A love letter to the late Penny Marshall, TV and film pioneer
Beloved actress and director Penny Marshall’s career spanned screens big and small. EW TV critic Kristen Baldwin fondly remembers Marshall’s most iconic TV role, and film critic Chris Nashawaty recalls when things got Big for the New York native, who died at 75 on Dec. 17.
When I was little, I desperately wanted my mom to sew a “K” on all my shirts — a big script “K” with confident loop-de-loops to sit right over my heart. As a kid, everything I knew about cool came from TV, and there was no one on TV cooler than Laverne Marie DeFazio.
It wasn’t just her fashion sense that made Laverne so cool, though she could rock purple taffeta and the Shotz Brewery smock with equal panache. But for a girl growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, the wisecracking Laverne — portrayed for eight seasons on Laverne & Shirley by Penny Marshall — was a rare role model: a tough, independent woman who didn’t need no man. She could take care of herself — and her best friend, Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams), thank you very much.
Introduced in the 1975 Happy Days episode “A Date With Fonzie,” Laverne DeFazio made it clear right away that she was a lady to be reckoned with. “Staring?” she snapped at Fonz’s pal Potsie (Anson Williams) in her nasal Noo Yawk drawl. “How’d ya like your eyes closed for good, hah?” (Marshall and her brother, Garry, who cast her on Happy Days and later created the spin-off Laverne & Shirley, grew up in the Bronx — and Penny put her accent to wonderful use on both shows.) Once she and Shirley graduated to their own series, which centered on their lives as single young women living and working in Milwaukee, Laverne’s pugnacious attitude may have softened a bit — but she was as self-sufficient as ever.
Whether making friends in jail (that shoplifting charge was trumped up, I tell ya!), landing a plane after the pilot passed out, or filling her sweatsuit with groceries during a free shopping spree at Slotnick’s, Laverne handled it all with the same no-nonsense fortitude. Compared to the other female characters in my syndicated after-school block of soon-to-be “classic” comedies — Happy Days, The Brady Bunch, Three’s Company — Laverne DeFazio was something of a superhero.
Maybe she got her strength from all those milk-and-Pepsis she drank (blech). More likely, though, Laverne’s moxie was a reflection of Marshall’s own confidence — something that led the actress to take up directing while still starring on Laverne & Shirley. Today the idea of an actress directing episodes of her own show is commonplace, but in 1979 — when Marshall directed her first of four Laverne & Shirley episodes, “Squiggy in Love” — it was definitely not the norm.
After Laverne & Shirley wound down in 1983, Marshall would go on to have one of the unlikelier second acts of her generation. She traded in her crack onscreen comic timing for a behind-the-scenes career as a director of hit Hollywood movies — a even bigger rarity in such a male-dominated profession.
Marshall brought the trademarks of the small screen in her transition to the big one, valuing performance over technical wizardry and look-at-me fireworks. Her feature directing debut came with 1986’s screwball espionage caper Jumpin’ Jack Flash, starring another gifted comedienne making a tiptoe transition to the big screen, Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg played a bored computer programmer who stumbles into an espionage plot that occasionally shot off sparks of wacky fish-out-of-water lunacy. It was a solid-enough first effort, even if it didn’t quite display the unlimited promise of what would come next.
Big was one of several body-switch comedies to hit theaters in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But it’s undeniably the only one that’s both timeless and emotionally resonant enough to still be fondly remembered and constantly rewatched three decades after the fact. The sweet, sentimental fantasy, about a young kid who makes a wish to a fortune-telling arcade machine to be big only to wake up in the adult body of Tom Hanks (yet another sitcom star making a bid for a career in movies) was an immediate sensation. It would go on to make $151 million at the box office. And not only would the 1988 film become the biggest commercial success of Marshall’s career, earning Hanks his first Oscar nomination in the process, it crowned her as the first female director in Hollywood history with a film that broke the $100 million threshold.
Suddenly, Marshall was no longer a sitcom-star-turned-wannabe-filmmaker, she was the newest member of an elite boys’ club of top-tier Hollywood directors, gender be damned. As her follow-up, she signed on to direct an adaptation of Oliver Sacks’ book Awakenings, the story of a neurologist treating a catatonic Parkinson’s patient, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. The movie was spiked with brief moments of levity, but this was an earnest drama through and through — and Marshall proved to be a natural outside of her genre comfort zone. Awakenings received three Oscar nominations, for Best Actor (De Niro), Best Adapted Screenplay (Steven Zaillian), and Best Picture. It was only the second Best Picture nominee in Oscar history to be directed by a woman. It lost to Dances with Wolves.
Perhaps sensing the magnitude of her profile as an A-list Hollywood director who happened to be female and the responsibility that came with it, Marshall embraced the sort of material that male studio heads didn’t have a clue how to approach. Her 1992 hit, A League of Their Own, about an all-women’s baseball team during World War II, was a showcase for a roster of strong actresses (Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna) as well as her old pal Hanks, as the team’s crotchety, cynical manager, whose beleaguered delivery of the line “There’s no crying in baseball!” turned it into an instant catchphrase. League made $132 million at the box office, defying the conventional wisdom that a sports movie about women could never work.
Even after she shifted to directing movies, Marshall never gave up on the industry that made her a star, whether guesting on CBS’s Odd Couple reboot (she played Myrna on the original series) or directing episodes of broadcast and cable series (most recently for Showtime’s United States of Tara). “I think television is an invaluable experience because you’re under the gun every single week,” Marshall told People in 1991. “You never have time. You’re running for your life. After TV, as a performer, you can do anything.”