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Penny Marshall: It Didn’t Always Come Easy, But She Made It Work

As a pioneering actor — Laverne & Shirley — and director — Big, Awakenings, A League of Their Own — she proved herself to skeptical audiences and executives many times over

Penny Marshall, Cindy WilliamsLaverne and Shirley - 1976-1983Paramount TelevisionLaverne & Shirley

Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams on 'Laverne and Shirley'

Paramount Television/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The first time many Americans encountered Penny Marshall on their television sets, it was in this commercial for Head and Shoulders.

The ad’s main selling point is meant to be the luxurious blonde mane of Marshall’s co-star, Farrah Fawcett. But there’s something in the dry exasperation with which Marshall responds to Fawcett’s relaxed and bubbly energy that makes the whole idea land. As Fawcett blathers on and on, Marshall keeps patiently brushing her hair with an expression that makes clear how much harder she has to work to achieve the same things her roommate gets just by looking like, well, someone who would become the original breakout star of Charlie’s Angels. Marshall didn’t have Fawcett’s lush locks or her dazzling smile. Her voice was an unmistakable Bronx car horn. Her face had character, in a business that tended to allow that only of men, and older men at that. Yet through a mix of familial luck, hard work and genuine talent, the Laverne & Shirley star — who died today at 75 from complications from diabetes — became an even bigger and more enduring TV icon than Fawcett, before reinventing herself as the director of classic films like Big and A League of Their Own. She knew things wouldn’t come as easily to her, but she made it all work beautifully in the end.

Marshall was the youngest of three siblings born to Tony Marshall (née Masciarelli), an industrial film director and producer, and tap dance teacher Marjorie Marshall. All three kids were encouraged to go into the family business, and all three (including Penny, brother Garry and sister Ronny Hallin, who would be a sitcom casting director and producer) far outstripped their parents’ ambitions. Garry hit it big first as a producer on the sitcom remake of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, and used his good fortunes to buoy those of his littlest sister, to whom he gave a recurring role as Oscar Madison’s wisecracking secretary Myrna. (Playing Myrna’s boyfriend, the oddly-named Sheldn, in Marshall’s first episode? Her then-husband Rob Reiner. Marshall tried to get cast as Reiner’s on-screen wife in All in the Family, but lost the role of Gloria Stivic to Sally Struthers.) Again, the job played up the idea that she wasn’t a conventional knockout (a giddy Oscar asks if he’s ever told her she’s beautiful; “No, nobody has,” Myrna replies flatly) and a certain level of world-weary, sensible armor she had to build around herself to compensate.

When Garry moved on to the mega-hit Happy Days, he again brought Penny with him, and together they created a nepotism best-case scenario. In a 1975 episode called “A Date with Fonzie,” Penny and Cindy Williams played Laverne and Shirley, two wise-cracking brewery employees who go on a double date with the Fonz and Richie Cunningham. Though broader and not as bright as the versions of the characters they would soon play, Laverne and Shirley were such obvious, instant hits with the audience that no one at ABC had any problems with Garry building a spin-off around them.

That spin-off, Laverne & Shirley, would soon pass Happy Days as the most popular show on television. Its famous opening sequence, brought a bit of the Marshall siblings’ Noo Yawk upbringing to the Midwest, and the rest of the country, as Marshall and Williams skipped down a sidewalk while calling out Yiddish words like “shlemiel” (a man who spills soup) and “shlemazel” (a man upon whom the soup gets spilled) before the soaring theme music kicked in. Though the series set its title characters up as temperamental opposites, its sensibilities were far more lined up with Laverne’s brass than Shirley’s timidity. It constructed big slapstick set pieces, put few limits on the kinds of insults Laverne would swap with doofus neighbors Lenny (Michael McKean) and Squiggy (David Lander) and even kept going for a season after a pregnant Williams was forced out in an ugly contract dispute. It wasn’t quite the same (what sitcom in its eighth season is?), but it was much harder to imagine a Shirley-only show than one making its way with just Laverne and her signature monogrammed L’s.

Garry Marshall, Rob Reiner and Richie Cunningham himself, Ron Howard, would all transition into feature film directing careers as the Seventies ticked over into the Eighties. Marshall, who had directed a handful of Laverne & Shirley episodes, was slow to follow her friends and family into that field, in part because there were so few famous female directors to emulate. She stumbled into it as a favor to her friend Whoopi Goldberg, whose movie Jumpin’ Jack Flash had run into major trouble that led to the firing of director Howard Zieff and several other key crew members.

