Critic's Notebook: Garry Marshall Leaves a Legacy of Star Grooming and Storytelling

From 'Happy Days' to 'Mork & Mindy' to 'The Flamingo Kid,' Marshall was a true Hollywood legend.
Garry Marshall

When you consider all of the things Garry Marshall did well as a writer and director and actor, it's notable that perhaps Garry Marshall was best as a raconteur. When you've created as many smash television hits and directed as many blockbuster films as he did, you're unquestionably a legend and few were better at being a legend than Marshall.

Garry Marshall died on Tuesday, July 19 at the age of 81, and between his 2012 memoir My Happy Days in Hollywood and countless TV and radio and print podcast interviews, he marvelously told the stories of a life lived as a key piece of one of TV's golden ages, stories that also fueled and were fueled by so much of his work.

The Bronx-born Marshall cut his teeth writing on shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Joey Bishop Show and The Danny Thomas Show, but starting in 1970, he embarked on a period of hit-generating, star-making creativity that few can equal.

He adapted Neil Simon's The Odd Couple for ABC. It ran for 114 episodes and was nominated for three outstanding comedy series Emmys and earned Emmys for stars Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. Also at ABC, he created Happy Days, which aired 255 episodes, giving us iconic characters like Fonzie, Potsie, Ralph Malph, Joanie and Chachi, introduced the immortal phrase "jump the shark" to the lexicon and proved how meaningless the phrase was by running for years after that shark-jumping.

From Happy Days, he spun off Laverne & Shirley, which only ran a relatively meager 178 episodes and made a star of Marshall's sister Penny. Then Happy Days begat Mork & Mindy, which ran 91 episodes and helped turn Robin Williams into an entertainment supernova. Marshall's marvelously cast shows made unknowns into stars and gave established actors the best parts of their careers.

The Marshall shows, particularly Happy Days and its offshoots, were nostalgic and warm in the best way possible and they were broad in the best way possible. In a current era of fragmented viewership, "broad" is often used as a pejorative, but just as Marshall the interview subject and personal storyteller wanted people to warm to him, Marshall the TV storyteller wanted audiences to warm to his characters and so much of why Happy Days played across many generations when it aired and then has played to more generations over decades of ubiquitous repeats was a masterful blend of specific and general. Garry Marshall didn't grow up in Wisconsin in the 1950s and the Cunninghams weren't his family, but the affection he showed the family and all of the friends made it seem as if they were his family and made them relatable to audiences in the '70s, the '80s and beyond.

Mork was from Ork, but Williams' manic energy and childlike wonder made him both alien and recognizable. And even viewers who didn't have a clue what the heck "shlemiel, schlemazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated" even meant knew exactly what "We're going to make our dreams come true" meant. Specific, but universal. And when things didn't start off as universal, the culture adapted to embrace Fonzie's standard of cool or Mork's standard of eccentricity.

In the process, Marshall's shows helped set the cadences, rhythms and comic stylings for countless comedies to come and even if those shows didn't always do honor and justice to the Marshall template, no amount of dilution made Laverne & Shirley or the best parts of Happy Days and Mork & Mindy less funny. Before binge-watching was a thing, I grew up binge-watching afternoon repeats of Marshall's shows and I know I'm not alone.

I'll leave my film-writing colleagues to honor Marshall's cinematic output, which wasn't always consistent, but had tremendous highs. The Flamingo Kid best captured the nostalgia and universal/specific balance of Marshall's TV work. The 1984 film features superb work from Richard Crenna, Jessica Walter and Marshall good luck charm Hector Elizondo and it's anchored by Matt Dillon's best leading man performance. It's a superb coming-of-age movie and a loving evocation of a period.

With his distinctive accent, Marshall became a voice-acting favorite and he proved himself an always welcome character acting presence from Murphy Brown to Louie to A League of Their Own to, best of all, Lost in America.

It's a tremendous legacy.