From the Archives

'Odd Couple' veteran Garry Marshall lends hand to CBS reboot

Garry Marshall has a hand in CBS' new 'Odd Couple' series starring Matthew Perry & Thomas Lennon

Writer-director Garry Marshall, whose TV hits included "Happy Days" and ''Laverne & Shirley" along with such box-office successes as "Pretty Woman" and "Runaway Bride," died Tuesday. He was 81. Marshall discusses the CBS remake of "The Odd Couple" in this 2015 article

When he started working on "The Odd Couple" in 1970, Garry Marshall got an earful from executives at ABC. They were worried that viewers might get the wrong idea from a comedy series about two divorced and bickering middle-aged men living together in an apartment.

"The network said, 'The people are going to think they're gay, so bring in lots of girls!' " Marshall, now 80 and a veteran Hollywood hit maker, said during a recent interview in his office at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, where snapshots of his family and his colorful history in show business paper the walls. "Oh, they drove us crazy. … So we brought in lots of girls. Those [episodes] didn't work so well.

"What works is friendship stories," he added in his distinctive Bronx accent. "Two men who missed out on love the first time."

Now "The Odd Couple" is back, this time on CBS with former "Friends" star Matthew Perry as the grouchy slob Oscar Madison and "Reno 911's" Thomas Lennon as the prissy neatnik Felix Unger. The show premieres Thursday at 8:30, in a plum slot right after the sitcom hit "The Big Bang Theory."

And Marshall — the writer-director behind "Happy Days," "Mork & Mindy," "Pretty Woman" and more — is back too, serving as executive consultant on the latest adaptation of Neil Simon's hit play.

The new team has already discovered the value of having a comedy legend aboard.

"His first note when we were decorating the sets was, 'Put a peephole on the door. … Peepholes are funny,'" said Perry, who is also an executive producer on the show and is working with Marshall for the first time. Sure enough, he added, the writers quickly started coaxing some gags out of the peephole.

CBS is making a big bet on this revival of "The Odd Couple," hoping it can catch on amid some tough competition on Thursday nights.

The original ran for five seasons with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall in the title roles. A hit film starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau was released in 1968. The 1965 Broadway production, with Matthau and Art Carney and directed by Mike Nichols, won multiple Tony Awards.

Of course, times have changed. The aftermath of divorce was a novel and somewhat dicey topic for network comedy in the early 1970s, but it's been done many times since. Straight guys bonding might have made network executives squirm back then, but now "bromance" has bloomed everywhere.

So have sitcoms with gay characters. And even for those too young to remember the original movie or series, the premise has been copied endlessly since — just look at any buddy-cop movie. In that sense, "The Odd Couple" already won.

So why do it again? Marshall explains that while the title is the same, the show isn't.

"You can deal with so many [touchy] things today," he said. For example, what many considered the best gag in the play involved Felix's initials, "F.U." "We weren't allowed to do it on television" during the 1970s, Marshall remembered.

But this time, the joke not only turns up but is played for a big laugh in the very first episode. (The first season of the original "Odd Couple" used a laugh track instead of a studio audience, which Marshall and the cast hated.)

"We were very conscious of updating the story lines," said executive producer Bob Daily. "Dating is obviously very different in 2015 than it was in 1970."

"There's sex in the pilot, which there never would have been" in the earlier series. Felix isn't simply a good cook, as in the original, but he indulges au courant pursuits such as yoga (which Lennon practices in real life). "We're trying to find more contemporary references," Daily said.

There's also a large ensemble cast, signaling the producers' desire to make this less a slavish retread of an old show and more like, say, "Big Bang," crammed with story lines and characters that the creators hope fans will feast on.

Oscar isn't just a sportswriter; now he hosts a sports talk show from his luxury apartment. Yvette Nicole Brown (of "Community" fame) plays his wisecracking personal assistant. Leslie Bibb plays the woman across the hall whom Oscar has his eye on; Lindsay Sloane is her brunet sister. "We're trying to make it a little bit more of an ensemble," Daily said.

For Marshall, the original "Odd Couple" was his first big hit after years of kicking around studio lots as a journeyman writer on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and other series. He went on to launch a trio of sitcom classics: "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley" (starring his sister, Penny Marshall) and "Mork & Mindy." "M&M" made a star of Robin Williams, a manic comic whom Marshall initially resisted when his sister Ronny suggested he use him on "Happy Days."

"I said, 'What's he done?' And she said, 'He stands on the street corner. He makes noises, and he passes a hat.' I said, 'This is who you want to put on the No. 1 show on television?' And she says, 'Well, it's a full hat.'"

Williams' suicide last year at age 63 hit Marshall hard. The former star of "Good Morning Vietnam" and "Dead Poets Society" made people forget their troubles, which Marshall sees as a prime role of comedy: "Robin made them believe somewhere, some place, you could be positive and laughing," he said. "I worked with a lot of comedians, but he had more influence on more people than any other comedian I ever worked with."

After "Mork," Marshall turned his attention mainly to films — "Pretty Woman" and "The Princess Diaries" were huge hits — as well as theater. But "Odd Couple" brought him back to his roots.

Marshall became involved at the behest of CBS honcho Leslie Moonves, who knew he had overseen the original TV series.

"Garry is someone I've always looked up to," Moonves wrote in a statement provided to The Times. "A true comedy legend who knows his art form from the inside out — as a writer, director and actor. It's an incredible resource for the staff to be able to seek advice from the guy behind the original series."

Marshall remembers it clearly. "He called and said, 'We're doing 'The Odd Couple' again,'" he said. "I said, 'Good, it's a funny show.' He said, 'You could be a consultant.' …. My first question, at this age, was, 'Is it in Culver City?'"

That would have likely meant nearly an hour commute each way from Marshall's Burbank home. Moonves reassured him that, no, the show would shoot in Studio City, minutes away from Marshall's house.

"I said, I'm there,'" Marshall recalled.

He attended all 10 of the tapings except one (he was in New York working on a play). "I write — you know, punch up some jokes," Marshall said. The producers also introduced him at breaks and let audience members ask him questions about the old show or his other work.

"I didn't know Garry was involved until I saw that there was a parking space reserved [for him] as I was walking in to the very first table read," said Lennon, who plays Felix as an up-to-date metrosexual. "And I thought to myself, 'Oh, good God, no. I don't have to play Felix Unger in front of Garry Marshall, do I?" (He need not have worried: During a later taping, Lennon said, Marshall hugged him, saying, "You're killing it, kid.")

CBS might want to think twice about putting too many notes on the scripts, however.

On the 1970s "Odd Couple," after enduring too much network fretting about a possible gay subtext, Marshall and the writers had their revenge.

"We would shoot extra little shots of Tony and Jack hugging and kissing, wearing a scarf or something. Just to drive them crazy," he said. "And they would yell, 'What are you doing? We're cutting that scene with the scarf.'"

Twitter: @scottcollinsLAT

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