Garry Marshall's preposterously wide-ranging career has taken him from sitcom writing (Make Room for Daddy, The Lucy Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show) to sitcom creating (Happy Days, Mork and Mindy) to acting (Lost in America, Murphy Brown, Orange County, Chicken Little) and film directing. Marshall helmed the hit comedies Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride, both starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, The Flamingo Kid, Nothing in Common, Beaches, Frankie and Johnny, and the Princess Diaries films, among others. In his capacity as a star of his son Scott's feature directing debut Keeping Up With the Steins, Marshall chatted away with me at San Francisco's Clift Hotel.
Groucho: Do your Jewish friends ever give you the business for playing Jewish characters in film?
Garry Marshall: Very often! When I did—I know it was something, they said, "Well, you always play gangsters and that," and I was trying to remember—I played once, a father, in a film on Showtime called Twilight of the Golds. Brendan Fraser was my son and I did a—. I have a range of about that (holding up narrow fingers), so I played it the same (laughs), but this was a hippie and a wild guy so—yeah, I get kidded because my name is Marsciarelli, but Marshall is my legal name because my father changed it, not I.
G: This film, of course, is directed by your son. As a director yourself, do you ever find yourself kibitzing with the director? Do you ever put in your two cents, or do you resist that temptation?
GM: Sometimes I want to. But I pretty much butt out. I figure I come as an actor. Directors make great actors in the sense that we know what the director's going through. So we're always polite. Nobody's easier to work with than Sydney Pollack or Carl Reiner. We all know: just be cool and help the guy. Is this radio?
G: No, it'll be transcribed.
GM: (Loudly into recorder:) So I'm eating a thing. So when you transcribe, don't think, "He has a speech impediment." It's a brownie.
G: Inquiring minds want to know: ponytail or phony-tail?
GM: Phony-tail. I did not have a real ponytail. I never had. I was never very good in the hippie. I wore a nehru suit once. It didn't fit. But it was not good. I had like a nehru suit with a polyester shirt. It was not a good combo. But I've never been a good hippie, but I admired people who had that hair. In Korea, I had a beard for awhile, but never a ponytail. So they had to match my hair and paste it on. The reason I get these jobs, by the way, is that I'm one of the few whatever, show business—I don't say actor—"whatever" person in show business who didn't dye their hair. So it's the same hair. So if they need this color, they hire me.
G: And it keeps you looking young, I think.
G: How would you describe your own comedy presence as an actor? What do you think people expect there that they're hiring when they bring in Garry Marshall?
GM: Well, when they hire me, they don't say let's get him for the French lieutenant. You know, (laughs) they say, "We'll get him for some guy who talks in comedy rhythms," which I do, "and sounds like he's from New York." So that's usually what they get 'cause that's all I can do. Now I do volume. I do quiet: (low-key) "Well, listen, look. What was his name? Adam?" In Jeremy Piven's scene in Keeping Up With the Steins, I talk like this. But in Murphy Brown, when I was Stan Lansing, it was the same guy talking louder. This is what I do. "Sit down, Murphy! What are you talking about?!"
G: Did you particularly relish that part on Murphy Brown as—
GM: Loved it. Four years I was there.
G: Twenty-three episodes, I think, right?
GM: I don't know how many episodes. But four years they kept calling me back. Because they didn't let me—they didn't need me to rehearse because I have a pretty good memory, and I can do it. And with Candice Bergen, who's the greatest—she has cue cards, wherever you look, there's a cue card. So there we did one day.
G: With that part, were you taking any kind of acting revenge on the agents and businessmen that you worked with?
GM: True. A lot of the network heads drove me crazy. And they all have the concentration-span of an ant. So you can talk, and they drift off, and that's what I did, a lot of drifting in that. I worked with, you know, Candice is great and Lily Tomlin, one of my favorites, I worked with the last year.
G: I'll be talking with her later today, actually.
GM: I loved working—we had a good time. And Joe Regalbuto directs at my Falcon Theatre in Burbank.
G: What are Garry Marshall's rules for comedy? What's funny and what's not funny?
