Appreciation: Garry Marshall, endlessly hip, delivered mainstream comedy with an offbeat edge

Garry Marshall wore many hats in movies and television over the last 60 years, as a writer, director, producer and actor. His successes were as mainstream as they come: “Happy Days,” and its hit spinoffs “Laverne & Shirley,” “Mork & Mindy” and “Joanie Loves Chachi,” on TV; big-screen hits like “Pretty Woman,” “Beaches” and “The Princess Diaries.” His last film before his death Tuesday at 81, “Mother’s Day,” the third in a holiday-themed trilogy, was released in April.

But there was something spiky and offbeat about his work too, and especially about his person. Years in Hollywood notwithstanding, he came off as an Italian American — technically an Italian-German-English-Scottish-American — from the Bronx his whole life. He was a class act with ragged edges.

For the record:

5:26 a.m. Nov. 27, 2022An earlier version of this post said that Garry Marshall played a talent agent in the film “Soapdish.” He played the head of daytime programming in the film.

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Like many of his generation, and the generation just before, he came up writing for comics and then for television. It was a crew whose members included Mel Brooks and Neil Simon, whose play “The Odd Couple” Marshall and his frequent writing partner Jerry Belson would one day convert into a successful sitcom. He was a trained craftsman willing to break the rules. He knew how to build a chair right, and also how to build in a chair in a way that though wrong might still hold a person up. (And break, if desired, at just the right moment.)

In New York, Marshall worked for nightclub comedians Joey Bishop and Phil Foster and for the Jack Paar-era “Tonight Show.” In Hollywood, partnered with Belson, he wrote for the Thunderbird of family-workplace sitcoms, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — creator Carl Reiner’s son Rob would marry Marshall’s sister Penny Marshall — the sharp, sophisticated “The Danny Thomas Show” and Lucille Ball’s post-Desi “The Lucy Show.” Ball’s brand of slapstick farce would exert a huge influence on “Laverne & Shirley,” in which Penny Marshall was a costar.

Garry Marshall in his Burbank office in 2012.
Garry Marshall in his Burbank office in 2012.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times )

An actor who made his living as a director, producer and writer, he often portrayed figures of (sometimes exasperated) authority, a man in charge.

— Robert Lloyd

While its commercial success did help set new styles, there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about Marshall’s work; indeed, much of it moved forward by looking back, to the romantic film comedies of his youth, to older TV shows. “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” are not only set in some sort of impression of the 1950s, but, with a little late ’70s-early ’80s sauciness, they work themselves in old-fashioned ways. They are human comedies — almost always comedies — that are easy to see yourself in.

“In the education of the American public, I am recess,” he told Larry King in April, appearing on King’s show to promote “Mother’s Day.”

At the same time, there was something effortlessly, endlessly hip about the man himself. He showcased and was showcased by a wide range of comic talent. Lenny and Squiggy, “Laverne & Shirley’s” two stooges, were played by Michael McKean and David L. Lander, from the underground comedy group the Credibility Gap; “Mork & Mindy” unleashed the frenzy that was Robin Williams onto the world, and also made a home for Williams’ oddball mentor Jonathan Winters.

Garry Marshall in April with Julia Roberts. Their latest film together was this year's "Mother's Day."
Garry Marshall in April with Julia Roberts. Their latest film together was this year’s “Mother’s Day.”
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times )

As an actor, he appeared not only on “Two and a Half Men” and “Hot in Cleveland” but also on the less conventional “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “Louie” and “BoJack Horseman.” Not surprisingly for an actor who otherwise made his living as a director, producer and writer, he often portrayed figures of (sometimes exasperated) authority, a man in charge — a network head on many episodes of “Murphy Brown,” a daytime programming chief in the film “Soapdish,” a ball club owner in Penny Marshall’s “A League of Their Own,” a memorable casino manager in Albert Brooks’ “Lost in America,” a masterpiece of partnering in which Marshall gets laughs by playing the straight man.

He appeared this year as Matt Perry’s — that is, Oscar Madison’s — father on CBS’ reboot of his original “Odd Couple,” on which he was also a consultant.

Talking about his appearance on the new series with King, he half-jokingly said, “Look at this circle of life.”

On Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd


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