Remembering Penny Marshall, a Hollywood Legend With a Radical Legacy

Penny Marshall in 1980.
Penny Marshall in 1980. Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage

Penny Marshall was a sly revolutionary.

As both a performer and a filmmaker, Marshall, who died Monday at the age of 75, stood counter to the prevailing wisdom of what women like her were supposed to be, and do. From her breakthrough as a sitcom star to her subsequent success as a blockbuster filmmaker, Marshall never seemed to get hung up on what other people thought she was supposed to be doing — or if she did, you could never tell. And as both an actress and a director, she was simultaneously big and subtle, aiming at the widest possible audience while smuggling in little grace notes that caught even fans by surprise.

When viewers of a certain age first noticed Marshall on sitcoms in the 1970s — first as Oscar Madison’s secretary on The Odd Couple, and then as Laverne DeFazio on Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley — they saw a throwback to character actresses from ’50s television and prewar movies. She was a scene-stealer with big city, white ethnic bluntness, the kind of woman who might’ve dispensed tough but loving advice to Grace Kelly or bashed a mugger over the head with an umbrella.

Marshall got her first gig as a regular TV performer — Myrna Turner on The Odd Couple — through her brother, actor-producer Garry Marshall, and she was always self-deprecating about that fact, but she soon established herself as a singular talent. Her type of energy was a far cry from the smooth vanilla blandness or poised toughness that American entertainment preferred from comic leading ladies. It was more in the vein of Lucille Ball, one of the most important producers in television as well as one of its biggest and most durable stars. Ball became a powerhouse actress and producer on the small screen because the movies had no place for somebody like her: an attractive but not conventionally pretty woman who had appetites and big emotions, loved to pratfall, throw elbows, and get into shenanigans, and wanted some say in the final product.

Marshall shared all those characteristics, and while she didn’t reshape movies as decisively as Ball reshaped TV, it is now much easier to appreciate the magnitude of her accomplishments. In the 1980s and ’90s, she became the first female director to make studio films that grossed more than $100 million domestically, and she did it without the reliance on special effects that distinguished the careers of so many A-list filmmakers from that period, including collaborators like Steven Spielberg.

But first, she conquered sitcoms. The dynamic between Laverne and her best friend and fellow Milwaukee brewery worker, Shirley Feeney, played by Cindy Williams, was the relationship between Penny Marshall and the rest of popular culture distilled into a single comic friendship. Laverne was a creature of appetites. She lusted without shame, drank her fill, ate as if every meal could be her last. She was big (or looked big compared to Shirley), and seemed to careen and crash through the world even when she was trying to be sneaky. (Marshall also met her second husband during her sitcom period: Rob Reiner, who played Myrna’s boyfriend Sheldn on The Odd Couple; Marshall was nearly cast as Gloria Stivic, the wife of Reiner’s character on All in the Family, but the role ended up going to Sally Struthers.)

Laverne and Shirley stole the show on Happy Days whenever they were on it, which is why the sitcom’s producers (headed by Garry again) kept bringing them back. As the sometime girlfriend of Henry Winkler’s Arthur Fonzarelli, Laverne reminded the Fonz of who he actually was — a working-class Italian-American guy — rather than validating him as an icon of cool who stood apart from the Waspy community he’d managed to infiltrate. It helped that Marshall was half-Italian, raised in the Bronx by a dance teacher mom and a director-producer dad, whose family came from Abruzzo and who had changed his name from Masciarelli before Penny was born.

By the time Laverne & Shirley became one of ABC’s ratings powerhouses, Marshall started asking to direct episodes, and immediately proved herself an ace at directing actors. From there, she started to segue into another line of work. Her first feature, 1986’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash, was a critical disaster and a box office disappointment, one that Marshall only helmed because its original director, Private Benjamin’s Howard Zieff, was fired at the last minute. But it gave an unabashed pop showcase to another oddball talent, Whoopi Goldberg — fresh off Steven Spielberg’s majestic but bleak film version of The Color Purple, and the first African-American woman to headline a major Hollywood film in years — and turned her loose in a series of misadventures that you could easily imagine Lucy or Laverne getting into.

