‘Happy Days’ Are Here Again!

Editor’s Note: This interview took place in 2009 when Garry Marshall was promoting Happy Days: A New Musical, which played at Houston’s Hobby Center.

Director/actor/writer/producer Garry Marshall talks about gays, Jane Fonda, the GLAAD Awards, Bette Midler, his friendship with Hector Elizondo, and more.

By Blase DiStefano
Photo by John Shearer/WireImage.com

Garry Marshall presents the award for Outstanding Comedy Series at the 17th Annual GLAAD Media Awards in 2006.

Garry Marshall began as a joke writer for standup comedians and moved quickly into television, and then films, as a writer, director, actor, and producer—all roles he continues to fill, sometimes two and three at a time. After moving to Hollywood, where he began as a writer for The Tonight Show with Jack Paar, he teamed up with Jerry Belson as a comedy writing team for some of televisions most successful situation comedies. He adapted and produced Neil Simon’s hit play The Odd Couple for television and created and produced Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, and Laverne and Shirley (which starred his sister, Penny Marshall, now a director/producer with her own impressive string of hits). He was writer and director for the 1984 hit The Flamingo Kid ; his other directorial hits include Overboard, Beaches, Pretty Woman, Frankie and Johnny, Exit to Eden, The Princess Diaries, Raising Helen, and Georgia Rule. Of the 16 films in which he appears as an actor, he is directed by sister Penny in two— Jumpin’ Jack Flash and A League of Their Own. He currently co-stars in Disney’s Race to Witch Mountain, which hit theaters in March of this year [2009]. Marshall and daughter Kathleen founded and built the Falcon Theatre, which is located in the Burbank, California, media district, “where old friends and emerging talent can come together to create exciting work on stage.” On the telephone with OutSmart, Marshall also talks about his collaboration with Paul Williams on the stage musical version of his hit TV series, Happy Days (being staged by TUTS at Houston’s Hobby Center in May 2009).

Hi. This is Blase DiStefano. Garry?
Yes, Garry Marshall. Okay. So am I calling too early?

No, not at all.
Okay. So here I am. I’m sitting in New York.

Do you live in California or New York?
California. I live in Los Angeles in the Toluca Lake/Burbank area where my theater is—The Falcon.

Are you bicoastal?
Well, my sister, Penny, is bicoastal. She has apartments. I come, I stay in a hotel. I go to see shows. I saw a bunch of shows. My friend Jane Fonda is doing a Broadway show [33 Variations], and she is just superb. We saw her last night, my wife and I. She even gave me a shout-out. At the end of the show they ask the audience to contribute to the AIDS Foundation and everything. And she was joking around. She says, “I want to make this funny because Garry Marshall is somewhere in the audience.” We became good friends when we did Georgia Rule together. Of all things, we bonded [over the fact that] we both have new hips.

[Both laugh]
So you’re in Houston?

Yes. Have you ever been to Houston?
I have. I used to go through there to promote a movie or something. And you got a parade coming or something, they told me.

You mean the Gay Pride Parade? That’s not till June…
The Gay Pride Parade is very big in Los Angeles. You can’t walk on the street… One of my fun things I do is the GLAAD event in L.A., and there’s always fun there. There’s funny stuff.

GLAAD Awards
Garry Marshall (l) with Hector Elizondo (r) and Joan M. Garry (GLAAD exec director) at the GLAAD Awards.

Do you go fairly often to the GLAAD awards?
Well, one of the reasons I’m in theater at all is because of a man by the name of Terrence McNally [out playwright of Love! Valour! Compassion! and The Ritz], who was one of my best friends and an idol of mine. I did a film called Frankie and Johnny [1991]. He had written the play and I wanted him to write the screenplay. But [they wanted] Bellman and Gitzman, and I said, “No, no, why wouldn’t you let Terrence write this screenplay?” “Oh, he don’t know how to write a screenplay.” “How do you know?! He knows the characters. Leave the man alone.” So I said, “I’m not doing it unless he writes the first draft.” He did and they loved it! So we became close, and lo and behold, it won an award at the GLAAD event. And I got the prize, and I made a speech or something. They said, “You come back, and you’ll present,” and I’ve been presenting ever since.

