Producer-writer Garry Marshall

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

One of the TV and film’s most successful writer-director-producers discusses his battle with cancer and what it takes to be a successful producer, as detailed in his new memoir, My Happy Days in Hollywood.

Garry Marshall helmed some of the '70's most popular TV sitcoms, including Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Indeed, at one point, four of Nielsen's top five series were his shows. In the '80s, the Emmy-nominated writer-director-producer segued into film, directing such hits as Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries franchise. Marshall started his show business career as a comedy scriptwriter and honed his craft as a writer on '60s comedies. He's also made TV and film appearances. In his memoir, My Happy Days—co-written with his daughter—he recounts the joys and challenges of his five-decade journey.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Garry Marshall back to this program. The legendary writer-director-producer is responsible for some of TV’s all-time classic hits, programs like “Happy Days,” “The Odd Couple,” “Mork & Mindy,” “Laverne & Shirley,” Lord, so many more.

He’s out with a highly entertaining new memoir now. It’s called “My Happy Days in Hollywood: A Memoir.” So much to talk about with regard to the text, but first just a small sampling of his iconic work.


Tavis: So you pleased with your work?

Garry Marshall: Yeah, it’s not bad, not bad [laugh]. I remember. I would have tightened that one “Happy Days,” edited it. I’m still editing [laugh].

Tavis: I was watching you watching the clip and I was wondering what was going through your head. So you’re sitting here all these years later still editing the scene.

Marshall: Could have tightened that, loosened that, but I was very blessed with the casting. Those were good people.

Tavis: Yeah. How much of that is – you say very blessed and I take that. But how much of the success of a producer, of a director, has to do with the casting?

Marshall: A lot, I think, ’cause if you don’t have people, whether it’s love stories or whatever, they have to have a certain chemistry with each other and sometimes they find it. Not today. Today, they cancel you in three shows, but in the old days, you could go a few shows and I know “Mork & Mindy” took them a minute to cook and they did very well.

Tavis: You couldn’t do that these days, could you?

Marshall: No, unless you’re going. I did a show years ago. “Hey, Landlord,” it was called. I created it. You heard the applause. That’s what kind of show it was [laugh]. It was 99th in the ratings, but we literally shot 34 episodes. So we learned a lot doing that. Now you’re 99th in the ratings, you’re gone. They’ll cancel it in the first commercial.

Tavis: That reminds me of a funny story you tell in the book. “Hey, Landlord” was 99th, but when “Laverne & Shirley” premiered, you were looking at the listings – you tell the story in the book – trying to see how it had done on its first night.

You were looking and looking and you can’t find it. You’re getting a little frustrated ’cause you can’t find it and your wife comes over you’ve been married to now since, what, 1963. Your wife comes over and says, “Garry, you’re not looking high enough up.” You raised your eyes and where was it?

Marshall: Number one.

Tavis: Number one.

Marshall: One of the few shows ever to debut number one. “Laverne & Shirley” was the first blue collar women’s show and we hit a place that people wanted to see it. I was startled. So was my sister, Penny.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact that here was a show, to your point, about two blue collar women that made it big and lasted for a number of seasons, obviously? What do you make of that then, particularly given where we are with regard to the economy and blue collar workers today?

Marshall: Well, I think then the thing to present on television was everybody’s doing well, they’re rich, they look good, they dress good. It was all about shoes in those days.

But I noticed there were not too many blue collar workers and I knew a lot of them. I came from neighborhoods in the Bronx. There were a lot. I think it did say that the women were in the workforce and they’re funny. The worked at a brewery, which was shocking they should work where there was beer.

But today with the economy, more and more people saying shows a premise by saying we were broke, we had to move back to Idaho, we don’t have enough money, the kid’s got to move in with us. I think the economy has affected the premises a lot.

Tavis: I got a bone to pick with you.

Marshall: Oh, go ahead, go ahead, hit me.

Tavis: I’m saying this somewhat in jest, but I respect your privacy. So the last time you were sitting in this chair, unbeknownst to me and anybody around here, you were battling cancer.

