Garry Marshall: Runaway Funny

Pretty Woman director Garry Marshall is a mix of Tinseltown and the Bronx, with quite a few laughs thrown in. Which is why Julia Roberts and Richard Gere were happy to reteam with him for Runaway Bride.

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You can say what you want about director/actor/writer/producer Garry Marshall, and Lord knows the critics, over the years, have lambasted him for his unrepentant sentimentality, but one thing is undeniable: Marshall knows funny. This is a guy who made his bones writing gags during TV's Paley-olithic era, who knew Lenny Bruce, wrote for Lucille Ball and gave Robin Williams his first job on television. So when Marshall says an actor isn't funny, that actor isn't funny. And that's what Marshall was saying during a now-legendary casting session 10 years ago. He was auditioning a gorgeous, leggy, hardly known 21-year-old named Julia Roberts for a film called Pretty Woman. Six actresses were up for the part, and since Richard Gere had not yet been hired, they were screen-testing with Sam Neill.

As Marshall recalls, "Julia was quirky, but I couldn't find where she was funny." But he sensed there was some potential there so he got the notion to challenge her. "That's what you do with people who you suspect may be champions. You push them and find out what they're capable of. So I said to Julia, "We're going to do another test, only this time you'll read with Charles Grodin.' Now, Charles is one of the funniest men I ever saw. He didn't quite fit the part, but he was in the game. I told him, 'Who knows? We might go that way.' And he was thrilled to be brought in as a leading man. So then I said to Julia, 'Grodin is going to blow you right out of the scene because he's much funnier than you. He's gonna kill you. So all I want you to do is find a way to stay with him.' She'd already done the scene 12 times, but with Grodin, all of a sudden, she was marvelous. She stood there and would not be pushed out. And she was funny. So I called Jeffrey Katzenberg and said, 'We got the right actress.'" The movie went on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide and make Roberts a star and Garry Marshall an A-list director.

Ten years later, Roberts, Gere and Marshall have reunited to make another romantic romp, this one about a woman who has trouble saying, "I do." To get Marshall's take on the film, I've trekked out to his office in Burbank. Actually it's more than an office. It's a dukedom befitting Hollywood royalty. It includes Marshall's two-story, pseudo-ski-chalet of a production manse and the Falcon Theatre next door where Kathleen Marshall (one of his three children) appeared recently in Arsenic and Old Lace. "If one of my kids had become a doctor that theater would be a medical building," he says.

In the wood-beamed inner sanctum, Marshall is elevating and icing his right knee which is swollen from his morning tennis match. At 64, he's still an avid, albeit mediocre, athlete, which he's been since his boyhood days in the Bronx. With an accent still redolent of the mean streets ("faawny"="funny"), Marshall says, "I was never the best player, so they made me captain because I knew how to handle people. And I'm sure Paramount was thinking, 'Garry can handle Richard and Julia' when they hired me for Runaway Bride."

How exactly does he handle them?

"I feel if someone is behaving badly, I can take them aside and convince them that they're an idiot without screaming in their face, and I've done that time after time. Al Pacino said to me, 'We [actors] get temperamental once in awhile.' I said, 'If there's a problem, signal me.' I always have signals for the actors. If there's fighting in front of a crew or civilians I get crazy. 'NO! WE DON'T DO THAT HERE! WE GO OFF!' Look, I know that acting is hard to do well. And being a good actor doesn't mean anything. Like ballplayers, it could be gone in a second. I have admiration for them, but I also tell them there will be days when I will call on them to be an adult."

As it turned out, Marshall's handling skills were badly needed when Runaway Bride turned out to be five weddings and a real-life funeral. Halfway through the shoot Julia Roberts got a call and learned that one of her favorite people, director Alan J. Pakula, had been killed in a freak accident on a highway outside New York City. "What a useless death," says Marshall. "A pipe flew off the road... give me a break, God. Bad writing!" Roberts was devastated, and Marshall had to figure out a way to get her through it. "We cried and hugged, and then I told her stories about my terrible childhood."

"Did you have a terrible childhood?"

"No, I had a lovely childhood. Then I told her jokes from my stand-up routine which I did in New York 35 years ago."

"Let's hear a few."

"They're terrible."

"Oh, c'mon."

"Guy walks into a doctor's office with a pelican on his head. The pelican says, 'Doc, help me, I got a guy stuck to my feet.'"

I have to admit, I laughed.

"Guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, 'Doc, nobody pays attention to me.' The doctor says, 'Next.' I told her 20 of those. That kind of silliness got us through."

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