Garry Marshall on his life in movies and TV: the studios, the stars and how he’s always pushing diversity

In an interview originally from June this year, the legend behind Pretty Woman, Happy Days and countless other feelgood favourites shares some stories

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This interview was first published on 10th June 2016. On 19th July 2016, Garry Marshall sadly passed away

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Garry Marshall is full of stories. The actor, writer, director and producer has been making films for more than 50 years – name an actor, he’s worked with them – and my 30-minute conversation with him is peppered with anecdotes and name drops.

Take former Friends star David Schwimmer, for example. 

“David Schwimmer’s my good friend. I went to Northwestern University and I lectured and he heard me lecture and came up to me when he was a college kid to say ‘I want to be an actor’.”

It’s testament to Marshall’s reputation for kick-starting careers that the young Schwimmer felt compelled to approach him. The likes of Julia Roberts and Robin Williams were discovered by the veteran filmmaker – Williams sat on his head when asked to take a seat during his audition for Mork & Mindy, a ploy which won him the role. “That was a very special show and a very special man,” Marshall recalls. 

The 81-year-old director’s stories range from teaming up with Gemma Chan to prank her boyfriend Jack Whitehall (who stars in Mother’s Day) and dropping his wife, Barbara (below), into a scene with three Oscar-winners.

“Every film, she’s the nurse,” he explains. “In New Year’s Eve, she was the nurse and she said to me, ‘I’ve got to talk to you about my part’. I said ‘Honey, I’ve got a big scene. I don’t have time to talk about you.’ And she said, ‘The next scene – there’s four people in it. Of the four people, the other three people in this scene with me all have Oscars.’ It was Robert De Niro, Hilary Swank, Hallie Berry… and her.

“I said, ‘Well, I guess they’ll be good if they all have Oscars.’”

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It’s an indicator of Marshall’s Hollywood heft that De Niro, Berry and Swank were just one portion of an A-list cast that included Michelle Pfieffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Biel, Jon Bon Jovi, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michelle, Katherine Heigl and more in New Year’s Eve – the 2011 ensemble rom-com that slots into the director’s growing stable of films themed around commemorative days. 

It followed on from Valentine’s Day and preceded his latest, Mother’s Day, which reunites him with Pretty Woman star Julia Roberts, alongside Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson. If Marshall sounds chipper over the phone, perhaps he’s yet to read the reviews – the Telegraph termed it “the worst thing Hollywood has done to mums since Psycho” while the Guardian dubbed it “skincrawlingly smug” – although Mother’s Day will inevitably hit some sort of note with fans of harmless rom-com schmaltz and Hollywood sweethearts Roberts and Aniston.

The movie marks his fourth outing with Roberts who famously played prostitute Vivian Ward opposite Richard Gere in his 1990 smash hit Pretty Woman. The cast got together for the film’s 25-year anniversary last year (below) and Marshall confirms plans are well underway for Pretty Woman: the musical. “It’s moving along pretty quick, I think it’s really going to happen.” 

The team assembled for the stage production carries some serious clout – director Jerry Mitchell has two Tony Awards and original screenwriter JF Lawton is collaborating with Marshall on the book. But none are more starry than Bryan Adams who is teaming up with his songwriting partner Jim Vallance to compose the music. “We’re doing the first act now,” reveals Marshall. “We’re almost done with that. I haven’t cast anybody yet but Julia Roberts assured me she’s coming to opening night.” 

When he does start casting, he promises the stage production will be “much more diverse than the movie.” 

“We’re still talking but it’s very likely Kit will be Afro-American. You test out things and we’ll see – anything can happen now.”

Although that certainly wasn’t the case in 1989 when Marshall was casting the movie and Disney bosses pushed back against the idea of Hector Elizondo playing manager of the Beverley Wilshire Hotel – a role that earned him a Golden Globe nomination.

“I said ‘why?’” Marshall recalls. “And they said ‘He’s Puerto Rican.’ I said, ‘He can be head of a hotel, they can be an ethnic person’, but they didn’t think so. I won that battle but to be very honest with you, he had to get to a certain price and there was an argument over his salary and I paid it myself. But at the end of the picture, he was so good – Disney are not silly people and they said, ‘You were right. He is money – you don’t have to pay for that.’ Those are the battles you go through and now it’s totally the opposite. ‘Get more diverse!’”

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Marshall with the cast of Pretty Woman and Today Show host Matt Lauer

As well as Marshall’s wife, Barbara, Elizondo has starred in every single one of the director’s 18 films – including his part as Joe, the chauffeur, in 2001 smash hit The Princess Diaries and its 2004 follow-up.

The franchise kick-started the career of Anne Hathaway, another of Marshall’s young protégées, and rumours have abounded this past year that the pair are in talks with co-star Julie Andrews and Disney for a third instalment – a development the director puts down to the birth of Hathaway’s first child.

“Actors and actresses often say ‘I’d like to do a movie where my baby could watch’ so I think part of it was she wanted to do something for her whole family to watch, but also something more important than just her being a princess.

“Julie and her and I all get along very well and we talked about ‘let’s do something’ but we can’t just go out and do it. Disney owns everything. But Anne went and talked to them and I hope they do something. There’s nothing yet but they’re talking.”

The studios’ penchant for sequels and remakes isn’t lost on Marshall. “The word ‘derivative’ is quite big in Hollywood. It’s going to replace the Hollywood sign soon, I think,” he jokes… while confirming he’s had talks with Paramount about possible Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley reboots. 

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With more than 50 years at the top of his game, Marshall has an endless supply of Hollywood classics that executives would no doubt love to get their hands on. But for the time being, he’s got plenty to keep him busy. “I have six grandchildren – they take your time!”