GM: Well, if we could figure that out, we'd get it right every time. It's like hitting a fastball: you don't hit it every time. But I think you kind of keep your basics, that surprise helps if you can surprise your audience. And then you set them up with the right feed lines. You know, people misunderstand straight lines. Straight lines, in comedy routines, you're right next to each other. In a movie you set the line up in the first fifteen minutes, and you call it back at the end of the picture. That's a little difficult, but I learned from some of the best people—writing Lucy, writing Dick Van Dyke—that was my background in learning. Writing is what I do; I do the rest after writing. But the other rule is—Lenny Bruce is the basic rule. Lenny Bruce, the great comedian, said, "Pain plus time equals humor." And I always use that. So a lot of the stuff I do—I've done—I have experienced the embarrassment, or often the stupidity, and you turn it into humor. But I didn't realize that until I worked on the old Dick Van Dyke, and Carl Reiner would call us in and I was all ready with these funny jokes, and he would just say, "Now everybody think of the most embarrassing thing that ever happened with a girl, and the teenager." He'd say, "The most embarrassing thing at your mother's dinner," and that's where we got all the material. And that's what I do now.
G: With Keeping Up With the Steins, did you draw on any particular experiences—maybe with you and your own son—in playing that character?
GM: On Keeping Up With the Steins, Scotty was the director—my son—so he was directing both, where he'd say, "You know, remember the time I struck out in Little League twice and you were upset? But then you kinda put your arm around me—not when we got into the car, but when we got out of the car." And he says, "Well, that's the way it is with the kid"—in the basketball scene, I put my arm around. And then sometimes I would think of getting mad at—never got mad really that much at my children, but some of my friends, we'd have yelling matches and that's what I'd work off with Jeremy Piven in that. And he played a tough guy, and I think he was the key to comedy—. I think Jeremy Piven was the key to another rule of comedy that Mark Zakarin wrote, in that it's hard, make it hard to make up. Jack Klugman always said, "Oh, Felix and I make up too easy. Make it harder, make it difficult. Make him really not let [me] in." And that's what we did in Keeping Up With the Steins. Jeremy just wouldn't let me in. And I tried to be sincere and about "Forgiveness is a brave thing to do," so said my hippie girlfriend, and he said, "This was before or after she took the peyote?!", you know, "smoked the peyote." He was always harsh on me. So it's really hard. And so at the end, it's not everybody's hunky-dory. It's just open the door.
G: Right. When you were growing up, who were the comedy icons who really drew you to comedy, that made you think, "That's where I want to be"?
GM: Well, the main one was my mother. She was very funny. She put a high, high regard for humor and laughter and said, "This is important in life." And just yesterday I saw her on the promo for House. They were all—, y'know, it's a great show—that guy on House, the doctor, he's taking some pills, and the woman says, "You know, pills is not the only thing you can take for pain." And House very sarcastically says, "What else would I take, laughter?" And he's wrong! Laughter can bail ya. I've been to the hospitals myself, and other people, and you can lighten it up with laughter. It doesn't cure anything. But it lightens it up. And my mother always pushed that and taught that. And then later came Sid Caesar's show where I said, "Oh, maybe I could do that." And Sergeant Bilko, another comedy show, is something I said, "Ooh, they do that in a half an hour. That's good." And I was fascinated because I saw Bilko on Broadway doing many things—Phil Silvers. And then I said, "Oooh, you can do it on this little box." So that was influential. But Joey Bishop, Phil Foster were the two most influential people. They brought me to Hollywood—well, Joey Bishop brought me to Hollywood, and I brought Phil in to be on Laverne and Shirley. But they kind of, um—it was not an era, when I grew up, to be politically correct. Nobody gave a damn about that, so I remember sitting and writing out jokes and handing them to Phil, and he literally took the newspaper and hit me over the head (laughs) with The New York Daily News and said, "I told you forty times, too long! Too wordy! Tighten. Tighten. Tighten." So he hit me. Nowadays you get sued after the first hit. But a lot of people influenced me, but I think watching the Sid Caesar show for the first time, I said, "That's funny." And the Milton Berle I understood. But it was too quick for me. I couldn't do that fast a line. And later, I worked with Milton. But at the time it was satire. It was a part of it—"Satire closes in New Haven" is the Broadway phrase, but still, satire is bigger than ever now. Now it's all satire.