Marshall: Well, yeah. I was…

Tavis: I mean, that could have been our last conversation.

Marshall: Could have been, but they can cure most things now if you can get to the cure. That was the hard part. You would understand the mind over matter sometimes. I had chemo, I had radiation, but I still pitched in my softball game because you got to show up for the playoffs.

But it was not fun and I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, but I had wonderful doctors. Be honest. Used to be you got to get the best doctors. With a lot of cancers, you got to get the best machine. You know, there’s machines that do the radiation and I had some very great people.

Tavis: I raise that only because I’m glad that you’re still here.

Marshall: I’m still here! Look! I got a little makeup, but not bad [laugh]!

Tavis: I’m glad you’re still here.

Marshall: And I still play ball.

Tavis: It’s amazing when you look back on these moments, though. You look back on that conversation we had in this very chair and I had no idea. I mean, nobody around would ever have had any idea that you were battling that, given the kind of attitude that you had then.

Marshall: Well, they told me a lot of it is attitude and I have a wonderful wife. You know, I had the pump and you’re supposed to be fed through your stomach because you can’t eat. It’s painful. But my wife said, “No, he don’t need a tube. I’ll get him to eat.”

She got me to eat a lot of grounded up food, but puree became a word in my household [laugh]. But I got through it, thank God, and praying is not a bad idea either. Praying helps.

Tavis: What is the trick? I’m being flippant by using the word trick. What’s the secret, maybe a better word, to staying married to the same woman since 1963? I raise that because this book says, “Written with Lori Marshall” who happens to be your daughter.

Marshall: My oldest daughter. Yes, I have a Kathi, a Scottie and a Lori. I always say the key to long marriages is separate bathrooms [laugh], but there’s a lot more to it. But that’s a good one, I’ll be honest with you. I think that one of our odd things is we don’t have so much in common.

I am the world’s worst driver from the Bronx. I never got a license ’til I was 28. My wife could drive a cab this afternoon. She’s the best. So it’s what she does and what I do. We kind of complement each other, but we’re still going. It’s still iffy, but we’re going [laugh]. We’re heading into 50 next year.

Tavis: Yeah, that’s a beautiful thing, it’s a beautiful thing. One of the things that makes that fascinating is that she has been with you and you’ve been with her through good times and bad times.

I was struck by some of the stories told in this book about your flirts with bankruptcy over the course of your career. You have funded a lot of your own work and supported your own projects and you’ve independently produced stuff, but there were some times here where she might have just walked out on you.

Marshall: Well, she’s not so prone to do such a thing. She’s a very lovely lady from Cincinnati in the Midwest. There’s a different…

Tavis: That’s the answer, the Midwest.

Marshall: Midwest. There’s a certain sensibility that is not in Los Angeles or New York, oddly enough. But, yeah, I think a lot of creative people have no sense of numbers and economics. I came to Hollywood and you trust people.

You know, in the Bronx, I kept my own money in a pillowcase. Out here, they said get business managers, get this and that. You got to watch them. So we were very close to bankruptcy.

This was in the 80’s and everybody was making money, but we weren’t. Thank goodness, you know, you keep working. To be very honest, “Pretty Woman” was what got me out of there. Suddenly a picture, who knew, we’re taking a shot with an unknown girl and that bailed me out.

When you’re from the Bronx, the one thing you don’t want to do is be in debt. It’s the worst thing in the whole world. Once I found out there was not debtor’s prison, I felt a little better, but that was drummed in. Don’t owe people.

I owed people, but we got out of it, thank goodness, and I believe that, you know, people say success. I think a big part of success is you got to take the whacks. You’re gonna get whacked. Nobody gets away with not getting whacked, but you got to get up again. We got up from illness, we got up from money problems and we keep going.

Tavis: “Pretty Woman” must be your favorite project ever [laugh].

Marshall: It was a turnaround project, I got to say. I did a lot of good films, but that one hit the bell, as they say. They were showing how much money, you know, two hundred zillion dollars, “The Avengers,” yes! But then they have a chart of how much a picture costs and how much it made. The top 15 pictures that made it, mine was fourth. “Pretty Woman” was fourth.

