Producer-Director Garry Marshall Dies, 81

In an already long, hot summer — with the political world resembling a feverish reality show and the movie box office dominated by cartoons and cartoonish superhero films — the news of the death on July 19 of producer-director Garry Marshall at the age of 81 seems a particularly hurtful loss to audiences that embraced the optimistic rom-com movies and iconic television comedies he created.

This was the man who gave us “The Odd Couple,” “Happy Days,” “Mork and Mindy” and “Laverne and Shirley” on the small screen, and “Runaway Bride,” “The Princess Diaries” and “Beaches” on the big screen. He also directed — in that remote age of Wall Street Masters of the Universe — “Pretty Woman,” which launched the rise to superstardom of Julia Roberts, big-haired and toothy, with a rip-roaring laugh, as a call girl with a heart of gold.

In “Pretty Woman,” Roberts was matched with Richard Gere — already a pretty big, hunky star — as a smooth Wall Street tycoon, personifying greed as god, at least the sculptured kind, just waiting to have his marble heart melted. And wouldn’t you know it, it did melt; he arrived on a fire escape with a big bouquet for his Cinderella.

Marshall, in almost all of his work, was a friendly purveyor of contemporary versions of old fairy tales. He resurrected the world of Midwestern small town fun and values from the 1950s in “Happy Days,” complete with a loveable black-leather-coated tough guy called the Fonz, an enduring character created by and forever associated with Henry Winkler. Ron Howard, later to become a noted film director, was the star.

From “Happy Days” came “Laverne and Shirley,” about a couple of working-class single girls toiling in a bottle factory. It starred Cindy Williams and Marshall’s sister Penny, who would, in turn, direct Marshall the actor in a small part in “A League of their Own,” about a women’s baseball league during World War II. It starred Tom Hanks as a gruff manager with the indelible line: “Are You Crying? There’s no crying in baseball.”

Also spinning off from “Happy Days” — and out of control — was “Mork and Mindy,” about a sweet alien (Mork) from outer space, lost in America and getting sweet on Pam Dawber. That alien gave us the sparkling, demented, boundless talents of Robin Williams. Mindy would eventually marry Mork, but in real life she is married to Mark Harmon, the uber-star of NCIS.

Marshall was a native of the Bronx. His mother, Marjorie Irene Ward, was a tap dance teacher, his father an industrial film director who changed the family name from Masciarelli to Marshall. Starting out as a joke writer on television with the then king of late night, Jack Paar, Marshall worked as a writer for sitcoms. He branched out on his own with the television version of Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” starring old pros Jack Klugman (the slob, Oscar) and Tony Randall (the neatnik, Felix). Then came “Happy Days,” a remarkable throwback to the 1950s at a time when cool cynicism and disillusion rooted in Vietnam and Watergate were the cultural norm.

An unabashed sentimentalist, Marshall was the opposite of Norman Lear, whose sitcoms caught the political and social zeitgeist; “Happy Days” and “Mork and Mindy” were rooted in a basic, old-fashioned sweetness.

In his romantic movies, a hooker could snag Mr. Wonderful and a poor girl become a princess, which is what happened in “The Princess Diaries.” He also took a hint from a movie called “Love, Actually,” directing a series of holiday movies with all-star casts playing people who eventually find love in all the right places with the right people, as in “Valentine’s Day,” “New Year’s Eve” and “Mother’s Day.”

Marshall’s movies and television series were aspiration-filled fantasies about the successful search for happiness and true love. Their most authentic note was not realism, but a buoyant optimism. We could use a little bit of that as this long-running, loud summer stretches on.

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