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The many lives of Garry Marshall, ‘Happy Days’ creator, dead at 81

The man behind the 'Happy Days' TV hit series and director of 'Pretty Woman', Garry Marshall, has passed away at 81. (Video: Video: Reuters, Photo: AP, Photo: Rich Fury/Video: Reuters, Photo: AP)

One of Hollywood’s brightest stars is no longer shining.

Garry Marshall died on Tuesday at 81 years old, his publicist said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.

To credit the multitalented Marshall with any single accomplishment would be to diminish his others. He was everything — a director, writer, producer and actor, yes, but also a drummer and a journalist. Not to mention a family man. Throughout his run, he would direct both his sister and his mother in different shows, and his father would help him produce his seminal sitcoms.

His career in the arts spanned six decades — seven if you count him drumming for a class of aspiring dancers at six years old — and he became arguably one of the most influential people in the entertainment business.

Most notably, Marshall created some of television’s most enduring and influential sitcoms, including “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy.” He also transformed Neil Simon’s play “The Odd Couple” into yet another hit for ABC.

His career as a film director was just as impressive, yielding several gems and cult classics, from “Pretty Woman” to “Runaway Bride” to “The Princess Diaries.”

The quest to not be boring

Long before his success, he was a little boy living in the Bronx, born in 1934.

Each day, he would learn a bit of humor from his mother Marjorie Irene Marshall, who doled out advice in joke form. One particular conversation stuck with him.

“The worst thing is to be boring,” his mom said.

“I said, ‘What is boring, Ma?'” he recalled to NPR. “And she said, ‘Your father.'”

The gift of humor wasn’t all she gave him on his newfound path to not be boring. She worked as a tap dancing instructor, and finances forced her to bring Marshall to the studio. She decided to put him to good use and taught six-year-old Marshall how to keep a beat on the class’s drum kit, so he could play for her students.

He fell in love with the instrument and wanted to attend college near a city in which he could play the drums, so he chose Northwestern University just outside of Chicago.

There, he decided to major in journalism but thought better of the idea upon realizing his classmates were better reporters. He noticed though, as he told Marc Maron on the WTF podcast, they would always laugh when his stories were read out loud.

Maybe Marshall was funny? The thought occurred to him, but he kept it suppressed throughout his four years at Northwestern.

After he graduated, he became a reporter for the New York Daily News, but found himself battling his by then dual non-journalistic interests: drumming and comedy.

Quickly, those interests overtook him.

Deciding to combine the two skills, he found his big break by playing drums behind comedians, tapping out a solid rim shot — ba-dum-chhh! — after each joke.

He wanted to write, but the comedians he backed wouldn’t hear of it. The young man would bring them pages of jokes, and they would respond, “Shut up kid, and play the drums.”

“I remember I wrote one bunch of jokes on a piece of paper, and I gave it to this night club comedian,” Marshall said in an interview with the Directors Guild of America. “He took it and, with his cigarette lighter, he lit it on fire. It just flamed into the garbage pail.”

He called it his “first flaming rejection.”

It fired him up, though, and he eventually impressed Phil Foster and Joey Bishop, who invited Marshall to write jokes for them.

The ball started rolling, as introductions were made — soon, Marshall was writing comedy for “Tonight Starring Jack Paar,” “The Joey Bishop Show,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Lucy Show,” starring, of course, Lucille Ball.

A lasting legacy 

From these humble beginnings, Marshall would go on to contribute multitudes to pop culture while never seemingly becoming the slick Hollywood type that cares more about glitz and glamour than about those around him. Much of this seemed to do with his roots in the Bronx as part of a lower-middle class family.

As his sister actress and director Penny Marshall told the New York Times in 2001, “he’s not into the show business glitterati. If he has a hot movie, that’s great. But if he has something that doesn’t do great, he’s not around those people who won’t speak to you or will make you feel terrible.”

His thick Bronx accent stayed with him until the day he died, and television was his medium of choice because of its more democratized nature.

“Critics have knocked me for targeting society’s lowest common denominator,” he said in his autobiography “Wake Me When It’s Funny.” “I believe that television was, and still is, the only medium that can truly reach society’s lowest common denominator and entertain those people who maybe can’t afford a movie or a play. So why not reach them and do it well?”

Through the sitcoms he created, he helped launch the careers of screen legends like Ron Howard, Henry Winkler and Robin Williams. Not to mention that of his sister Penny, who portrayed Myrna in “The Odd Couple” and Laverne DeFazio in both “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley.”

Marshall also launched careers through his films, such as 1990’s “Pretty Woman,” the film that starred Richard Gere and solidified Julia Robert’s place as America’s sweetheart (and earned her an Oscar nomination). The film would gross $463 million worldwide.

Of course, every artist has his ups and downs, and Marshall would become responsible — if accidentally — for the rise of the phrase “jumping the shark.” The phrase refers to a moment when it becomes clear a television show is no longer good as evidenced by the writers using a gimmick to keep waning audiences interested.

This moment came in the fifth season premiere of “Happy Days.”

Wanting to display the actual water-skiing prowess of Winkler, who played Fonzie, Marshall had an idea: Put the Fonz on a pair of skis and have him jump over a shark. Needless to say, the episode, titled “Hollywood: Part 3,” was a disaster. It did, however, give birth to a lasting phrase, yet another of Marshall’s entries into the Hollywood canon.

He often stepped in front of the camera as well.

One of his first roles was as an uncredited “hoodlum” in the 1964 James Bond film “Goldfinger.”

Later, he became a recurring character on “Murphy Brown” as Stan Lansing. He continued to work until his death, appearing in “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” and the reboot of “The Odd Couple” in just the past two years.

Marshall was inducted into the Academy of Television, Arts and Sciences’s Hall of Fame in 1997.

An outpouring of love

Almost immediately Tuesday night, celebrities who worked with Marshall began honoring his life and expressing grief over his death on Twitter.

Robin Williams’s daughter Zelda wrote, “RIP Garry. You forever changed my father’s life, and thus, mine. Thank you for capturing so much joy on film, over and over.” Henry Winkler tweeted, “Larger than life, funnier than most, wise and the definition of a friend.”

And Albert Brooks, who appeared across from him in “Lost in America,” tweeted “R.I.P. Garry Marshall. A great, great guy and the best casino boss in the history of film.”

“He was the greatest boss I ever had,” famed actor and director Ron Howard told CNN’s Sandra Gonzales in a statement.

“How could one individual work parts of seven decades in the entertainment industry and make zero enemies?” Howard added. “Garry achieved that, and it was the result of his absolute integrity as a man and as an artist.”

Winkler mirrored the thought, tweeting that Marshall was “the definition of a friend.”

Marshall is survived by his wife, Barbara, whom he married in 1963, his three children, several grandchildren and sisters Penny Marshall and Ronny Hallin.