In an interview years later, Marshall recalled asking Garry about going into movies: “My brother says, ‘It’s a strange business. They pay you to learn.'” If she was new to film directing, she was an old, beloved pro as an actress, and she called in favors from lots of actors she knew, including rising SNL stars Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz, to come in, improvise and try to inject more humor into this strange spy comedy hybrid. The script was largely unsalvageable, but the finished film has its moments (like Goldberg struggling to decipher the lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ song that provided its title). More importantly, it gave Marshall a big studio credit and the chance to get another one. She made the most of that chance.

The 1988 movie Big was the last of a strange mid-to-late Eighties run of body swapping comedies (see also Like Father, Like Son and Vice Versa). The story of Josh Baskin, an adolescent boy who wakes up as an adult after asking a carnival fortunetelling machine to make him bigger, it had all kinds of tonal minefields — some of which it didn’t avoid, like an awkward subplot about Josh’s mother believing he’s been kidnapped for weeks on end — and a concept that was going to rise or fall based on the performance Marshall got out of the actor playing the adult version of Josh. Robert De Niro nearly got the role in a quest to prove he could do comedy (and took Midnight Run as a great consolation prize), but it ultimately went to Tom Hanks. His early breakout in Splash was only a few years in the past at this point, but it was beginning to look more and more like a fluke as films like The Man With One Red Shoe, Volunteers and Nothing in Common bombed with audiences and/or critics. But Hanks (who, like Marshall, came out of an ABC sitcom, Bosom Buddies) had always seemed preternaturally boyish, and Marshall had Josh Moscow, who was playing the younger Josh, rehearse each adult Josh scene to give Hanks some extra guidance on how to fine-tune his performance. And when she spotted the Walking Piano at famed New York toy store FAO Schwartz, she knew it (or a larger version built to accommodate Hanks and, as Josh’s toy company boss, Robert Loggia) had to be in the film, for one of the most charming moments ever committed to celluloid:

The movie reaffirmed Hanks’ movie-star status and got him his first Oscar nomination, while Marshall made history as the first female director to make a movie that grossed over $100 million. She eventually got to work with De Niro (and with Robin Williams, who’d also become a star on a Happy Days spin-off) on her next film, Awakenings.

It was her third film, 1992’s A League of Their Own, that would become her signature work. Written by Garry’s frequent collaborators Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (and with small supporting performances by her old Laverne & Shirley pals David Lander and Eddie Mecca), it told a fictionalized account of the all-women’s baseball league that rose up during World War II, when most male pro players had either enlisted or been drafted. It was a reunion with Hanks, too, who played alcoholic manager Jimmy “There’s no crying in baseball” Dugan, with Marshall again getting him out of a rough career patch, this time for good. (It’s here that Hanks’ decades-long streak as America’s Most Revered Movie Star began, and it came because Marshall knew exactly how to showcase him.) But it also provided great spotlight roles for Geena Davis, Madonna (by far her most natural film performance), Rosie O’Donnell, Megan Cavanagh, Bitty Schram and others. (Paying the whole family thing forward, Marshall cast her daughter Tracy Reiner as pitcher Betty “Spaghetti” Horn, as well as having Garry play the league’s avuncular but ultimately tradition-bound commissioner.)

It works on nearly every level: underdog sports movie, lovingly-recreated period piece, feminist drama, buddy comedy. (The sibling rivalry between Davis and Lori Petty’s Dottie and Kit is more polarizing, if only because Kit can come across as overly whiny and juvenile. But if you want to have fun on social media, ask people whether they think what Dottie does on the final play of the movie’s climactic game is intentional or not.) She even stages a raucous musical number, with Madonna and Mecca swinging at a roadside bar.

Like the ballplayers in the film, Marshall had to prove herself to skeptical audiences and executives, several times over. But she had done it. Big/Awakenings/A League of Their Own is a splendid trifecta, and easily better than any comparable stretch of Garry Marshall’s movie career. That the handful of films she made after were less memorable doesn’t diminish how much confidence and pure craftsmanship she displayed in that early stretch of her directorial career.

Playing Laverne DeFazio would have been enough for any one career. So would directing Tom Hanks to an Oscar nomination in one of his most beloved roles. Marshall did both. Like the girl in the shampoo commercial, it didn’t always come easy to her, but she made it work.

In This Article: obit, Obituary

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