September 2008

My Favorite Martian

Garry Marshall

garry marshall Illustration by Philip Burke

Some stories could only happen in Hollywood. This is one of them.

The year was 1978, and if there was ever a year I felt at the top of my game, that was the year. I was 43. I had a wonderful wife and three kids. I played basketball, tennis and softball every weekend and had two of the top-rated shows on television: Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, jewels in the crown of ABC’s Tuesday prime-time lineup. I felt good about my life and career.

Wary but content were the perfect words to describe where I was in 1978. Wary because I’m from the Bronx, New York’s wariest borough.

Network execs, however, don’t like the word content. They like the word more. Someone from ABC would call daily to say, “Garry, what else do you have?” As in, “You are making us money, now make us MORE by creating another sitcom.”

But after the success of The Odd Couple and the two new series, I really wasn’t rushing to create another show.

Why? First, I worried that my current shows would suffer if I stretched myself too thin. And second, I wondered, Why did I need more money, anyway—so I could buy another Armani suit? I didn’t even own the first one. I have always been a blue jeans-and-Lakers jacket kind of guy. I could see possibly spinning off a show from Happy Days (later I did, Joanie Loves Chachi) but not creating a new sitcom from scratch. Then again, sometimes, when you’re least eager to do something, it happens anyway.

While ABC kept pestering me, I was concerned about something closer to home. My son, Scott, who was eight at the time, was not watching Happy Days. My two daughters loved the series and were the toast of their elementary school—because of me, they knew Scott Baio. But Scott Marshall never watched the show or cared about Scott Baio.

So, I confronted him as he wrapped his thumb in a Fruit Roll-Up. “Scott, why aren’t you watching Happy Days?” I asked. “Fonzie is cool. Richie is smart. Ralph and Potsie can be funny. Joanie is a shortcake. What’s the problem?”

“There are no space aliens,” he said matter-of-factly, with the confidence that can only be seen in eight-year-old boys and network execs who just got their diplomas from Harvard.

“But it’s Milwaukee in the ’50s. Aliens weren’t big back then. Hula Hoops, not Martians,” I said. “Is there anything that would make you watch the show? A smashup car derby? A wild sock hop?”

“I like Martians and creatures from space. That’s it,” said Scott, walking off to play with his plastic Star Wars dolls.

Forget the Nielsen families. I was suddenly driven by an audience of one.

I called my sister Ronny, who was doing casting for me. “Do you know anybody who could play a space creature? Someone like John Byner or Jonathan Winters? Someone with John in their name?” I asked.

“Well, how about someone new?” said Ronny. “I was just in San Francisco, and I saw this guy doing an act on the street near Fisherman’s Wharf.”

“A street performer? Passing the hat?”

“Yes, he was so funny,” she said.

“What was his name?”

“I don’t know, but I could fly back up and find out,” she said. I told her to go bring him back to Los Angeles.

The next week, the street performer was sitting in my office…on his head. He stood up and mimed drinking a glass of water, with his finger as the straw.

Robin Williams. I knew from the moment we met that I could build a show around him. He had the talent of comedians like Danny Kaye and Jerry Lewis, but he was hip and modern.

I wanted to see what he could do, so we wrote him in on Happy Days as an alien who came down to Milwaukee. I was surprised yet thrilled to see Robin could hold his own with sitcom stars Ron Howard and Henry Winkler.

The night the show aired, I got a call from Michael Eisner, who said, “Garry, I heard there was a Martian who got a standing ovation. Can you build a series around him? Do it fast.”

I can work fast. I went to journalism school at Northwestern—I can write on a dime and a deadline. But this needed some thought. We didn’t even have a premise, just one supertalented alien.

When you have sitcoms on TV, they let you do all kinds of things. (One year, I signed a deal and asked for a basketball court. Without blinking an eye, Paramount said, “Full or half court?”)

So, we threw together a pilot over the phone. One of the people on it was executive Marcy Carsey, whom I always liked because she was talented and her name rhymed. When I asked who had seen Robin’s Happy Days episode, only Marcy said she had. And when I said it was too late to make a pilot, she said, “It’s never too late.” I called the show Mork & Mindy, and I sold it the next day.

The show was on for four seasons. There were memorable highs—when Robin befriended a robot played by Roddy McDowall. And there were lows: In an episode that rivals Fonzie jumping over a shark on water skis, Robin got a job as a Denver Broncos cheerleader.

And then Robin went off to do movies. I did a few more sitcoms and also moved on to movies. I have now directed 16 movies, but at least once a week, someone says, “You did Mork & Mindy? Wow, what a funny show.”

That’s show business. That’s magic. That’s Hollywood. And that is why, after 40 years in the business, I’m still working instead of going to the retirement home and kicking ass at Trivial Pursuit. I like to work with people who can make me laugh.

Robin Williams is one of a kind. Talent is talent, and when you see someone with it, you hire him. Even when he is standing on his head and drinking water with his finger.