I walked into the entrance of Garry Marshall’s office at the Falcon Theater in Burbank, and was suddenly nervous for this interview. All around me were walls decorated with posters and pictures representing his amazing accomplishments.
One wall hosted huge posters from his TV shows Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, The Odd Couple, and Mork and Mindy. Black-and-white pictures hung from another wall featuring movies that he produced and directed, such as Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, The Other Sister, Frankie and Johnny, and his newest one, The Princess Diaries. Shelves with Mork and Mindy lunch boxes, Happy Days action figures and cars, and even Fonz potato chips lined another wall.
Wow. This was all so overwhelming! I walked into Garry’s office and he was talking with a casting director. I looked around his dark office and saw bookshelves full of scripts, screenplays, Los Angeles Lakers stuff and personal family pictures. "Wow! This guy is so cool," I thought.
Then we sat down to talk. Even though he has had an unbelievable career and worked with so many stars, he was very down-to-earth and went out of his way to make me feel comfortable. He was hilarious and full of great stories. I think it was my favorite interview yet.
Q: You’ve accomplished a lot. Do you find yourself looking back and saying, "Wow, did I really do all that?"
A: "Yes, I do look back. It helps me because just before I write anything or am starting something, it’s very hard. There’s a point where you want to quit. I go to my old scripts from movies and TV and I actually touch them and I say, "See I did this work! I must have done it once so I am capable of finishing." So that helps me go to the next one.
I’ve enjoyed all of it. The process is the fun, not the result. It’s all great memories. The irony of my career is that the most difficult show I ever did, the least amount of fun was Laverne & Shirley, which was my sister’s show. It was just a hard show to do. People weren’t sure they wanted to do the show. It was quite a difficult task and it was on eight years. Happy Days was on 11 years, and I never had a bad day on Happy Days."
Q: When did you first become interested in the entertainment business?
A: "My mother taught dancing to little children for 50 years. There is the dance center at Northwestern. The building is named after her, which I built in her honor.
My father was in advertising and made documentary films that were not very funny. They were about smelting steel, things like that. They were not a riot. My sisters and I would stare at these films and say, "Not so funny!" I think that’s why we went into comedy.
As a child, I was extremely sick. I was in bed all the time. I had pneumonia three times. All in all, I spent a lot of time in bed. I daydreamed and used to write things. That’s why I got into the business. I am so old, Sami, that there was no TV when I was little, so we used our imagination.
I think the other reason I got into the entertainment business is that I was no good as a journalist. In my class literally there were four Pulitzer Prize winners. So while we were in school together, I noticed that they were better than me at this journalism business. But the teacher always said that I was funny and should write a column. I had a column through high school and college. It was a humor column."
Q: What did you do as a teen? What were your aspirations?
A: "Everybody’s not equal, you know, so you got to find what you want to do. I tried working on the railroad with my other friends, building the railroad with sledgehammers. What a terrible job that was! I lasted three days, but I went with all the football players because I was writing about them in my column. I didn’t like that at all. What I did mostly was write things that nobody particularly read.
I played a lot of ball with my teams. I guess I tried to learn things that would help me in the future. I wish I would have played the piano.
Mostly what I did was hang out. We didn’t have malls. We had street corners. We had the same conversations they have in the mall, but it was on the street corner. In Princess Diaries, I had nine kids under 18 in the movie. So I’d listen to them talk. They had the same conversations I had when I was on the street corner."
Q: Why do you think you are so successful?
A: "I don’t know. I just tried to find something in my life when I was a teenager that I could do. And I did! My father’s advice when I was a teenager was, "Find something you can do when you have a headache." A lot of things you want to do, but you got to be in the mood to do it. Sometimes you’re sick. Sometimes you’ve got a headache, but you’ve got to deliver the goods. No matter how much my tooth hurts, I could write you five pages of jokes or make a story or a movie. This is something I could do every single day and not get bored.
They trained you at Northwestern that you had to finish. A lot of times in movies they don’t finish."
Q: You write, produce, act and direct. Do you have a preference?
A: "All the jobs, because you never know what kind of work you’ll be out of.
They all are fun. Basically I’m a writer. They hired me as a writer and I did the rest.
There was a show that they let me produce because it was my own creation, and then I hired myself as a director. Anything I’ve done in my whole life came from writing. I spent 20 years in television. I’ve done 20 years in movies and I’m starting to do theater. I have my own theater."
Q: What advice do you have for teenagers trying to make it in the entertainment business?
A: "So many have never been in the entertainment business and don’t know what they want to do. The lucky few say, ‘I want to write. I want to direct. I want to act.’ Everybody with nice hair says, ‘I want to act!’
My advice is that you start right away. You don’t wait till you’re out of school. You do it in school. Get into school plays. Everyone has a video camera.
When I was growing up, there was no way you could express yourself, except on paper. Now you could direct something, produce something. Actors could have their friends shoot them acting. All of that should be done right away.
