NEW YORK (AP) - Garry Marshall may turn 80 next month, but it certainly wasn’t apparent as the legendary director led a recent play rehearsal downtown.
“Come back! Let’s do it again,” he good-naturedly chided the actors from the dark, empty seats of the Vineyard Theatre, where “Billy & Ray” opens later this month.
A few moments later, a set designer was taking too long to fix the onstage Venetian blinds, prompting Marshall to ask: “Are we ready or are you going to fuss with the blinds a little more?”
Finally, when the run-through was fitfully over, the cast and crew looked hopefully to the man who directed “Pretty Woman” and created “Laverne & Shirley” and “Happy Days.” Marshall’s assessment wasn’t super: “It’s perfect for an outdoor stadium.”
Mike Bencivenga’s play - about the making of the classic 1944 film “Double Indemnity” - is complicated, with lots of moving parts, none of which have skipped Marshall’s attention.
“It’s a little ambitious, but, hey, might as well,” he said during a dinner break, playfully gruff as ever with a Bronx accent that hasn’t dulled despite his Hollywood address.
Marshall directed the play’s world premiere in the spring of 2013 at the Falcon Theatre, the 130-seat venue he and his daughter Kathleen Marshall LaGambina founded in Burbank, California.
It centers on the contentious relationship between “Double Indemnity” director Billy Wilder and novelist Raymond Chandler as they teamed up to birth the first big film noir hit. The two were not unlike the leads in “The Odd Couple,” which Marshall turned into a hit show in the 1970s.
The play, which stars “Mad Men” star Vincent Kartheiser and Broadway veteran Larry Pine, attracted Marshall because he’s usually associated with light, romantic fare.
“This was part of the beginning of film noir and I’m known for doing film blanc,” he said. “I said, ‘Well, let’s see how the other side goes.’ This was my adventure into another genre. It’s always good to be challenged and see something new.”
Marshall may have made his name in TV and film but he’s frequently dipped his toe in theater. He co-wrote, directed and starred in “Wrong Turn at Lungfish” off-Broadway in 1993 and was on Broadway for a short time in “The Roast,” which he co-wrote with Jerry Belson.
His Broadway stint didn’t last very long - it closed just two days after opening at the Winter Garden Theatre - but Marshall joked that one of the next tenants was “Cats,” which ran for 18 years. “I helped ‘Cats’ because I lowered the bar,” he joked.
When he’s home, Marshall said he likes to go to the Falcon, offer and opinion or two (“I come in and kibitz,” he said) and do as much casting as he can. “Part of the fun for me now - and it has been for a long time - is finding new people.”
Marshall said recognizing talented people and rewriting scripts to get the very best out of them - something he did for such stars as Robin Williams and Henry Winkler - is pure pleasure.
“You know, Neil Simon, who is one of my idols, always said, ‘My words fit in every actors’ mouth.’ I am from another school,” he said. “I understand that and I admire that but I find that sometimes to get the best of certain people, you’ve got to tailor it a little bit.”
Marshall, who began selling jokes to comedians in the 1960s before graduating to sitcoms and movies, has seen most of the walls between show business genres crumble.
“The business has changed since I’ve been in it. It used to all snobbery - theater people didn’t do television, television people didn’t talk to movies,” he said. “Now, with the economics of the business, everybody’s in everything now. Big stars are doing TV shows. People are doing stage.”
The world of entertainment has attracted all three of his children, but Marshall and his wife, a nurse, hold out hope that one of his grandchildren will one day make it big - and be a doctor.
They were cheered recently when Marshall had knee surgery and his youngest grandchild went to the hospital to show her support by wearing scrubs and a stethoscope.
“The 6-year-old has a chance,” he said proudly.
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