G: As a sort of dean of the sitcom, what are your feelings about modern sitcoms?
G: They claim all the time that it's a dying breed.
GM: They claim, they claim! 'Cause their shows are cancelled. I don't know, it's a tough world out there. But it has switched. I always use the example of Lowell Ganz, one of my top writers on my shows and later went on to great screenwriter. And he always said it turned because we all grew up with Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners and that classic episode where Jackie as the bus driver, they put him on television to do the commercial or the promo. And they put him on, and he went "Homina, homina, homina, homina." And looked in the camera. And really they were saying, this is for talented people, to go on TV and be entertainment. Talented people. Now, they just—maybe they've got too many talented people. They've turned around and said, "Now what's funny is the untalented." And we all were growing up, my mother would say, "Don't hit anybody, mock them. That's the best approach. Make fun of them. Don't hit somebody. You're gonna get your head taken off." But I think now humiliation is a big factor in comedy. You get regular people, put them on reality shows, and they'll do something stupid every time. And it is now entertainment, and it's a diabolical plot by many businessmen to get rid of all writers because they don't have to write that. But still, it is being accepted, and some of it isn't so bad; I watch some of it. The carrying-on on American Idol, y'know, it's very hard to write that! And that isn't. But I still think somebody should go see a show, so the result is that Broadway is now booming—I was just at Julia Roberts' play, and there's some good acting going on there too. And there's great stuff on Broadway. Singers, dancers, actors, and then, sometimes, movies, no matter what the subject is, if you get good acting, you've got a prayer. Only television says, "Let's put amateurs." Who knows? Maybe soon four amateurs will be Brokeback Amateurs. I don't know. Something. Broadway: (yelling) featuring four people who've never been on a stage before! Everybody come!
G: Heaven forbid. I have to ask you about Lost in America because I think your scene in that—it was probably only a day or two's work, I guess—but so indelible. Was that a tightly scripted scene, or was there room for you two to improvise?
GM: Well, Albert Brooks is a great director. And it just amazes me what goes—I mean, we thought we were—had a nice show with Pretty Woman. This girl was pretty good. And boom, that went. And then this Albert thing I did in 1985, and people—not only you, you're a reporter, you do research—people on the street stopped me. In New York—on the streets they said "Sandy Claus! Hello, Sandy Claus!" 1985, Lost in America. Anyway, it was written by Monica Johnson and Albert Brooks. And Albert gave me the script, but he liked to improvise around it. And he's a dogged type of director. And I had not known him well. He's a friend of my sister Penny's, but he wanted me to do it 'cause I was unknown. And he said, "They'll think you're a real gangster! So you'll do it." But we improvised some of it. He would kind of drive me. He changed the lines. And yes, it was only two days, but he did it over and over again. I mean I'm, as a director, if I don't get it in five takes, I ain't gonna get it. Except for Al Pacino. Al Pacino, you do twenty, and you'll get five of them there; he's brilliant. But we're doing them again and again, and I said, "Albert, um, don't we have any of it?" I said, "We seem to have the beginning. Couldn't we just get this ending right?" I said, cause I wasn't—I'm still not a trained actor; I was startled in that picture. I remember very well. The camera was on Albert first, so I'm doing a thing, and I'm acting away having fun, and then they turn the camera around. Now the camera's on me. There's twenty people standing there! I had never—you know, I had done very cheap work where only one stands there. These people—a man serving cake—I'm trying to act here. But he said, "Okay, we'll just do the ending." And so we started to do it, and we're improv-in' around, and he threw me the line from the very beginning of the scene! And I just burst out laughing. Albert! I didn't say, "Albert." And he used that in the scene where it was a totally honest laugh 'cause he was driving me crazy. So he seemed to be achieving that. So it was improvised to the extent of do your—what's—I was politically correct, so when he insulted Wayne Newton—I figure I'm going to need tickets to Wayne Newton; I want to see him in Vegas—so I said, "I love Wayne Newton. Leave Wayne Newton alone." (Laughs.) Wayne Newton wrote me a note: "Thanks for defending me." Anyway, it was a fun time.
G: I have to ask you, is there one of your films, either as actor or director—that you feel has been unjustly neglected, that you wish more people would go and check out or check out again?
