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Emily Marshall, who parlayed a gig as a secretary for producer Fred de Cordova on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show into a two-decade career as a sitcom writer on Newhart, Rhoda, WKRP in Cincinnati and Designing Women, has died. She was 79.
Marshall died March 17 of lung cancer at her home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, her friend and mentor, Emmy-nominated writer-producer Barry Kemp, said. She served as a staff writer on Newhart, which he created, from 1982-84.
Marshall was the third wife of Doc Severinsen. She married the colorful Tonight Show bandleader and trumpet player in 1980 and was with him for nearly 40 years through 2013.
Marshall also created the 1988-89 CBS sitcom Coming of Age, which starred Paul Dooley, Phyllis Newman, Alan Young, Glynis Johns, Kevin Pollak and Ruta Lee. The comedy, set in an Arizona retirement community, opened with Severinsen performing the boisterous big band number “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
In addition to her 13 episodes of CBS’ Newhart, Marshall wrote for CBS’ Rhoda in 1978, CBS’ WKRP in Cincinnati in 1979 and ABC’s Angie in 1979-80. In 1993, she co-wrote an episode of HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show in which sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) feels threatened by a new bandleader.
The daughter of a railway executive, Marshall was born on March 24, 1943, in Columbus, Ohio. She came to New York and was an NBC guide and sold tickets for the studio tour in the early ’60s, when Carson joined The Tonight Show.
She worked for writer-director Cy Howard (Lovers and Other Strangers) and producer David Susskind and for the game show Supermarket Sweep before moving to Los Angeles in 1969. She drove across the country with Patricia Nardo, a friend who would become James L. Brooks and Allan Burns‘ secretary on CBS’ The Mary Tyler Moore Show and a sitcom writer, too.
After a stint as a secretary for a McMillan & Wife producer at Universal, Marshall was hired as de Cordova’s secretary/assistant on The Tonight Show in May 1972, just after the late-night program had moved to Burbank.
One day, she slipped in a couple of her own punch lines into a batch of jokes that Carson’s writers had submitted — they were for a “You Know You’ve Had Too Much to Drink When …” bit — and to her delight, the host used her material on the air.
“I can’t believe I had the nerve to [do that], the writers must have hated me,” she told Mark Malkoff on an October 2020 episode of The Carson Podcast. “But that moment gave me enough courage to think maybe I could write a script.” It led to her penning a 1977 episode of ABC’s Laverne & Shirley.
Marshall left The Tonight Show in 1978 and became a staff writer for the first time on Rhoda (during its last season). She also wrote for Mary, Mr. Sunshine, Designing Women — after which she landed a production deal at Disney — and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
Marshall was divorced and had been at The Tonight Show for about a year when she and Severinsen started dating. His wife at the time, Evonne, had stayed behind in New Jersey after the show came west. She told Malkoff she thought Severinsen was separated and “available” when they began their relationship.
The two lived together for seven years and after a months-long split were wed at the home they shared in Toluca Lake. Actor John Ritter, whom Marshall had first met on a blind date, was among the few attendees at their ceremony.
Marshall said being with Severinsen made her want to have her own career. “That was the beginning of my ‘moving on up’ from secretary to sitcom writer,” she told Malkoff. “I wanted to have my own life, my own identity. I credit Doc, in a sort of back-door way, with giving me the inspiration, the view of what life is like when you have something that is yours.”
She appeared in the 2021 PBS documentary Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story to talk about him and their time together.
Marshall attained permanent residence in Mexico in 2006. She told a friend that she was “grateful for my long and healthy life” and chose not to seek treatment for her illness.
“She was an artist in every sense — a writer, painter, sculptress — but her greatest passion may have been her love of animals and especially of dogs,” Kemp said. “She belonged to an organization that rescued street dogs, and when she passed, she had six adopted street dogs of her own. In addition to loving animals, Emily loved people, opera, fine food and ginger martinis.”
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