When you come and you just say, ‘I’d like to be in the entertainment business,’ we won’t know what to do with you. It’s better if you come and say, ‘Here are three scripts I wrote. Here’s a video I made where I directed this little play. Here’s something I produced for the school’s alumni association gala or something.’
It’s also good for the teenager, because then they understand that they like doing that or they’re good at it. See if you enjoy it or have a flair for it. It’s not that easy, so you have to try different things."
Q: Rarely do people become overnight sensations. In the meanwhile, parents and friends act like you’re crazy for pursuing a career in film or TV. How can people overcome the negatives that surround them and make it?
A: "When you’re a teenager and you’re fresh out of school, you have to teach your parents to lie. Because all they want to do is tell the neighbors, ‘You know what she’s doing—she’s doing a job for Johnny Carson or whoever.’
But I used to teach the parents to say, ‘My child is working on something very secretive for the government.’
Make something up while the kid’s struggling as a waitress, because no parent wants to say she’s a waitress. So lie! Don’t bug your kids. Just make up a story until your kid finds what they want to do.
My sister, Penny, is a breakthrough director for women. Before Penny, they felt that no woman could direct a movie that made more than $100 million, because they said women didn’t have the range of thought.
So then Penny came along and made two! She was the first one [to do that]. She made A League of their Own and Big. Both made over $100 million. She just did a picture with Drew Barrymore about a 15-year-old high school girl who gets pregnant and has to walk around with this child. I think the key things to avoid are drugs and pregnancy. I think those are the two big pitfalls.
The third one is your parents bringing you down. It’s usually relatives that bring people down. Surround yourself with positive people. The business itself is a negative business. You spend 75 percent of the time saying ‘No. Not good enough.’"
Q: Do you like working with young actors?
A: "The key to my career has been women and young people. That’s what made my career. I love young people. With Happy Days, the entire cast was under 25, except for the parents. The Princess Diaries was all with young people. Julia Roberts starred with me when she was 20. I am more comfortable actually working with younger people. They’re alive, and they’re excited, and they’re brave. They don’t have a lot of baggage, and they try things."
Q: As a director or producer, do you have any say in the casting of a movie?
A: "Yes, I have all the say in the casting. Sometimes I fight with the studio about who we want. I find that a lot of my success comes from casting right."
Q: Many people compared Pretty Woman to The Princess Diaries. Did you intend to make similar movies?
A: "Well, one’s about a hooker and the other is a G movie. First I think Annie [Hathaway] has the same type of appeal as Julia. There’s only one Julia Roberts, but Annie has the Audrey Hepburn-Julia Roberts-Judy Garland appeal. Also most of my work is about people getting self-esteem and about young people getting self-esteem, so that is similar. In Pretty Woman, she got her self-esteem through her journey in the story and in The Princess Diaries it was important to get her self-esteem.
I push a lot that teenagers should speak up more, have more to say, have more opinions. Young people have needed to do this. They have been quiet lately. So they need to step up. I think Chelsea Clinton has a shot to say something.
The movie I am working on now is about Kent State. It was a college in the late ’60s where they shot the students. There was an uprising and they killed the college students. The National Guards killed them. They were trying to make statements. They didn’t make them right. We don’t want anybody to get killed, but the more we can hear from young people, I think, it’s better.
In The Princess Diaries, the key speech is how many teenagers have a chance to make a difference. From writing something to people standing up for things they believe in."
Q: Does making a movie like The Princess Diaries bring out the kid in you?
A: "I’ve never grown up, Sami. That’s how I make my living, being silly. As a father, I have grown up and as a grandfather. But as a creator, I work totally as a child. Robin Williams used to say, "You must never lose the child in you, or else they won’t pay us!"
I think the biggest thing with teenagers is that they want to be invisible, but you’ve got to stand up sometimes. It’s so hard, because everybody’s putting them down. I guess the thing is dealing with rejection. I had a play on Broadway. The question is: What was the play at the Winter Garden Theater before ‘Cats?’ It was my play. My play was called ‘The Roast.’ ‘The Roast’ ran three nights. ‘Cats’ ran for 18 years!
It was a big rejection. But, you got to fight through it. Keep believing. Don’t get stuck against the wall. The Internet’s available to young people. Use paper and pencil if you want to write something.
My oldest kid’s a writer. My middle one’s an actress and producer. My youngest is a boy who is a director and musician. All three graduated from Northwestern. They followed each other. My son does a lot of music videos. His latest two are ‘Do you Believe in Miracles’ with Mira and the other one he did with Smash Mouth. He also does all the pre-shots for my movies."
Q: What are your favorite projects?
A: "My favorite project and my best picture, although not everyone would agree with me, was The Other Sister. That’s the best work I’ve done. People didn’t take it well, because the mentally challenged is difficult subject matter, and it’s very emotional."
Q: What is in the works now?
A: "I am working very hard on Happy Days, the television series that we have converted into a musical. We are writing it now … I’m shifting into theater. I’ll still do movies, but not so much."