On paper, there was no reason why Marshall’s next feature, Big, should have been as, well, big as it was — it came at the tail end of a seemingly endless series of boomer-pandering fantasies about kids turning into adults and vice versa — but in retrospect, it was the warmth of the characterizations, the sensitivity of the performances (led by Tom Hanks), and the matter-of-factness of Marshall’s direction that put it over the top. It’s an emotional film but not an excessively sappy one, and it’s filled with grace notes that undercut any potential for treacle — as when Elizabeth Perkins’s character notes that her own childhood is not something she’d want to return to, a moment that now feels like a rebuke to the mostly male-centered man-child fantasies that were so popular at that point in time, and that Big itself exemplified.

Marshall’s next movie, 1990’s Awakenings, based on the Oliver Sacks bestseller, was her entry into the upper echelons. Working with Robin Williams (as Sacks) and Robert De Niro (as a long-comatose patient released from his slumber by experimental medicine), it was proof that all three could move beyond their established comfort zones. It’s thought of as another warm and embracing “feel-good” movie, but it’s really not. It’s a story without a happy ending; the inspiring reversal of fortune at the heart of the tale can’t last forever, and like the somewhat similar but fictional Flowers for Algernon (adapted for the movies as Charly), it follows transformation with disintegration, and eventually becomes a film about appreciating what you have at the moment that you have it, a subject that Marshall seemingly understood on a deep level.

Marshall’s last and biggest hit was the 1992 feminist sports drama A League of Their Own, starring Geena Davis, Lori Petty, Madonna, and Rosie O’Donnell as women who play professional baseball while men are off at war, with Tom Hanks and Jon Lovitz providing comic relief as their coaching staff. Here, too, you find Marshall directing a story that’s kind-hearted and funny enough to pass muster as a feel-good Hollywood studio picture, but that proves a lot more melancholy on a second or third viewing — and not just because the players fight entrenched sexism and suffer all manner of bad news as they play their way across the country. Like Big and Awakenings before it, A League of Their Own is about living a sweet dream that eventually comes to an end, pushing the dreamers back into the harshness of reality. One of the most remarkable things about it is its ability to keep the big picture in mind as it makes its audience laugh and cry. This is a film that celebrates the rare achievements and experiences of a team of white female athletes, yet also makes space for a striking moment in which an African-American woman returns an errant ball into play with a shotgun pitch, hinting at an as-yet-unseen movie beyond the one that you happen to be watching.

League proved to be Marshall’s peak as a director, although her 1996 remake of The Preacher’s Wife (starring Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, and Courtney B. Vance) has since become a holiday staple, and it now seems as anomalous and striking as her other films, foregrounding an almost entirely African-American cast in a big-budget production that was released simultaneously on hundreds of screens. Her last theatrical feature was a 2001 adaptation of Beverly Donofrio’s memoir Riding in Cars With Boys, starring Drew Barrymore as a college-bound teenager who unexpectedly gets pregnant and decides to raise the child, to the alarm of her parents and the disapproval of her community. Although it got mixed reviews and bombed at the box office, it’s a heartfelt and often tough movie that’s rooted in reality. And it told a story of personal significance for Marshall, who got pregnant with her daughter Tracy while enrolled at the University of New Mexico in the early ’60s.

Marshall’s legacy is a set of groundbreaking achievements that don’t necessarily announce themselves as such. The more distance we get from her life and career, the more undeniable her impact will be. Not many popular artists rose to the top of two fields within the space of two decades, as Marshall did. To find a comparably impressive figure, you have to look to someone like Barbra Streisand. The through-line in the story of Penny Marshall’s career is that of a woman being confronted with a series of locked doors, then carving an opening that fit her.

Remembering Penny Marshall’s Radical Legacy