Marshall and Bencivenga meet Billy and Ray

In 1943 two highly unlikely collaborators quarreled their way through a movie script that earned the anxious concern of the Breen Office (administrator of the industry’s moral censorship guidelines), and was nominated for seven Academy Awards without winning any. The collaborators were Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and the film was Double Indemnity, which dealt with murder and adultery at a time when married couples in the movies could sleep only in twin beds. Yet it wound up on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Best Movies as well as three other AFI Best lists (Thrills, Passions, Heroes and Villains). Tonight, some 70 years later, that quarrelsome collaboration is brought to life in the premiere of Billy & Ray at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank. The collaborators this time are playwright Mike Bencivenga and director/writer/actor/entrepreneur/ and all-around funny man Garry Marshall. Sitting in his comfortable office at the Falcon, the theater he built and owns, Marshall is surrounded by walls filled with memories — photo collages and posters from his hit plays. “My wife is not so fascinated by show business. She likes it, but she doesn’t like it all over the house, so that’s why

we’re swamped. We’re running out of wall space,” he explains. That may also explain why the lobby of the theater has a showcase devoted to softball trophies won by the Falcon team (Marshall pitches.) “I’m obsessed with softball,” he says. “It clears my head. I come from the Bronx, where every day there was a ball involved with your life,” he continues. “I know people get into golf and booze and drugs, but silly me, I chose softball.” Another thing he likes about softball is the fact that “there’s no reverse decision,” he says. “There’s a decision every single time and it’s over and done. I like decisions. In softball, ‘You lost! Next game’,” he shouts. With Billy & Ray, Marshall collaborates with Bencivenga, the playwright, cautiously suggesting an additional line here or there. “In a society that’s so divided, it’s inspiring to see so many people coming together as they do in theater,” Bencivenga says. He acknowledges that it was something of a stretch for two individuals as disparate as Wilder and Chandler to collaborate on a story. “Chandler was an enigmatic, mysterious figure who went from Chicago to England and actually became a teacher there, while Wilder was from Vienna, was a newspaperman in Germany, and spoke English as a third language,” Bencivenga explains. “They butted heads throughout their collaboration. So if you’re going to have a play in which half the time it’s two guys sitting in a room, writing, it had better be darned funny,” he concludes. “It’s wonderful and joyful working with Garry,” Bencivenga notes. “He is so playful, but he has a laser-sharp mind, especially about details, and he’s very respectful… He keeps telling me, ‘You’re the star!’ Who could ask for more than that?” Both men have personal stories about Billy Wilder. “I discovered that a tux is a great equalizer,” Bencivenga begins. “If you’re wearing a tuxedo at a celebrity event, you can talk to anyone. I once attended a dinner at the Film Society of Lincoln Center where Wilder was the honoree. I was a student at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts and I idolized him, so I approached him and he couldn’t have been more charming. When I asked him if he had any advice for a beginning screenwriter, he said, “Yeah. Don’t listen to anybody. Not even me.” Wilder remained a kind friend and occasional advisor to Bencivenga for the rest of his life. The story is reminiscent of Marshall’s famous line when asked how to ensure that a movie will be successful. He replied, “Get Julia Roberts!” (His star in Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, and Valentine’s Day.) He might also have said, “Get Hector Elizondo,” who has been in every film Marshall has made — 17 so far. In addition to Wilder, Marshall admits his admiration for Mike Nichols (“I like him personally”), Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, and Jacques Tati. “The French have different timing from us,” he says, “and I learned the most about timing movie comedy from the work of Tati.” Marshall has said that all stories are “Cinderella stories. I don’t do film noir; I’m not that dark. I do film blanc — love stories and fairy tales. I like to focus on somebody who’s not doing well and have something good happen to him. I believe the human condition can be nice.” He credits Carl Reiner, Joey Bishop, Phil Foster, Sheldon Leonard, and Danny Thomas as being important to his career. He worked with each of them on television, as he did with Jack Paar, Lucille Ball, Robin Williams (Mork and Mindy), his sister Penny Marshall (in Laverne and Shirley), The Odd Couple, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, Dick Van Dyke, and others.) He also received some valuable advice from Norman Lear. “I was very shy,” Marshall explains, “and Lear told me I had to ‘get out there.’ In LA, pitching is a big art form and you’ve got to be peppy and tell your story well if you want to get it made.” Marshall has been telling stories all his life. He was a journalism major at Northwestern University and worked for a couple of years for the New York Daily News before changing media. As a writer, producer, and director, “I’ve gotten along with everybody. But the toughest was my sister Penny. She’s a complete perfectionist. “To do well,” he continues, “you work with people you don’t necessarily want to have lunch with. But I’m not in the lunch business. I don’t impress people at lunch.” Asked whom he admires of the newer crop of actors he names Genevieve Joy, a standup comic who was in the Falcon’s I Ought To be in Pictures last fall; a black Jewish comedian named Sarge; Girls actress Zosia Mamet (“David’s kid”); and Christine Lakin, who appeared in three of Marshall’s movies — New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, and Georgia Rule — as well as many of the Troubadour Theater Company productions at his theater. He also mentions his current cast. Kevin Blake, who plays Billy Wilder, was in the Falcon’s Laurel and Hardy (as Stan Laurel) in 2011. Shaun O’Hagan, who plays Raymond Chandler, portrayed Mortimer in the Falcon’s Arsenic and Old Lace in 1999. Anthony Starke, who plays Joe Sistrom, made his first feature film appearance in Marshall’s Nothing in Common. The fourth member of the cast is Ali Spuck. But mostly Marshall is “big on nepotism.” In addition to working with his sister Penny, he has written two books — Wake Me When It’s Funny in the 1990s and his new memoir, My Happy Days in Hollywood, with his daughter Lori. His daughter Kathleen Marshall LaGambina heads the Falcon Theatre staff as a producer. And he is working with his son, director Scott Marshall, on a future project with the Van Dyke brothers, Dick and Jerry. In the end, though, the last word belongs to Billy Wilder. His advice, “For God’s sake, have fun! We’re being grossly overpaid to make shit up. If we don’t laugh about that, who will?” Billy & Ray, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Opens Friday, April 5. Wed-Sat 8 pm., Sun 4 pm, through April 28. Tickets: $27-57. 818.955.8101. Reprinted from the LA Stage Times, published April 5, 2013

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