From the PEOPLE Archive: Garry Marshall on Happy Days and the Day He Discovered Robin Williams
Garry Marshall died Tuesday at the age of 81
Garry Marshall, creator of Happy Days and director of Pretty Woman, has died. He was 81. In 1989, the beloved director wrote a first-person narrative on the success of his hit show Happy Days and discovering Robin Williams. Read the full story below.
The first day of every season, I’d make the actors and the staffs of the shows I was producing come together in the commissary and I’d give a little welcome, like it was camp, Camp Marshallmount. Everybody, we would meet. You shouldn’t not talk. They should know each other. I’d try to keep them from being bored.
They’ve made a few dollars, these kids, these 19-year-olds. They’d sit around discussing their escrow accounts. I’d tell them to get around and study everything. Go look at a camera. Go learn about producing and budgeting. After a while they’d start saying, “What else can I learn around here?” I think that’s why a lot of very good directors came out of my shows – Ron Howard, Anson Williams, Henry Winkler, my sister Penny Marshall.
I’d have tap dancing and yoga classes. I had a softball team. I made the Happy Days All-Stars with player-actors from all of my shows, and we played in 10 or 15 major-league parks before the big games. The kids would get out there and see how much the audience liked them and how they should behave in a nice way because people copied them. It’s all very nice to be sitting in an office, a man comes in and says, “Hey, you’re No. 1 or 2 or 3 in the ratings,” but that’s on a piece of paper. You go to Milwaukee to play in a stadium before the Brewers game, they’re averaging 24,000 a game, and we come in with Scott Baio, and they do 50,000 cheering, yelling people. It’s exciting to know you’re getting through to the country that way.
I don’t mean to be corny, but we had very, very fine human beings on Happy Days. I mean, Henry Winkler is one of the best, top civic-community leader, helping out. And Ronnie Howard, a gentleman. When someone new appeared on Happy Days, the cast was always willing to back off and let them work, they didn’t try to upstage them or say, “Hey, he’s just the day player – I’m the star here.” It was a nice show to work.
Particularly when Robin Williams came on as a Martian, he was all over the place and was improvising some, and they gave him room. At the end of the episode, 300 people in the audience stood up and applauded, which is not usually done. It didn’t take a genius to know he could do his own show, and we made one for him, Mork & Mindy.
It was the same when Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams came in. What was lucky for me was the script for the episode came in late, and I called them at the last minute to do me a favor, play these characters Laverne and Shirley. I was stuck. They had not been too successful as actresses, and they happened to be working together as a comedy-writing team at the time, so I knew where they both were. They came in and they made magic.
VIDEO: Celebrate Garry Marshall’s Most Iconic Movies and TV Shows
You have to learn how to scramble in television. When I needed the Martian for Happy Days, my sister Ronny, who was my casting director, found Robin for me. When you’re doing two or three shows at a time, you’re always rushing around making quick decisions: “Okay, we need a Martian, get Jonathan Winters, get John Byner. Get one of those guys.” Ronny said I should meet Robin, who was in Harvey Lembeck’s acting class with Penny, and Penny had told her he was the best guy in the class. I said I didn’t have time. She said I ought to make time. I don’t have yes-men. That’s why I have a lot of my relatives, your relatives never say yes. So I made time, and he did the whole audition standing on his head. He was a whole different fresh view of a guy doing an outer-space alien.
The same with Henry Winkler. I had created Happy Days in the early ’70s, but nobody wanted it until after the play Grease and the movie American Graffiti. When we took it down from the shelf, I added a key element, Fonzie, but it was my partner, Tom Miller, who brought me Henry. I would not have cast him in a million years. They brought him in, and I thought they were wasting my time until they put the jacket and boots on him. A man from Yale, you know, and I’m looking for an Italian from the streets. He wasn’t Fonzie. He acted Fonzie, and he was a phenomenon.