GM: Well, I did a film once called The Grasshopper. I produced and wrote it, with Jerry Belson, Jacqueline Bisset. It was at a festival called (laughs) "Unappreciated American Films." And it packed them in. The film now that I think might be unappreciated is a film I did called The Other Sister. The subject matter is a little rough, about a mentally challenged girl, but I thought Juliette Lewis was brilliant, and I thought the film was what I had envisioned. I wrote it with Bob Brunner, and it came out just the way I had envisioned it. Diane Keaton was great, and just didn't do as well as everybody had hoped. So I hope people will check out that film again. The rest, whatever it was, it was. Exit to Eden was not such a brilliant piece of work. And whatever. Beaches was good, and Frankie and Johnnie was released at the wrong time. But that's a very good film. I've been very fortunate—Nothing in Common, Flamingo Kid have been—before I got in the chick-flick business—those were well-received enough. But I would say The Other Sister 'cause—I do a joke, but it's true: I love to work with new young people and the new people, and what I try to do is I try to get 'em on the way up and before rehab. 'Cause there's a window. And so that's the window I missed with Juliette Lewis. And she came out of rehab. And I hired her right out of rehab for that picture. And she was great. And everybody was worried, and they wouldn't insure her and all that. So I guess the point is sometimes you gotta take a chance on what is magical rather than worry about all the back-story. That's what I—I start in June with Lindsay Lohan, not known as "There's an amiable little girl!" (Laughs.) Lindsay and I get along great. So we're gonna do this picture with Jane Fonda. And so I think you just go with the talent; these are talented people.
G: And that new film that you're prepping is more dramatic territory than usual for you, right?
GM: Yes. Georgia Rules is a more serious script written by Mark Andrus, who is one of the great writers. And I didn't know, he's also a Mormon. So there's a Mormon setting in this. It's not about Mormons, but they're a part of it. And I am going to start on that, but, you see, it's all about nepotism. My son Scott directed Keeping Up With the Steins, so I'm here talking about that. I'll talk about the other one at Christmas. But I'm just happy that most of the work I've done, bad or good, somebody saw, and God knows they saw my TV stuff. So now we're getting into this. And the fact that I have grandchildren now, I do Chicken Little, I do Princess Diaries 1 and 2. But I think you gotta keep moving around. So Georgia Rules is new for me. And Keeping Up With the Steins is—my son is carrying on in some family traditions.
G: What's the status of the Happy Days musical? I know you've been working on it.
GM: Oh yeah. Love you to mention that, 'cause it's San Francisco here. We start—I open the Happy Days musical June 23rd at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. And we run eight weeks. And Paul Williams wrote all new music—wonderful music—and the kid from Kids on the Block, Joey McIntyre's playing Fonzie. And he's very good. So we'll run it and hopefully polish it all up and go on the road in January 2007. That's the plan. But I gotta get that up and, y'know, again, my sister Ronnie and my daughter Kathleen are producing it. They're behind it, and it's one of my dreams, I gotta be honest. 'Cause I love those characters. They're forever. And we bring in Spanish kids who don't even speak English—never saw Happy Days—they get it. It's not so hard to get. Those characters are always clear. And I think—I always wanted to make it a musical. I never wanted to make it a movie. I didn't think it was a movie. In my own opinion. Anything's a movie. Anything's anything. But I thought it was always a musical. It was like a drama—it was bigger than life, Happy Days, and I always thought it would be great on the screen. I mean, on the stage, so we'll see what happens. Everybody's doing one! I just came from Broadway. And I saw Julia, that's what I saw. She did good.
G: And when it takes off, then you make it into a movie musical, right?
GM: Well, I wouldn't mind a musical 'cause I was gun-shy there...but I did an opera last year: The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. Offenbach. And I had eighty-three people on the stage, a chorus of forty-five! And I moved them all around, and I'm not afraid of musicals anymore. I'd love to do a musical on film now. It takes forever, but it's worth it. Haven't seen The Producers but I'm looking forward—
G: Well it's great to talk to you...break a leg on all these projects, just not on the softball field.
GM: Yes!...Thank you for coming here.
[For Groucho's review of Keeping Up With the Steins, click here.]