UPDATES with Runaway Bride and Jack Klugman fixes.
EXCLUSIVE: “ ‘Eff You!’ ” I answered. Garry Marshall already knew when he asked me, but he wanted to see whether I knew what I was talking about. We were discussing Neil Simon, who I said had written the all-time funniest line ever. “Which line?” Marshall asked. “F.U.,” I answered.
“I can’t take it anymore, Felix, I’m cracking up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you’re not here, the things I know you’re gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow. “We’re all out of cornflakes. F.U.” Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar!”
Marshall concurs and reminds me that the line is from the Broadway script of The Odd Couple and was cut by the censors from the beloved 1970-1975 sitcom starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, which Marshall executive produced. CBS is bringing back the series beginning February 19 with Matthew Perry as sloppy Oscar and Thomas Lennon as neatnik Felix.
“That’s the change in life, Jeremy, right?” said Marshall, a consultant on the reboot. “We were not allowed to do that joke in the original series even though it’s the best joke ever. And it will be on the new show.”
I was sitting with the legendary quadruple-threat (writer-director-actor-producer) at his hotel near Union Square several weeks ago. He was in town directing the New York premiere of Billy And Ray, a play about Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler and the making of Double Indemnity. It starred Vincent Kartheiser out of Mad Men, Larry Pine out of House Of Cards, and Sophie von Haselberg out of Bette Midler.
The play began life at Burbank’s Falcon Theatre, which Marshall founded 14 years ago to feed his theater jones. The Bronx-born octogenarian’s career has taken him from writing — Danny Thomas’s Make Room For Daddy and for Lucille Ball and The Dick Van Dyke Show to Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley (co-starring his sister Penny) and the Robin Williams vehicle Mork & Mindy — to directing the blockbuster films Pretty Woman, Beaches and The Runaway Bride, among others.
But you already knew that. What you may not know is that in addition to steering Billy And Ray to its New York opening (and ultimately, truth to tell, to some of the worst reviews of the season), Marshall is at work on a Broadway adaptation of Pretty Woman that presented a challenge not unlike that of The Odd Couple — but in reverse:
JEREMY GERARD: Where do things stand with the musical version of Pretty Woman?
GARRY MARSHALL: The producer is Paula Wagner, who’s a Broadway gal, and we’re putting it all together. It’s a year away but Disney’s behind it. After 24 years. In the old days nobody figured that a movie could become a play, so in the ’80s they gave writers theatrical rights, a piece, you can’t get near that. [Pretty Woman screenplay author] J.F. Lawton owns half and Disney owns half. He wanted t0 write an opera where everybody dies and Disney wanted to make the Julia Roberts part a model…
GERARD: Not a lady of the night.
MARSHALL: Not a lady of the night. These Disney people said to me, ‘We cannot put our label on a show about a prostitute. But you can, so your name will be on as one of the producers. We would like to make the money.’ We have a good relationship. [Disney Theatrical Group chief] Tom Schumacher has been very, very supportive and helpful. We’ve had a couple of little readings of it with temporary music, and it’s not bad. It’s still a darn good story.
GERARD: What were the first shows that really stayed with you?
MARSHALL: I think it was High Button Shoes and it was Hellzapoppin’ and it was…Phil Silvers in something, and Ray Bolger. My mother taught dance and it was the early stuff. Sometimes they would give tickets out and she would turn them in, they were medium seats and she would turn them in and get the worst seats so we could see two shows. I saw all of my early shows, the actors looked like ants. I never knew what anybody looked like until later in life, but I enjoyed them. I loved the dancing, the dance school at Northwestern is named after my mother. She gave us the humor we all have, my mother. My father was as funny as this table, but he taught us all how to be a boss, so we were all right, the three of us.
GERARD: Was theater where you started directing?
MARSHALL: No. I’m basically a writer, it’s who I am. I direct and I like theatre directing very much. But I’ve done 17 movies, they don’t say ‘Let’s get Garry, he’ll make a helicopter shot,’ they say ‘Get Garry, he’ll fix the script.’ My first series was a show called Hey, Landlord. It was No. 99 in the ratings. It’s pretty hard to be 99 in the ratings. But I had a good time. It was ’65. I came off writing Lucy and Dick Van Dyke and went into Hey, Landlord, but it was worth it. They made me a producer. If you’re creative, they let you be the showrunner, producer. The first thing my partner and I did as producers was hire ourselves as directors — because who else would hire me? So we each directed one Hey, Landlord to get in the directing skills. The writing staff was the best: Chuck Shyer, Jim Brooks, all big writers came out of that show. OK, I have a trivia question for you: What was the last show at the Winter Garden before Cats?
GERARD: I can’t remember.
MARSHALL: It was called The Roast, I wrote it with my partner, Jerry Belson. Carl Reiner directed it and Rob Reiner co-starred. The Roast lasted three nights, Cats ran 18 years, that’s how well I did. It was a What was I thinking? kind of thing. Fourteen people and no music, who wants such a play? But it was OK, I learned from The Roast, too.
GERARD: Maybe if you’d done it on the Cats set it would’ve been great.
MARSHALL: I could’ve done it with some people crawling around, sure. What I got out of it, honestly, was we started in Boston and the head usher kept saying ‘It’s so funny!’ The middle 20 minutes of The Roast really was funny, we killed, but it wasn’t exactly the play. The head usher was named Jason Alexander, he was going to Boston College. When I hired him for Pretty Woman he said, ‘They don’t want me to sing and dance?’ I said, ‘No we want you to talk.’ ‘I don’t do that,’ but he came into Pretty Woman, and is now famous on Seinfeld. He’s very good.
GERARD: Has the Falcon Theatre been useful in your movie work?
MARSHALL: One of my thrills of the business is to find young people, there’s a window. I like young people who are in that brief window between on their-way-up and rehab. In that window I can make stars. It’s not really true but it’s not so far off.
GERARD: Among your movie projects that came out of the theatre, obviously, I think of Frankie And Johnny.
MARSHALL: It’s not an exact science, show business. Scott Rudin called me and said ‘Yeah, you want to do a play, direct a play, it’s called Frankie And Johnny, you ever see it?’ ‘No.’ ‘Come into New York, see it, you can do the movie. Call me after the play and we’ll have breakfast with [playwright] Terrence McNally.’ I saw the play and I called Scott, he said ‘I’m sorry, we got Mike Nichols, you’re out,’ I said, ‘No breakfast with Terrence?’ ‘No.’ I was out. A year later they called me from Paramount and said Scott Rudin gave up on Mike. ‘Do you still want to do it?’ and I said, ‘Only if I can have breakfast with Terrence McNally,’ who became quite a good friend. Terrence wrote the first draft and they loved it and that’s whose credit goes on the film, but during that period Steppenwolf took my play, Wrong Turn At Lungfish. I wanted to direct it. So I told Terrence, ‘Come to Chicago and by day I’ll teach you how to write a screenplay and by night you can teach me how to direct a play.” And that’s what we did. So to be honest, the theater has been a great joy to me. Believe me, a fortune it doesn’t make but you know?…we find people.