Monday 16 September 2019

Obituary: Penny Marshall

Ambitious and quick-witted actress who became one of Hollywood's first successful women film directors

COMEDY CONNOISSEUR: Abover, director Penny Marshall with co-stars of ‘Awakenings’ Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. Photo: AP
COMEDY CONNOISSEUR: Abover, director Penny Marshall with co-stars of ‘Awakenings’ Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. Photo: AP

Penny Marshall, who has died aged 75, made her name as an actress in US television shows in the 1970s, notably Laverne & Shirley, but her talent became familiar to a global audience when she became one of Hollywood's first successful women film directors.

Her comedy Big, with Tom Hanks, which she made in 1988, was the first movie directed by a woman to take more than $100m at the box office, while Awakenings (1990) was only the second (after Children of a Lesser God) to gain an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall in ‘Laverne and Shirley’
Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall in ‘Laverne and Shirley’

She was encouraged to begin directing by her then husband, Rob Reiner - an actor before he made films such as When Harry Met Sally - and by her brother Garry, who created the 1950s-set sitcom Happy Days and then directed hits on the big screen.

Penny Marshall initially went behind the camera for several episodes of Laverne & Shirley. It had started in 1976 as a spin-off from Happy Days, following audience reaction to a show in which Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams had played fast-talking girls from a Milwaukee brewery assembly line.

"I can't act," said Penny Marshall in a typically self-deprecating interview, "but I can sell a bit," and Laverne & Shirley, which followed the girls at work and play, showcased her talent for physical comedy, as well her nasal way of speaking that became something of a trademark.

She had got her real break as the secretary Myrna Turner in the television series of The Odd Couple - another of her brother's shows - because her attempts to do a laugh in character had sounded like a whine. (Her voice was later showcased when she became the first guest star to feature on The Simpsons.)

By 1977, Laverne & Shirley was the most-watched programme on US television, and it remained so until it ended in 1983, although by then Cindy Williams had left after a row about her working up until the end of a pregnancy. Penny Marshall then made her transition into cinema at the request of Whoopi Goldberg, replacing a director due to shoot a spy comedy she was making, Jumpin' Jack Flash.

It was Big which gained Penny Marshall the respect of the studios, not least since it had been intended to go straight to video.

Instead, aided by a star-making turn from Hanks as the 12-year-old in the body of an adult, she made a film of striking and enduring charm, embodied in the scene in which Hanks and Robert Loggia play a duet of Chopsticks on a giant floor-mounted keyboard.

As a director, Penny Marshall gained a reputation for preferring to work by intuition, which could result in many takes, but also for treating all on set as part of the team (she was an avid sports fan and collector of memorabilia).

Awakenings was based on a book by Oliver Sacks and featured Robin Williams as a neurologist treating patients (among them Robert De Niro, who was Oscar-nominated) who have been woken from catatonic states.

She then directed A League of Their Own, about an all-women's baseball team during World War II, which starred Hanks, Geena Davis and Madonna.

In 2012 it was chosen by US Congress for preservation as being of cultural significance.

Renaissance Man (1994), with Danny DeVito attempting to teach Shakespeare to soldiers, was the first of her films to do disappointing business. The Preacher's Wife, with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, did better but had mixed reviews, as did the last film she directed, Riding in Cars with Boys (2001), which starred Drew Barrymore. Nevertheless, many women in Hollywood have since hailed her as an inspiration.

She was born Carole Penny Marshall in the Bronx, New York, on October 15, 1943. Her mother had named her after the film star Carole Lombard and included a middle name as a sop to her older siblings, Garry and Ronny, who were saving up to buy a pony.

Penny Marshall later entitled her memoir My Mother was Nuts, and while not literally true, Penny was somewhat at the mercy of her mother's ambitions.

Marjorie Marshall taught tap dance, and Penny appeared with her troupe on television shows. Her father, Tony, made films for industry, and Penny, who was rather a tomboy, developed her humour in part to shield herself from the effects of her parents' frequent arguments.

She went to university in New Mexico but became pregnant and married the father, Michael Henry. Two years later they divorced and she moved to California to stay with her brother, who was writing by then for television shows such as I Love Lucy. One early role was in a commercial for Head & Shoulders. She was the girl with dandruff; the one with the bottle in the shower was Farrah Fawcett.

Penny Marshall was married to Reiner from 1971 until 1979; he adopted her daughter, Tracy, who became an actress. Her other relationships included one with Art Garfunkel.

After producing several films in the mid-1990s, including Cinderella Man, a boxing tale with Russell Crowe, and Bewitched, she resumed acting and also directed for television.

Penny Marshall's daughter survives her.

© Telegraph

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