Tavis: I saw these numbers. If my memory’s correct, $14 million to make and, at this point, about $490 million made now, almost $490, somewhere in there.

Marshall: I think it was $463. I memorized that kind of number.

Tavis: They’re still lying to you. They’re still lying to you, man [laugh].

Marshall: “Pretty Woman” did get me out of trouble when I was ready to move to an apartment and go back to the Bronx. Sometimes you just got to keep going.

I remember great advice from Francis Coppola. He said, “I know up and down. You can make money. You work. People like your work. You just got to get even. Get out of debt. Do everything to get even.”

Tavis: He sat in that chair and told us that story. I had a great conversation with him two or three times. This guy has lost and made it, lost and made it. Coppola knows what he’s talking about here.

But to your point a moment ago, you’re such a funny guy. Sometimes I don’t know if you’re being serious or being funny, maybe both, but when you referenced a moment ago that you were just about to pack up and go back to the Bronx and get an apartment, I suspect you didn’t mean that literally.

But have you ever had thoughts about just getting out of the business? You know, I like this and I’ve had a good run, but it’s just time to get out of this?

Marshall: No, I don’t like to get out of the business. I was going back to maybe Cincinnati. I was gonna leave my house and go to an apartment because I couldn’t afford the house. No, I’ve got to say I’m one of those who really likes the business. I like to get up in the morning and see people.

You know, I made nepotism an art form, so I get to work with a lot of relatives [laugh] and they’re part of it. I do enjoy working. My manager once said, “You don’t idle well,” and I don’t. I like fishing, but not too long. I don’t play golf. Softball, I got.

Tavis: Just Lakers, just Lakers, you and your sister.

Marshall: Yes. Penny’s Lakers and Clippers. I’m just the Lakers. I’m rooting for the Clippers too, but the Lakers mostly. That’s what gets to me [laugh].

Tavis: To your point about nepotism and your sister, Penny Marshall, who knew some of the hoops that you had to jump through to try to keep her happy on “Laverne & Shirley.”

Marshall: Yeah, that was my toughest show, “Laverne & Shirley,” because they were not naturally a happy bunch. They were extremely talented and you can’t tell your sister to leave you alone [laugh]. It’s your sister.

She would come and I’d say, “Okay, that’s it for today. Let’s all go home.” She’d follow me home and come in the house and my wife’s saying, “Is she staying for dinner or is she just gonna fix the second act? Tell me what to cook, please.”

But we got through it and, because we’re brother and sister, we’ve always been close. Yeah, eight years of “Laverne & Shirley” was tough, but we got through it. We made up and we’re still as close as we ever were. You just stay with family and we found the tough side and the good side.

The sense of champions, whether it’s basketball or whether it’s acting, with all the fighting and arguing, when it comes time for show time and the audience comes in, Penny and Cindy were dynamite as were Lenny and Squiggy. They always delivered the goods show night, but during the week, you could get a migraine [laugh].

Tavis: Speaking of family and speaking of the Bronx, so much of your childhood – you tell the story in the book – so much of your childhood you spent as a sickly child.

Marshall: Yeah.  I was allergic and asthmatic and this and that, and also clumsy. I played a lot of ball and got hurt, stitches and this and that. That, sometimes they said, built character. I don’t think it built anything.

I was very unhappy, but it did make me listen to, of all things, the radio and I started using my imagination. Radio was a wonderful thing to imagine something and that helped me in the future.

Tavis: How did you know, how did you find your way, into this business?

Marshall: Well, I think I was gonna be a journalist. I love sports my whole life. I loved sports and I was a sports editor of my high school paper and I went to Northwestern University in journalism school.

Tavis: A great school.

Marshall: Very great school. My daughter Lori wrote the book and was a student. I wasn’t. I was like a C+, but she graduated from honors, Lori Marshall. But in those days, I don’t want to shock you, but Northwestern didn’t have the best sports teams when I was there, so I would write humor.