Do you still keep up with Terrence?
I literally saw Terrence the other night! He’s got two new shows opening. He’s got a play, and he’s got Catch Me If You Can, a musical based on the movie. He’s a busy guy, Terrence. But he was the one who said, “Theater is alright. Try it.” That’s why I built my theater. He’s one of the main reasons.

And your daughter is involved with you on that, right?
My daughter Kathleen, my middle child, runs it. She does the whole thing, and I get in the way a couple of times, but she runs it pretty good. My play is there now.

What is it?
Everybody Say Cheese. It’s about my parents. My sister, Penny, came to the play, right? She comes out… first thing she says is, “You made mom and dad so sweet.”

[Both laugh]
I said, “It’s my play, and I can do whatever I want.” Different siblings have different views. I waited until my parents were gone, God bless ’em.

You were born in 1934, and in those early days, gays were extremely closeted. Do you remember the first gay person you ever met?
I do. I guess I was 11 or 12. I was in camp…it was not the top-notch camp. It was a YMCA camp, and it cost a coupla dollars. That’s all we could afford. There were a lot of incorrigible kids at that camp. That’s where they sent them. I was in a different group, but we were all together. But I remember one of the kids who I kind of liked. He was funny. He was in the play at the camp, and there was a whole incident where they beat him up at a thing they had. I said, “Why’d they beat him up? What did he do ?” And they said, “He didn’t do nuttin’, he’s uh…” They didn’t say “gay.”

“Queer,” yes, that’s what they said. “He’s queer.” For that he got beat up? I was used to blacks and Puerto Ricans and Irish. We all beat each other up. I was Italian. There were Jewish kids, and this was a new group that could get beat up. I didn’t know what it was. But I started to ask around, and then I understood that it was, you know, sissies or whatever that was. After that, I understood it and didn’t think it was right. I don’t think anybody should be beat up for what they are when they’re born and when they come out of the closet. They didn’t come out, I guess, much in those days. I didn’t know what the closet meant in those days. But I learned you could get a stigma for that.

You understood, right?
I understood. Our gang was all Italian Jewish—the Falcons. Unfortunately, we couldn’t beat anybody up. We kept losing badly, so we gave up and said we were an athletic club. We became The Falcon AC—then we didn’t have to fight anybody. As the years went by, I understood it and didn’t think it was quite the right thing to do. My mother felt that anybody who wasn’t funny was useless.

[Both laugh]
The more funny people I met, it seemed to be a lot of gay people. And I said, “Wow, this must be wonderful.” I was very sickly as a child. I got injured when I played sports, I got hit in the head every time. I had two sisters, Penny and Ronny, and I was the oldest, and they would go out and play, and I’d try to hold them in the room—I was lonely. And I’d make up jokes and stories and made them laugh. “I’ll go talk to Garry, he’ll make me laugh.” So that’s when I started into humor.

Is that when you started writing?
I more or less wrote because I couldn’t get out of bed. I had asthma. I had allergies. I had everything. Yes, I pretty much wrote and I loved sports, so I was the sports editor of my high school paper. Sports editor at Northwestern. Sports editor in Korea on the Korean paper. Korea was a little cold, let me tell you. So I was cold in New York. Cold in Chicago at Northwestern. Freezing in Korea. I said, “That’s it! I’m going to be in California or Florida.”

Garry Marshall (l) with Brendan Fraser in The Twilight of the Golds.

