Garry Marshall, 'Happy Days' Creator and Director of 'Pretty Woman,' Dies at 81

One of the nicest guys in Hollywood, the older brother of Penny Marshall also was behind TV's 'The Odd Couple' and 'Mork & Mindy.'

Garry Marshall, who created and executive produced some of the most popular sitcoms on TV — Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Odd Couple and Mork & Mindy, among them — and directed the box-office smash Pretty Woman, died Tuesday. He was 81.

Marshall, the older brother of director-actress Penny Marshall, died at 5 p.m. from complications of pneumonia following a stroke at a hospital in Burbank, a spokeswoman at Rogers & Cowan said. 

His most recent film was the April release Mother's Day, which reunited him with his Pretty Woman star Julia Roberts.

Marshall also helmed such movies as Young Doctors in Love (1982), The Flamingo Kid (1984), Nothing in Common (1986), Overboard (1987), Beaches (1988), Frankie and Johnny (1991), Dear God (1996), The Other Sister (1999), Runaway Bride (1999), The Princess Diaries (2001), Valentine’s Day (2010) and New Year’s Eve (2011).

Marshall developed and created 14 TV series and executive produced more than 1,000 half-hour episodes.

“Both of-their-time and timeless, his shows are a gentle, generous, comic mirror held up to late mid-century America,” WGA West president Christopher Keyser said in January 2014, when it was announced that Marshall would receive the guild’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Writing Achievement. “And no one is a finer or funnier chronicler of friendship — male or female (or alien).” 

Marshall earned five Emmy Award nominations and was the recipient of Women in Film’s Lucy Award in 1996 and the Producers Guild of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Television in 1998. In 1997, he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Hall of Fame. 

Marshall had just finished a rewrite of the book for the Broadway-bound musical of Pretty Woman. And at age 81, he had a record of 6-1 pitching for his softball team, Rogers & Cowan said.

Pretty Woman star Richard Gere remembered Marshall in a statement sent to The Hollywood Reporter: "Garry, of course, was one of those truly important people one is blessed to meet in one's lifetime. Besides being the pulse and life force of Pretty Woman ... a steady helmsman on a ship that could have easily capsized ... he was a super-fine and decent man, husband and father who brought real joy and love and infectious good spirits to every thing and everyone he crossed paths with. Everyone loved Garry. He was a mentor and a cheerleader and one of the funniest men who ever lived. He had a heart of the purest gold and a soul full of mischief. He was Garry."

Marshall was born in New York City on Nov. 13, 1934, and raised on the Bronx's Grand Concourse. He went to DeWitt Clinton High School. His father was a documentary filmmaker and his mother ran a dance studio in the basement of their apartment. He drummed his way through Northwestern University playing in jazz and Dixieland bands.

After a tour with the U.S. Army in Korea, where Marshall wrote for Stars & Stripes, he took a job as a sports reporter at The New York Daily News while moonlighting as a stand-up comic and writing gags for such comics as Joey Bishop and Phil Foster. He also fed newspaper columnists jokes.

Jack Paar hired Marshall in 1960 to write material for The Tonight Show, launching his career as a TV comedy writer.

“I was a journalist. I was a drummer. I was everything. I didn’t know what the heck I was,” Marshall once told the Los Angeles Times. “But with Jack Paar, the job was very specific — no confusion. You came in each day. You wrote five pages of jokes. You handed the pages in. … The pressure was to write five pages of jokes every day. I did it and I thought, ‘This is what I like to do.’”

In 1962, Bishop, who had gotten his own show, hired Marshall and brought him to Hollywood. Marshall teamed with comedy writer Jerry Belson, and they churned out more than 100 sitcom episodes for The Danny Thomas Show, The Lucy Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, among many others. One year, the duo tried to set a record for the most number of sitcom episodes written — and they managed a whopping 33. 

With Belson, Marshall also wrote and produced the 1980 Broadway comedy The Roast, directed by Carl Reiner, and the films How Sweet It Is (1968), starring Debbie Reynolds and James Garner, and The Grasshopper (1970), with Jacqueline Bisset. 

In 1970, Marshall and Belson developed The Odd Couple, based on the Neil Simon play and movie. Marshall next developed another ABC sitcom, Happy Days, a ratings sensation that starred Ron Howard and introduced Henry Winkler as “the Fonz.”

On a roll, he spun off the working-class sitcom Laverne & Shirley two years later, with sister Penny starring alongside Cindy Williams as befuddled Milwaukee brewery workers. When the ABC show debuted in January 1976, it became the first TV series to begin at No. 1 in the ratings.

Marshall co-created Mork & Mindy and cast Robin Williams as a wacky alien who arrives from the planet Ork and is befriended by an earthling (Pam Dawber) who becomes his roommate. The series, which sprung from a dream sequence in a Happy Days episode, finished No. 3 in the ratings in its first season.

Reportedly, Marshall’s prolific success brought more than $350 million to the studio Paramount Television in one year alone. According to longtime friend Reiner, when the studio asked him if it could do anything for him to show its gratitude, the self-effacing Marshall asked for a basketball court near his offices.

Marshall’s sense of humor and buoyant take on life made for a rosy view of harsher subjects: Prostitution in Pretty Woman came off as easy and glamorous, for instance. Ever ebullient, the outgoing Marshall’s work gave rise to the term “dramedy” — a piece with serious subject matter surrounded by plenty of laughs and an optimistic aura. 

He also had a penchant for blue-collar movies, such as the waitress drama Frankie and Johnny. “I didn’t want to do movies with hundreds of camels crossing the desert followed by tanks and this and that,” he once said.

He appeared as an actor in such projects as A League of Their Own (1992), directed by Penny, and Keeping Up With the Steins (2006), helmed by his son Scott. On the CBS sitcom Murphy Brown, he played exasperated network executive Stan Lansing, and his TV résumé also includes Louie, The Simpsons, ER, Brothers & Sisters, The Sarah Silverman Program, According to Jim, Monk and the acclaimed telefilm The Twilight of the Golds (1996), which he produced.

On the stage, Marshall directed his first opera, Grand Duchess, which opened the 2005 season for the Los Angeles Opera. Two years later, he debuted a stage musical production of Happy Days based on his ABC series, with a book by him and music and lyrics by Paul Williams. Following its initial national U.S. tour, Happy Days the musical embarked on a U.K. national tour in 2014.

Since 1997, Marshall has owned the Falcon Theatre in Burbank with his daughter Kathleen. Another daughter, Lori, co-wrote his memoirs, Wake Me When It’s Funny: How to Break Into Show Business and Stay There (1995) and My Happy Days in Hollywood (2012).

In memory of his mother, he built the Marjorie Ward Marshall Dance Center at Northwestern University following her death in 1983. 

Survivors also include his wife, Barbara, whom he married in 1963; sister Ronny; and six grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned for his birthday on Nov. 13.

Donations in his name can be made to The Saban Community Clinic, formerly known as the Los Angeles Free Clinic; The Intensive Care Unit at Providence St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Burbank; and the Northwestern University Undergraduate Scholarship Fund.

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