ABC Pays Long-Overdue Tribute to the Man Who Saved Its Bacon

The Happy Days of Garry Marshall is a lookback at the nice-guy producer who gave us the Fonz, Mork & Mindy, and Pretty Woman.
  • Garry Marshall (front) with some of the stars whose careers he helped launch in the 1970s: Ron Howard,  his sister Penny Marshall, Robin Williams, Cindy Williams, Pam Dawber, and Henry Winkler.
    Garry Marshall (front) with some of the stars whose careers he helped launch in the 1970s: Ron Howard, his sister Penny Marshall, Robin Williams, Cindy Williams, Pam Dawber, and Henry Winkler.
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    TV producers are a bigger deal these days than they were when I was growing up. Most readers of Primetimer are on a first-name basis with Shonda, Ryan, Mindy, and Kenya, and many probably recognize such surnames as Bruckheimer, Wolf, Lorre, and Sherman-Palladino. We appreciate producers these days as being more than just showrunners — they’re auteurs who leave their mark on every episode, whether or not they run their shows day-to-day.

    As a kid in the 1970s, the only producers whose names I recognized were Norman Lear, Jack Webb, and Lorne Michaels. Tonight, ABC is airing a prime-time tribute to another name producer from that era whom we eventually got to know — Garry Marshall. Before he directed Pretty Woman and all those other blockbuster films, Marshall produced three enormous hit TV shows that, I think it's not a reach to say, turned one network’s fortunes completely around: Happy Days and its two best-known spinoffs, Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy.

    Having watched this two-hour special, I have two thoughts: 1) I can’t believe ABC hasn't paid tribute to Garry Marshall until now, and 2) this show would have been a whole lot better if it had been done while he was still alive.

    Before 1975, nobody watched much on ABC, except for Monday Night Football. (By “nobody” I mean other than the 15 million households that would be tuned to their ABC station back then even if it was showing a test pattern.) There were some bright spots — The Six Million Dollar Man, Starsky & Hutch, Barney Miller — but the fact that Howard Cosell was a bigger name than the stars of any of those shows tells you all you need to know about ABC in 1975.

    Except there was this show called Happy Days, about a teenager in 1950s Milwaukee named Richie Cunningham, played by Ron Howard, and his family and friends. Garry Marshall had first pitched Happy Days to ABC at the height of the Vietnam War, thinking a show about 1950s nostalgia might be just the trick. Network executives had him make a pilot, then passed. (I remember seeing it on ABC’s busted-pilot showcase Love, American Style.) And then American Graffiti happened. Suddenly ABC realized that crazy producer from Brooklyn was onto something, and the show was back on.

    Happy Days debuted in the winter of 1974. Marshall put together a solid cast and good writers. Very soon it became clear that a minor character — an uber-cool, leather-jacket-wearing chick magnet known as the Fonz — could be a breakout. That is, if Happy Days itself could ever break out. Something wasn’t quite clicking, and in season two the show’s ratings started to slide.

    Marshall figured out the problem in the nick of time. He had broken into comedy in the early 1960s writing jokes for Jack Paar before moving to Hollywood to try his hand at sitcoms. With his partner Jerry Belson, they got gigs with Dick Van Dyke, Lucille Ball, and others before moving into auteur mode with The Odd Couple, based on the Neil Simon play.

    Marshall argued that The Odd Couple had an energy that Happy Days lacked, and that was because it was filmed before a live studio audience. ABC had ordered Happy Days as a single-camera show with canned laughs dubbed in. As a last-ditch effort to save the show, a multi-camera set was built and a live audience brought in — and everything changed.

    The Fonz broke out. Mork from Ork broke out. Hell, even Scott Baio and the owner of Arnold’s Diner broke out. I can’t think of a show that was a bigger game-changer than Happy Days. It went straight to No. 1 and spawned a cultural craze in everything Fifties. The only reason it didn’t repeat as TV’s most-watched show is that Laverne & Shirley, the first spinoff from Happy Days, was even bigger. The next spinoff after that was Mork & Mindy, as big a cultural phenomenon as the Fonz. The show’s success owed mainly to the sizzling talent of Robin Williams — but, as his costar Pam Dawber rightly points out here, there was great chemistry between the actors, which seems to be a hallmark of Garry Marshall productions.

    By 1977 ABC had gone from worst to first, and while Aaron Spelling and Roots kept it there, I can’t imagine the network’s turnaround happening without these three shows. Did any TV producer make a bigger impact in less time? Before we even have a chance to ponder that, it’s on to Marshall’s film career, which eats up most of this special. Starting with Young Doctors in Love, Marshall embarked on a film career and never looked back — a decade of solid work (Beaches, Flamingo Kid) followed by megahits (Pretty Woman, Princess Diaries, Runaway Bride).

    It’s a shame we’re conditioned to treat old TV shows as disposable, like paper plates, whereas old movies are treated like fine china (or at least, Corelleware). That’s unfair to shows like The Odd Couple, which was and remains a hilarious comedy classic. And that’s why it’s sad that this special didn’t get made 10 or 15 years ago. Not only could we have heard from Marshall (who died in 2016) about working on The Odd Couple, we could’ve heard from Belson (d. 2006) and co-stars Tony Randall (d. 2004) and Jack Klugman (d. 2012) as well.

    Of the talking heads we do hear from in this special, too many were picked because of their current-day importance in Hollywood (Ashton Kutcher, Jeffrey Katzenberg) rather than their closeness to the subject. There are some good remembrances from his family. Catherine Marshall, speaks to what a great dad he was, always there for her even when he was ferociously busy. It helped that he never moved the family to Beverly Hills. “He showed you could have a normal life without being normal,” is how Lowell Ganz, who co-created Laverne & Shirley with Marshall, puts it.

    Everyone here seems to feel Marshall was a genuinely nice and decent person, a director who was always open to suggestions, and a funny guy who loved a good on-set prank. The actors whose careers Marshall launched speak admiringly of him here — Henry (the Fonz) Winkler, Pam Dawber, Hector Elizondo, Anne Hathaway, and Julia Roberts, who starred in two of his biggest blockbusters, Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride, both opposite Richard Gere.

    The most unfortunate aspect of this posthumous special is that Garry Marshall himself is scarcely heard from — just a few voiceovers, which sound like him reading from something, perhaps his 1997 memoir Wake Me When It’s Funny. I guess Disney didn’t want to use his Emmy interview, which is too bad. But, since there are so few upsides to this pandemic, let it be noted that ABC had to find creative ways to fill its schedule, and that necessitated this welcome, if long-overdue, tribute.

    Better late than never — but sooner would've been better.

    The Happy Days of Garry Marshall airs tonight at 8:00 PM on ABC.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Garry Marshall, ABC, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Odd Couple, Hector Elizondo, Henry Winkler, Julia Roberts