Nearly everybody who has seen Garry Marshall’s decade-defining 1990 romantic comedy Pretty Woman—including people who don’t much care for the film—has a favorite sequence. For many, it’s the moment when Julia Roberts’ sunny, leggy, straight-talking call girl Vivian returns to a chichi boutique where the condescending salesladies have previously snubbed her. This time, she’s beautifully dressed and flaunting armloads of bags and boxes from another, even tonier store. It doesn’t matter that her rich patron, played by Richard Gere, has bankrolled the spree. What does matter is that the snobby shopwomen hadn’t even seen a person—in fact, a dazzling one—standing before them the first time around. When Vivian comes back to the store, she brings to these ladies not just the specter of lost commissions, but a defiant, blazing selfhood. Her new clothes say, See me for how I’m dressed, but her new attitude says something far more vital: See me for who I am.
That’s the kind of populist touch Garry Marshall, who died Tuesday at age 81, brought to nearly every movie and television show—and there were many—that he directed, developed or wrote over a career that spanned more than 50 years. Marshall was born and raised in the Bronx. He did a stint in the Army, and received a journalism degree from Northwestern University, going on to work for the New York Daily News. But it wasn’t long before he moved on to television, where he made his name as a comedy writer: In 1960 he began writing for the Tonight Show, eventually branching out to contribute to popular sit-coms of the early to mid ‘60s, like Danny Thomas’ Make Room for Daddy and The Dick Van Dyke Show. In 1970 he took Neil Simon’s play The Odd Couple and developed it into a hit television show. That was the match that lit a fiery streak of TV successes, the most notable of which was Happy Days, which ran for a remarkable 11 seasons. Happy Days spawned a much-loved spinoff, LaVerne & Shirley (featuring Penny Marshall, Garry’s sister), as well as other series that stood on their own but still bore their creator’s friendly, funny, democratic stamp, like Mork & Mindy, which introduced the world to Robin Williams. Marshall was a showrunner before that term even existed.
The Marshall touch is just as evident in the movies he wrote and directed. Most were romantic comedies, although the 1988 Beaches, starring Better Midler and Barbara Hershey as mismatched but lifelong best friends, was an all-out tearjerker: To this day, it frequently tops polls of movies guaranteed to get the waterworks flowing. Critics may not have been crazy about pictures like the 1987 Overboard (with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell). But audiences responded well enough, and in 1990 Marshall tapped the zeitgeist in a spectacular way with Pretty Woman, an undisguised Cinderella fantasy in which a prostitute’s life is changed forever by the love, and money, of a handsome corporate raider. But that’s just one way of looking at the story: His life is changed too, and though you could write 1,001 treatises decrying the movie’s sexual politics, in the end it reaches us for a one elemental reason: Men and women can always find a way get under one another’s skin.
Through the 1990s and aughts—and right up until this year, with the multigenerational comedy Mother’s Day, a picture that’s far from great but is at least in tune with the director’s inclusive spirit—Marshall worked to keep the old-school romantic comedy alive in American movies. That was essential to his outlook: His movies and TV shows tended to look back fondly at ostensibly simpler and better times. Runaway Bride (1999) and The Princess Diaries (2001) were decidedly old-fashioned in terms of the dreams and ideas they tapped: They’d have to be, with words like “bride” and “princess” in their titles. But they also asked, and posed answers to, questions that all of us ask: How does anyone become oneself in the face of what society—or our families, our friends, the opposite sex—expects from us? Marshall knew how to make sweet, melodious music from that inherently troubling chord. He could make it funny, too. Some would call Marshall’s work conventional, and others would say it’s timeless. That’s the great contradiction of people who entertain us for a living: Plenty of times, they’re both.