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How Garry Marshall found his comedy

"I do light stuff." Those four self-deprecating syllables barely hinted at the long, broad, influential career of comedy legend Garry Marshall. The director, producer, creator, writer and actor died Tuesday in Burbank, Calif., of complications from pneumonia following a stroke.

He was 81. I met him just once, in 1999, in the lobby of the Falcon Theatre in Burbank, Calif., which he founded with his daughter, Kathleen Marshall LaGambina. The occasion was Marshall's revival of the Beth Henley stalwart "Crimes of the Heart," starring Morgan Fairchild, Faith Ford and Crystal Bernard, all TV-bred, like the director. Those three minutes in the lobby proved more memorable than the production; in person, Marshall turned out to be as nice and warm and funny as his reputation, and as his best star-making work on small and large screens.

Two months prior to his death, the creator of "Happy Days," "Mork and Mindy," "Laverne and Shirley" and the director of "Pretty Woman" pointed out the obvious — "I do light stuff" — to a crowd of about 100 at a Northwestern University screening of "Mother's Day." He said this, according to a Daily Northwestern account, as explanation for the harsh critical reception to what turned out to be Marshall's final directorial effort. I wasn't there. You probably weren't either. But in your mind's ear, surely you can hear that famous Bronx voice gracing so many cameos over the years. He acted a lot, often wonderfully, never better than in Albert Brooks' "Lost in America," as the casino honcho fielding Brooks' request to refund his gambling losses. Anyway: You can imagine Marshall tossing off those four words, "I do light stuff," with an air of: What can you do? You do what you do.

Marshall graduated with a Northwestern journalism degree in 1956. He wrote for the Daily Northwestern (Stars and Stripes before that, during his Army stint during the Korean War), followed by work as a copy boy and a reporter for the New York Daily News. By that time in the Eisenhower era, Marshall had a parallel life, performing stand-up comedy and writing material for comedians Joey Bishop and Phil Foster.

For Marshall, journalism was hard and comedy was easier, though a key lesson, as he told the Los Angeles Times in a 1991 interview, came from Foster, who "turned my life around."

"I was working in some (Greenwich Village) revue," Marshall said. "And he came in and said, 'You're making three waiters hysterical, but the audience isn't laughing. So, you got a choice. You can make the waiters and the band laugh or you can try for the audience.' "

The lesson was learned, and how. For those who weren't there, watching half-hour after half-hour of Marshall's shows on the nearest Naugahyde couch, it may be hard to understand the degree to which Marshall dominated the reassuring side of 1970s TV comedy. (Norman Lear, still with us and the subject of a new documentary, took care of the more challenging side.) Marshall developed "Happy Days," starring Ron Howard and Henry Winkler. George Lucas got a look at the pilot and decided to cast Howard in "American Graffiti." Add a little "Grease," and America's obsessive nostalgia for the pre-'63 era, cleaned and scrubbed and idealized just so, has never really gone away.

Marshall brought Neil Simon's play (and the Gene Saks film) "The Odd Couple" to ABC and refused to settle for a cheap knock-off. The casting of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman came out gloriously right. Marshall took a chance on Robin Williams for "Mork and Mindy." Same result. He knew Penny Marshall, his sister, would work well opposite Cindy Williams on "Laverne and Shirley." Huge hits, all.

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On the big screen, in "Pretty Woman," Marshall took a dark, jaundiced screenplay about a prostitute and a john and lightened it up, putting Julia Roberts in the hooker role. A star was born, and a peculiar sort of hit was made — objectionable and retrograde in a dozen different ways, confoundingly appealing in a dozen more. "I knew if we lowered the age and made her a new girl in the business, then people would say, 'Oh, please don't do that, honey,' " Marshall told one interviewer.

Before "Pretty Woman," Marshall directed a fine, flavorsome coming-of-age comedy, "The Flamingo Kid," starring Matt Dillon and Richard Crenna. With its outer-borough and Long Island settings and deft navigation of comic and romantic strains, the '60s-set movie deserves a fresh look. Especially now.

His movie career produced as many misses as hits. Sometimes Marshall's instincts failed him, as when he tried to brighten up and funny-ize the Anne Rice S&M tale "Exit to Eden," the way he brightened up "Pretty Woman." He carried on, right up to and including "Mother's Day," the third in his holiday ensemble movies, preceded by the highly profitable "Valentine's Day" and "New Year's Eve." Shameless, they were, and Marshall knew it. More often than not, he knew what would work with an audience. The lesson he learned in the clubs, decades earlier, paid off.

"You're a nice guy," Marshall tells Brooks in "Lost in America." "You make me laugh." Whether they knew who was behind the work or not, audiences responded to Garry Marshall the same way.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

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