Garry Marshall passed away yesterday at the age of eighty-one. Over the course of fifty-six years in Hollywood, he was one of the most influential people in show business and—this is the real rarity—always a force for good.
Marshall began his career in old Hollywood. He wrote jokes for Jack Paar and Joey Bishop while doing periodic episodes of early 1960s sitcoms. (For his sins, he wrote two episodes of Gomer Pyle.) In 1970, he got his big break when he pitched a TV version of The Odd Couple to ABC. The network bought it, the show became a hit, and suddenly Marshall had enough clout to start pitching original ideas.
The result was three oddball shows which all became cultural touchstones. First came Happy Days, a show about 1950s Milwaukee that came closer to capturing the real America of the ’50s than all of the dark revisionism of the last thirty years. The essential truth about America during the ’50s is that crime was low, wages were rising, the economy was near full employment, marriages were stable, and nearly all children were raised in two-parent households. And that’s what the world of Happy Days portrayed.
What’s remarkable about the success of Happy Days—it was a gigantic hit—is that it came at the exact moment when America was sliding into the dystopian malaise of the ’70s. And yet Marshall’s impulse was not to tear down the ’50s, but to celebrate those years and hold them up as a model. This might not sound like much, but by today’s standards, it’s a minor act of bravery.
Mork & Mindy followed, an improbable series following the adventures of a weird-but-lovable alien who comes to earth to learn about human culture. This show, too, became a huge hit. In addition to being an instant classic, Mork & Mindy introduced Robin Williams to the world. And this was the second hallmark of Marshall’s career: He was a sharp-eyed and generous incubator of talent.
Marshall’s third series from the ’70s was Laverne & Shirley, which launched the career of his sister, Penny Marshall. And with the success of Laverne & Shirley, Marshall had masterminded four of the most successful and enduring TV series of the decade. No small trick.
In the ’80s, Marshall moved to the big screen. He directed Young Doctors in Love, a spoof of General Hospital-style soap operas (which was good), The Flamingo Kid (which was great), and Beaches (about which we will say nothing).
In truth, the eighteen movies Marshall directed were hit and miss. The misses were forgettable but never embarrassing. The three big hits were instant classics. Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, and The Princess Diaries will be watched, over and over, for years to come. They each speak to a different audience—teens, young adults, and grown-ups—but about the same subject: How outsiders can find their way in the world.
Age never really slowed Marshall down. Even recently, he was still acting—he did voicework all over the place, including shows like BoJack Horseman—and had kept close to his pace of directing a movie every two or three years. His last film, Mother’s Day, came out last April.
Marshall leaves behind two impressive legacies. The first is the Diaspora of his Hollywood progeny: He made the careers of Henry Winkler, Penny Marshall, Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, and Anne Hathaway (among others). So whenever you watch Arrested Development or The Dark Knight Rises or Big, you’re seeing the ripple effect of Garry Marshall.
His other legacy is decency. Conservatives talk a lot about reclaiming the culture from nihilism, libertinism, and profanity, about bringing virtue and character back into the mainstream. Self-conscious efforts to jump-start that movement sometimes bear fruit, but more often than not are heavy-handed and awkward.
But what conservative projects frequently fail to do, Garry Marshall did effortlessly and guilelessly. You would never classify Happy Days or The Princess Diaries, Pretty Woman or Mork & Mindy, as “conservative” entertainments—they were just entertainment, period. Yet the worldview behind them is one of decency, kindness, and love. They tell stories about people who are trying to make their way in the world and learning that character counts—but with lots of laughs and never a hint of moralizing.
If Hollywood had a dozen more Garry Marshalls, the outlook for our popular culture would be a good bit better. As it is, we’re lucky to have had one of him. He left a mark. And it was a good one.