I met the late Garry Marshall in 2004. It was backstage after the taping of a reunion show celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of one of Marshall’s classic sitcoms, Happy Days. Because I’m the author of Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, I was invited by the founder of the international Happy Days fan club, who’d flown all the way from Milan, Italy for the occasion. Yes, Happy Days—that amiable series about growing up in the 1950s—has loyal fans all over the globe. And several of them had made their way from Europe to L.A. for the occasion.
Those fans saw far more than just a taping. (And what a taping it was, attended by Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Tom Bosley, Marion Ross, Erin Moran, and many others, all reminiscing about a show they loved.) The reunion kicked off with a softball game, much like those overseen by Marshall in the days when the series was on the air. Marshall, the ultimate sports fanatic, formed the team to foster esprit de corps among cast and crew. They started out playing on weekends in an entertainment industry league, and eventually came to spend hiatus periods touring the world under USO auspices, playing exhibition games against American troops in Germany and Okinawa. (Ron Howard, a natural athlete, excelled as a batter and fielder. He also mentored Henry Winkler, who surprised himself by becoming a competent pitcher. Their on-the-field camaraderie helped in calming a delicate situation on the set: Howard was supposed to be the show’s featured player, but it was Winkler, as the Fonz, who became the breakout star. Somehow the two survived the tension of their unequal status and became lifelong best friends.)
Part of the reason that Happy Days retained its family feeling, year after year, was that Garry Marshall was firmly in charge. Marshall, one of Hollywood’s truly nice guys, ran a set as though he were the genial host of a party. Not that he allowed for sloppy work, but he always made sure that his projects were true collaborations. Rich Correll, who worked on the Happy Days production team, told me how Marshall introduced himself to every new member of the cast and crew: “Look, yes, I’m Garry Marshall and it’s my show, but if you have a better idea for a joke that we’re pitching, come up and give it to me. . . . If you can fix it, you can tell me anything. Now you might not have the right fix, but don’t be afraid to tell me.” It was a lesson that Ron Howard quickly took to heart. Once Howard became a director in his own right, he chose to adopt the same policy. Those who work with him for the first time are skeptical at first: many directors talk a good game about collaborative effort. Truth be told, Howard (like Marshall) really practices what he preaches.
Marshall’s obits have not mentioned another of his projects, one that touches my heart. As a lifelong theatre buff, he joined with his daughter to build the Falcon Theatre, a 130-seat space in Burbank, California, not far from several major studios. It operates year-round, presenting Hollywood professionals in comedies and dramas, while also hosting a number of offerings for children. Sometimes Marshall himself would step in as director, as he did for Happy Days: A Family Musical a few years back. One of Marshall’s favorite TV characters, Sgt. Ernest G. Bilko, used to say, “The bigger they are, the nicer they are.” In Marshall’s own case, how very true.