You know, “Northwestern, by the time the Star Spangled Banner was over, Northwestern was behind 14 points.” So I learned to twist a little. I spent two years in Korea and did a lot of stuff on the radio actually. I was a musician and did stuff. I guess I just fell into it when I came out.

I worked at the New York Daily News. I got two bylines, both stories that would put you right to sleep, one about stamp collecting. But I was writing jokes for comedians and my first job was the “Tonight Show.”

Tavis: I was gonna say, you go from writing at Northwestern, couple of years overseas, a couple of bad bylines in the Daily News, but you end up writing up for Jack Paar on the “Tonight Show,” you end up writing for Lucille Ball on “The Lucy Show,” you end up writing for Dick Van Dyke on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” That’s a heck of a rebound.

Marshall: Well, you got to come back.

Tavis: Yeah.

Marshall: Joey Bishop, a comedian, and Phil Foster, were two very…

Tavis: Of the Rat Pack.

Marshall: Yeah. Joe was a Rat Pack and Phil Foster was one of the Catskill comics. They helped me. You know, they didn’t pay me a lot in money. They paid me in food, a sweater. Finally, the “Tonight Show” paid me actual money. You know, they were very helpful and Jack Paar, of course, was.

You just met people and every time I did a “Tonight Show,” one of the best shows I ever worked, they wouldn’t hire me at first – my partner was Fred Freeman, a very funny guy – because they thought we were jokemeisters, you know. We wrote jokes for clubs and everything.

Even Lucy, after Dick Van Dyke, we learned to write stories, so we wrote Lucille Ball not with Desi. Without Desi, so she was nervous all the time. But she was very nice to us after a few improvements we had to make.

Tavis: But is there a better training ground for a writer?

Marshall: No.

Tavis: “Tonight Show,” Lucy, Dick Van Dyke. I mean, you couldn’t have asked for a better – that’s like a tutorial.

Marshall: Yeah, that’s a good way to go. Lucy taught me all about physical comedy which I taught my sister and Cindy Williams, and Dick Van Dyke was all verbal and helped me when I got to create my own shows. I kind of sensed which way to go. You know, it takes a minute to work it out.

That combination with casting is the way it should go. Carl Reiner, you know, one of the great writers who taught me, a mentor, was the original Dick Van Dyke, but he knew. Let’s try this other guy from the Midwest [laugh] and he made it.

Tavis: Speaking of your own shows, there are a couple I want to talk about. “The Odd Couple.” You write about it in the book. Situate that for me in terms of your career, “The Odd Couple,” that show.

Marshall: Well, I had done the wonderful “Hey, Landlord.” I had done another show called “Sheriff Who,” evil Roy Slade, which was before it’s time and very hip and died a death. But then I tried movies, didn’t do too well. I didn’t direct them, but I wrote and produced and I was at a loss again saying, well, we got to come back from this.

My partner’s name was Jerry Belson. They said, “Listen, we have “The Odd Couple” at Paramount. You want to come and write it?” I said, “You know, Neil Simon’s quite good” and they said, “He’s quite mad at us ’cause we didn’t give him such a good deal on the TV rights.”

They had put up the money for his play, “The Odd Couple,” in a movie, but not TV. So we said sure. We came in and, the first day, we got Tony and Jack. We thought great casting. They wanted Dean Martin and Mickey Rooney and it would have been a different show.

But the first day, they were in a limousine together and the crowd was around in the New York streets and they were in the limousine five minutes. They popped out and said, “Can’t work with him. I’m not working with this guy.” There’s my hello. Well, that’s a good start of a series. But as a producer, you find out why.

It’s ’cause Jack smoked everything, cigars and cigarettes, and Tony had allergies like me. I make the same noise sometimes as him. We got two limos. There we were and they were all right for five years. Did some of the great stuff, those two.

Tavis: It’s amazing how you solve these problems. Just get them two cars. Problem solved.

