marshall’s death broke, the Happy Days theme — the one that became the show’s signature song after an initial run with “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets — has been running through my head. The last line in that chipper ear worm — “These happy days are yours and mine, happy days!” — is as good a summary of the Garry Marshall sensibility as anything. It’s upbeat, cheerful, generous, and reflective of the idea that Marshall’s work belonged to him but was unquestionably ours, and will continue to be, even though the man who made those days so happy is now, sadly, gone.