Appreciating Garry Marshall, a Giant Whose Work Revealed His Big Heart

Garry Marshall Dead
Rich Fury/Invision/AP

It’s unclear what we’ve done to make the universe angry, but Death keeps taking legends from us: David Bowie, Prince, and now Garry Marshall. Marshall is gone at age 81.

Marshall did far more than create hit shows and cast actors who went on to be enormously influential in their own rights. He also appeared in a host of movies and films, always giving off the vibe of your cool, understanding, funny uncle, a guy who is game for just about anything and always encouraging. Who can say they worked on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” one of television’s foundational programs, voiced a character on the great “BoJack Horseman,” and made hilarious appearances on “Louie”? It’s not just that Marshall wanted to stay relevant. He understood that those shows boast the same kind of finely honed humanism that was at the core of his best work. 

An actor, director and writer whose career spanned more than six decades, Marshall was a Hollywood giant, but he became one by telling stories on a very human scale.

His movies and TV shows weren’t dominated by high-concept themes — well, not overly so. Yes, “Mork and Mindy” was about an alien, and sure, “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley” were allegedly set in the past. But all those shows were really about lovable goofs who got in their own way and memorable oddballs with good hearts. Any gimmick that set his stories in motion never overwhelmed the curiosity and understanding spirit that characterized his work.

It’s hard to overstate how successful Marshall’s mid-career sitcoms were. When I was in my tweens and teens, we only had the Big Three networks and PBS. Take the success of “American Idol” or “Empire” at their height and multiply it by two or three or four, and you’re probably still not close to understanding how big “Happy Days” was. I feel nothing but gratitude that Marshall — and the still-alive-and-kicking Norman Lear — were among the most dominant creators of that era. These shows taught empathy like it’s an easy thing to do, and it’s not.

“Happy Days” was an essentially kind and warm-hearted sitcom about a family, and “Laverne and Shirley” had a similar appeal — and it allowed its female stars (one of them Marshall’s sister, Penny, who went on to become a very successful director) to display their extensive comic chops.

“The Odd Couple” and “Mork and Mindy” had similar premises: What if you had to live with someone who was incredibly different from you? “Happy Days” — which launched the Fonz — and “Pretty Woman” — which shot Julia Roberts’ career into the stratosphere — were also about interlopers, people who didn’t fit into an expected mold. But of all Marshall’s characters, Oscar and Felix may have stuck with me the longest.

I didn’t just watch “The Odd Couple” in first run; I watched it daily in reruns when it hit syndication. Of course, the characters got their start in Neil Simon’s play (which was later turned into a movie), but the Marshall series turned their relationship into a chamber piece for the ages. Each man suffered in his own way, and yet they forgave each other, always. There’s a lesson in that, but the show didn’t pummel the audience with it. 

Felix Unger could be awful, but as depicted by Tony Randall and written by Marshall and the show’s writers, the character was always fully human. Marshall didn’t judge his characters; he saw their flaws, but he was not interested in condemning them or limiting their aspirations. Felix, Oscar Madison, Mork, Laverne, Shirley, Richie Cunningham — these were just human beings who were trying, and occasionally failing, to be better, or at least decent and kind, versions of themselves.

Though he did so many other things that land him with the greats, Marshall should forever be in the Television Hall of Fame for not only putting Robin Williams in a TV show, but for putting him in one that gave the actor the scope to display both his antic charm and his bemused, compassionate sweetness. Most episodes of “Mork and Mindy” ended with Robin giving vulnerable yet mildly humorous reports to his superior, Orson, after learning another lesson about how hard it is to be a human being.

In one episode, Mork talked about loneliness:

Orson: “Do many people on Earth suffer from this disease?”

Mork: “Oh yes sir, and how they suffer. One man I know suffers so much he has to take a medication called bourbon.”

Garry Marshall understood that we all feel like aliens at times. Thank you, sir, not just for making us laugh, but for making us all feel a little less lonely.