Okay, I’m going to skip to 1997 and The Twilight of the Golds. [Marshall played the father of a gay son played by Brendan Fraser. Marshall’s character’s wife and daughter were played by Faye Dunaway and Jennifer Beals.] Any idea how you would have reacted in real life had one of your children been gay?
Well, I think it would have been what it is. Whatever comes, you have to deal with as a parent. I have two handicapped grandchildren with cerebral palsy and that’s not a thrill, but this is who they are. You love them and whatever it is—gay, not gay, whatever challenge—you accept it. My wife’s a nurse and is probably more… I’m married 46 years to a nurse. She has a whole other outlook. She taught me. And as a mother I think she would deal with it very well and accept it.

How did The Twilight of the Golds come about?
I remember Jonathan Tolins brought me that piece. For some reason he loved The Odd Couple. [Along with Jerry Belson, Marshall adapted the TV series from the Neil Simon play.] He wanted to meet me and he wanted me to read his play. I said I would, but I never got to it. I remember it was Jeffery Katzenberg who called and said, “There’s a play we’re thinking of buying to make a movie out of. Why don’t you go see it?” And I went to San Francisco. It was Twilight of the Golds. I loved it. I said, “What a powerful piece this is.” One thing led to another and eventually Katzenberg called me and said they don’t want to make it. Then I met Jonathan and he wanted me to direct it. I said, “Well, I’d love it, Jonathan. If you ever get it going, call me and I’ll direct it in a minute.” Then he called me and said, “I got it going.” I said, “You want me direct it?” He said, “No, we can’t afford you, but we got somebody else.”

[Both laugh]
I said, “Alright, good. So I’m happy for you.” He says, “But I want you to play my father.” I said, “Well, alright, I’ll do it.” Mark Harris—and I forget the other gentlemen—produced it. One of the other gentlemen was gay. [That would be Paul Colichman, then co-founder and CEO of Regent Entertainment and Here! Networks.] I remember doing the father, and it was a powerful part. Faye Dunaway played my wife, and a great kid, Brendan Fraser, played my son. He was terrific.

Rosie O’Donnell was in that.
Yes, she was a part of it. I know Rosie from many projects.

Exit to Eden.
Yes, I don’t know if I did that before or after.

Before, because Exit to Eden was 1994 and The Twilight of the Golds was 1997.
I see. I don’t think Rosie and I were in the same scene [in Twilight]. No, we had not talked. It was an independent film. The cops would come and try to shut us down. And there was the unions, and then Paul would talk to them and everything calmed down. It was not the easiest shoot, but we were together. The cast got along great, and I love Jennifer Beals [10 years later, he worked with her on The L Word]. We’re friends.

Your choices do seem to show your support of gay rights.
It’s the right thing to do.

Didn’t you make a documentary on marriage that included same-sex couples?
Yes. Well, it turns out I’m not such a documentary maker. But I did try to include everything in there. Showtime, I guess it was, they gave six directors an assignment, and they said, “You do ‘love,’ Garry. You do ‘marriage.’” I don’t know what the name of it is [Marriage in the 20th Century: In Search of the Happy Ending]. I haven’t thought about it in a while. I have to dig it out. But you have to have a certain kind of patience to do documentary. I’m not the most patient person.

I read that you might work with Bette Midler again?
I love Bette Midler. We did Beaches. Yes, we tried to do a picture and we were so close, and the last minute she had to go do her Las Vegas thing. Someday… Every time we start something, we say, “What about Bette?” Because I’m dying to work with her again.

Great story about Bette. She’s such a wonderful lady. So she’s Bette! There’s only one of them. So she has this lovely daughter. When we were doing Beaches, Sophie seemed to be three or four or something. A little kid. Cute kid. Well, she grew up into a terrific girl, and it came time for her to go to college. And so Bette, the dutiful mother, is taking her around visiting campuses. So she’s feeling very inefficient and doesn’t know the first thing about the whole thing—parading around, feeling very insecure with the kid who is very bright. And she’s walking on Northwestern campus. (On the campus, my mother was a dance teacher, and so we dedicated the dance building to my mother.) So she’s walking with her kid, and she sees my name and she jumps up and says to Sophie, “I know somebody who went to college.”