Marshall: Yeah, but you got to lie a little bit. Tony said, “This other limo you got, nobody ever smoked in that limo?” “No, I checked, Tony. Never, ever. Somebody chewed gum once. If you find gum, it’s my fault, but no smoking.”

I don’t know what I was saying, but I’m in the middle of the streets. We got to keep shooting.

Tavis: “Happy Days” which has always fascinated me. I grew up watching “Happy Days” and as I look back on that show now, now that I’m obviously older, the time in which that series was set how you avoided the politics of that era is beyond me. Obviously, it was deliberate, but that was such a volatile, political era.

Marshall: Well, the censorship was that you didn’t want to show drugs and this or the war in Vietnam and this and that, so we had to set it back in nostalgia terms. But even then, we were gonna do Fonzie. He was gonna go and march in Selma, Alabama. That was the show we wrote.

The censor said we couldn’t say Selma, we couldn’t say Alabama and we couldn’t say he was marching for civil rights. He went on this march for the good of things. How vague you gonna get here?

And they played the theme song, “Happy Days,” but we were limited in that way besides language and sex and things, but politically we were very limited in what we could do and how we could get involved with it.

Today, this is part of what is so many different shows. They said you can’t do that “Saturday Night Live” humor at 8:00. I said, “You can if you get the right guy.”

So when we got Robin Williams, we did a lot of hip topical stuff and political stuff because he talked so fast they couldn’t hear it. They said, “What the heck did he say?” “I don’t know. He said nothing. I don’t what he’s saying.”

Tavis: He killed on “Mork & Mindy.” It was a great show. He got a lot of laughs on that.

Marshall: Yeah. He’s great now. He did a play on Broadway. He did “Tiger” and is still a genius.

Tavis: You look back on your career, though, and you see a number of people like Robin Williams. I think of Robin Williams, I think of Anne Hathaway, I mean, then and now, persons who you have really introduced, Julia Roberts, people you’ve really introduced us to who’ve gone on to become major stars. You feel good about that, I assume?

Marshall: That’s one of the best. You know, people say, “What do you like best about the business?” I say finding somebody that just surprises you or – there is still magic in the business – that has that magic. And when you see it and then it works, it really pleases me and makes me feel very good about what I do.

It’s nice, a hit, you made money, you didn’t make money, but to find somebody with a gift and be able to show others, look at the gift they have, I think is a terrific thing and one of the reasons I’m in the business is to do that.

Tavis: So you’re not gonna retire?

Marshall: No, no. On the list of people that I did good with, my sister Penny is one of them too [laugh]. I’d be a great director. So I still have other family members that might need a job. No, I’m not gonna retire.

I just think there’s so many more things going on now with this internet. You know, anybody who wants to say “Hello, I’m talented” can get themselves on that internet. Sometimes it’s a little bizarre, but there’s still people.

In a week or so, I’m doing a – I just met the guy. His name is Louie C.K., right?

Tavis: Funny comedian.

Marshall: He’s a funny guy. I’m gonna do his show.

Tavis: The red-headed guy [laugh].

Marshall: Yeah. He called me. He said, “Come here. I need a boss. Come in.” So I have an outfit and a tie [laugh].

Tavis: You got your boss outfit.

Marshall: Yes, I’m ready. There we go.

Tavis: My time is up. I’ve got about 15 seconds here. Let me close with this. So the Lakers over Oklahoma City in how many games?

Marshall: I’m worried this is gonna be over in four [laugh]. I hope it goes seven ’cause they’re good with that seven games, the Lakers.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. It’s gonna be a tough series.

Marshall: Yeah, if somebody could rebound offensively, we’ll have a shot.

Tavis: That’s a big if with the Lakers [laugh]. That’s a big if. Anyway, the new book from Garry Marshall is called “My Happy Days in Hollywood.”

It’s a great time because he has given so many of us happy days with the work that he’s offered us over the years and still going strong. Garry Marshall, good to have you on the program.

Marshall: Thank you. Always a pleasure.

Tavis: Good to see you, sir. Thank you very much.

Marshall: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: May 21, 2012 at 1:32 pm