The beloved director of Pretty Woman, The Princess Diaries and Beaches died Tuesday of complications from pneumonia

By Tom Gliatto
Updated July 20, 2016 03:45 PM
Credit: Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

From the long-running Happy Days on ABC through feel-good movie triumphs including 1990’s Pretty Woman, director Garry Marshall had an uncanny sense of how to hit the sweet spot without being saccharine. Marshall, who died at age 81 Tuesday, was first and foremost (even last-most) an entertainer (including writer, producer, actor), and his sole drive was to lighten audiences’ hearts in the darkness of the theater or the dimness of their living rooms.

The epigraph from his 2012 autobiography, the appropriately titled My Happy Days in Hollywood, sums up a career that began as a writer for Jack Paar’s late-night talk show in 1960:

“From the start it has been the theatre’s business to entertain people it needs no other passport than fun.”

Oddly, the quote is from the formidable German playwright Bertolt Brecht. Maybe Brecht would have liked Marshall’s Mork & Mindy, the sitcom that made a star of Robin Williams. Maybe his mood wouldn’t have been so sour.

More to the point would be the comment Paar made to then-beginner Marshall back when John F. Kennedy was president: “You have the mind of a 4-year-old. I like that.” So, evidently, did Marshall. He remembered the compliment with great satisfaction.

VIDEO: Celebrate Garry Marshall’s Most Iconic Movies and TV Shows

His emphasis was on the genial, the playful, the attractive. When those elements aligned – as in the famous improvised moment in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere surprises Julia Roberts by loudly snapping a jewel case shut and provokes one of the greatest bursts of laughter in Hollywood history – the result was pure, natural charm.

He also had an excellent eye for talent, launching and fortifying some major careers: Roberts, of course, in Pretty Women,, Williams on Mindy, his sister Penny Marshall on Laverne & Shirley, Anne Hathaway in The Princess Diaries (which features a scene-stealing turn by future Grey’s Anatomy star Sandra Oh), Tom Hanks in Nothing in Common and Henry Winkler in Happy Days.

Marshall’s hit sitcoms, a powerful force in prime time from the 1970s into the 1980s, were almost a form of counterprogramming to All in the Family and other edgier, of-the-moment shows produced by Norman Lear. The retro Happy Days and alien-with-rainbow-suspenders sitcom Mork & Mindy were well-cast, well-written, well-driven vehicles, built to last (with excellent theme songs, too).

Happy Days

has its own special niche in pop culture as the origin of the phrase “jumping the shark,” which derives from an episode in which the Fonz (Winkler), waterskiing while wearing a leather jacket over what appear to be denim briefs, does exactly that. “It was certainly not one of the shows I am most proud of,” Marshall wrote in his autobiography. “But I love the phrase jumping the shark and the way people use it today to signify a TV series nearing the end of its run.”

Marshall glosses over the pointed mockery of the phrase – it signifies a show that has run out of inspiration and gone off the rails – but that insistence on the upbeat was key to his success. Pretty Woman, a Cinderella story about a prostitute and a financier, began as a much grittier script (title: 3,000 with no fairy-tale clincher. Yet, in Marshall’s hands, it became the definition of modern rom-com.

“The actors brought such a lovability and charm that I didn’t think the audience would want a dark ending,” Marshall told Vanity Fair, “and it didn’t hurt that I am from the school of happy endings.”

While Beaches (1988), starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, is regarded by many as a grade-A weepie, Marshall’s work generally didn’t acknowledge a level of sadness that could be called even bittersweet. This may explain why he was overlooked when awards were being handed out – he never won an Emmy, and was never even nominated for an Oscar – and many of his movies were treated harshly by the critics. (Variety described his last film, the ensemble comedy Mother’s Day, as “atrociously written, begrudgingly acted [and] haphazardly assembled.”)

Well: Marshall’s go-to response to all that would appear to have been an affable shrug. This is the conclusion of his memoir:

“The critics have whacked me for so long that now sons and daughters of critics are whacking me. However, each time I feel like I can do better. So, it has been a life of ups and downs, but I will always keep going and try harder on the next project. When I figure out what really makes people go on or give up, I will let you know. But one thing I do know for certain is that I will tell you with three montages and a happy ending.”