So I had this whole thing on my answering machine when I get home, and I call her and she said, “Help me help her get into college. Do this, do that.” I said, “She’ll be fine, but I’ll help.” So I did of course recommend her to Northwestern. Which she did get in. Bette called me [later]. The kid wants to be closer to home, and she ended up at Yale. So Bette has a daughter at Yale. The kid is smart. I think she may have one more year.

So, tell me about Happy Days.… Is Fonzie gay, bi, or transsexual?
No, he’s not any of them. We talked about that.

[Laughs] Did you?!
Yes, there were some people who said that’s what it should be. There were all these ideas. Let’s make Fonzie gay. Let’s make Joanie get an abortion. Let’s make Potsie bipolar. I wanted to capture what we had, which was an innocent time. Everybody was happy and a little friendly toward each other, and that’s what we captured in the musical.

I had never done a musical, so it was a whole new world. I was on a picture, and we had to hire this wonderful kid named Gordon Greenberg, who was a dancer on Broadway and is now a director, and he is one of the funniest people I ever met. And he directed this version you’re going to see. And Gordon is gay, and I hear about all his things.

[Both laugh]
He calls me, he tells me, “I’m in Toronto.” He says, “There’s a guy I dated coming to the show tonight. Say hello to him.” He gives me the name. I said, “Hello.” So I said, “I don’t know, he was alright.” So I’m not one of his advisors. But he’s a terrific director. And he did a heck of a job on Happy Days.

I think you’re really going to love this one. At work when I mentioned I was going to interview Garry Marshall, one guy asked if you and Penny Marshall were divorced.
Well that’s a misconception. Everybody thinks she’s my wife, my daughter. A lot, my daughter. But Penny’s my kid sister. There’s me, I’m the oldest; there’s my sister Ronny, and my sister Penny was the kid sister. She was a pip, that one. She was pretty funny, too.

Okay, now I heard a rumor that you and Hector Elizondo are actually married.
[Laughs] That is good. I’ll tell Hector that. Hector and I are best friends in a way of having similar lives. We both grew up in the streets of New York, we both were drummers, and we both played basketball together for years, and to this day we both play on the same softball team. I remember we were at a party recently… Hector and I, we don’t drive so well. We always have a driver. So we’re at some party, and we’re walking in, and Bill Maher sees us. I know Bill a long time, and he says, “I’m startled.” I went, “What’s the matter?” He says, “You two guys really are friends. I thought they made that up in the papers. But you hang out together.” So I said, “Yeah, we are friends.”

Hector has always been for me the great equalizer. When you’re directing a film, sometimes things go wrong, people get temperamental. But Hector is very respected by other actors, and when there is a problem, I often say, “Hector, would you say something to so and so. We’re a little late here and we need the help.” So he’s like a friend of the court, you might say. So I did 16 movies and he’s been in 16 movies.

I remember in Pretty Woman, they wouldn’t hire him. They said, “He’s Puerto Rican.” I said, “Yes.” So they say, “How does a Puerto Rican run a big hotel? Nobody’ll believe it.” I said, “So he’s Puerto Rican, but he can be anything!” They said, “Why? He has a lot of accents?” I said, “No, he has a lot of toupees. He can be whatever the hell you want him to be.” Anyway, the truth of the matter is, I had to put up the money for him to be in Pretty Woman. After the picture they gave me back the money in two seconds and said they were wrong, which is why I like to work for Disney. Because they can say when they were wrong.

Theatre Under the Stars presents Happy Days––A New Musical at the Hobby Center, May 12–24. For performance schedule and ticket information, call 713/558-TUTS (8887), visit their website at tuts.com, or e-mail [email protected].


Blase DiStefano

Blase DiStefano is the Creative Director/Entertainment Editor for OutSmart Magazine.

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