Penny Marshall, who has died aged 75, was a television star of the 70s who parlayed her talent, her contacts and her innate genius for humour and warmth into a brilliant movie directing career, giving us glorious films such as Big and A League of Their Own.
A succession of bland West Coast executives discovered that the Bronx accent she had on TV was no acting fake. “Did you know she gave me two of the best jobs I ever had?” Tom Hanks once asked. “Of course not, because when she talks she’s barely comprehensible.” Among her many achievements, Marshall pretty much invented Tom Hanks, giving him his breakout lead role in her wonderful fantasy comedy Big in 1988 (scripted by Anne Spielberg and Gary Ross), about a little kid who suddenly becomes a man. Marshall staged a classic moment of comic brio and childhood wish-fulfilment: the dancing on the giant toy piano keys in a Fifth Avenue toy shop. In that one moment, Penny Marshall distilled a joyous kind of life lesson: creativity and performing should be fun; the kind of unselfconscious, innocent fun you had as a kid.
Marshall was the real thing: smart, funny, opinionated, a professional comedy connoisseur and someone who certainly represented a challenge to the industry’s dullard menfolk, who thought women were there to be pretty and nothing else. She was one half of the TV sitcom duo Laverne and Shirley, in a show produced by her brother Garry about two roommates getting into scrapes in a fondly imagined late-50s America. Running from 1976 to 1983, Laverne & Shirley became the most-watched show in the US. Tellingly, it had been spun off from the similarly popular Happy Days, whose star Ron Howard enjoyed a career trajectory similar to Marshall’s. Laverne and Shirley were first introduced on a double-date: the less conventionally attractive Laverne (played by Marshall) was paired with Henry Winkler’s tough Fonzie, while the more demure-looking Shirley (Cindy Williams) went with Ron Howard’s clean-cut Richie Cunningham. An awestruck Winkler said that, together, Marshall and Williams were the “modern Lucille Ball”.
From 1971 to 1981, before her film directing career took off, Marshall was married to Rob Reiner, who legally adopted her daughter Tracy from a previous marriage. Reiner was another man who owed a great deal to her professionally: she was hugely influential on his career. Together, they were a power couple of Hollywood comedy, and their home became a salon for writers and performers such as Albert Brooks, Billy Crystal and James L Brooks. Their parties were legendary and Marshall never saw any reason to deny having enjoyed drink and drugs in those days. She and Reiner remained good friends.
Marshall was ambitious and quick-witted and saw how she could develop, not as a character player but as a director – first taking charge of episodes of Laverne & Shirley, and then graduating to the movies. Her friend Whoopi Goldberg was instrumental in getting her the wacky comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash, in which Goldberg’s bank teller somehow gets involved in an espionage conspiracy.
Big was a glorious triumph for Marshall: a high-concept fantasy comedy in the “body-swap” style. Marshall gave it exactly the right touch and got from Hanks the right sweet-natured innocence, decency and sense of adventure. It was a Capraesque career-launch for Marshall, whose next feature, Awakenings (1990), had points in common. It, too, was about a short-lived, revelatory quasi-fantasy moment from which lessons could be learned. Adapted by Steven Zaillian from the Oliver Sacks memoir, the movie was about Sacks’s experimental use of the drug L-Dopa to revive patients with encephalitis lethargica, or “sleeping sickness”. Robin Williams played the Sacks figure and Robert De Niro is Leonard, a catatonic patient who miraculously “awakens”. Marshall had been put in charge of two of the biggest male personalities in American cinema, Williams and De Niro, but found a way of keeping them under control. Sacks was said to be stunned at the way Williams had been turned by Marshall into his imaginary younger brother.
Next was a movie considered a gem of popular American cinema: A League of Their Own (1992), based on a true story from the 1940s about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, starring Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna, with Tom Hanks as the grumpy has-been given the job of coach. With so many men away fighting in the second world war, women’s baseball is being promoted as an alternative to the men’s game, analogous to the way women were being allowed to do other men’s civvy-street jobs in wartime. There was a lovely humour, drama and storytelling punch in this film, together with real pathos when terrible news comes through about the women’s loved ones fighting overseas. Marshall got a great performance from the movie’s star, Davis.
After this, Marshall made the less happy army caper Renaissance Man, with Danny DeVito, then an enjoyable, serviceable remake of the 1940s comedy The Bishop’s Wife, retitled The Preacher’s Wife, with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. Marshall’s final film as a director was Riding in Cars With Boys in 2001, starring Drew Barrymore and Brittany Murphy: a likable, underrated comedy-drama in which she drew on her own girlhood and the spirit of her TV classic Laverne & Shirley. Penny Marshall herself was an American classic.