Penny Marshall, who starred in the long-running sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” and later directed crowd-pleasing movies such as “Big” and “A League of Their Own,” making her the first woman to helm movies that earned more than $100 million, died Dec. 17 at her home in Hollywood Hills, Calif. She was 75.
During a career spanning four decades, Ms. Marshall rose up the ranks with help from her older brother, Garry Marshall, an established TV and film writer, producer and director. He worked her into featured parts in his sitcoms, including “Happy Days,” in which Ms. Marshall’s deadpan comic style and nasally Bronx accent made her an instantly recognizable television performer.
Her recurring role on “Happy Days” as Laverne DeFazio led to the Garry Marshall-produced spinoff “Laverne & Shirley,” which aired on ABC from 1976 to 1983 and was one of the most popular shows of the era. Ms. Marshall and Cindy Williams co-starred as employees in a Milwaukee beer-bottling plant who roomed together and shared misadventures in dating and on the job.
Along with other former sitcom actors Ron Howard and Rob Reiner (to whom she was once married), Ms. Marshall went on to forge a career as a Hollywood director. Her first film was the modestly successful comic spy romp “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986), starring Whoopi Goldberg.
With “Big” (1988), a comic fantasy starring Tom Hanks as a boy who magically transforms overnight into an adult, Ms. Marshall became the first woman to direct a movie grossing more than $100 million (it reportedly made $115 million domestically).
The movie’s profitability brought her credibility in an industry that was historically wary of allowing women to direct big-budget productions. She followed up with the medical drama “Awakenings” (1990), starring Robin Williams as a shy doctor and Robert De Niro as his patient who wakes from a 30-year coma.
In 1992, Ms. Marshall directed Geena Davis, Madonna and Hanks in “A League of Their Own,” about women who played professional baseball during World War II. The film earned nearly $108 million and became one of the highest-grossing baseball movies of all time, surpassing “The Natural” (1984) and “Bull Durham” (1988).
Ms. Marshall said her reputation as a moneymaker helped bring more movie-directing jobs to women, and she made her best-known films when other women, such as Amy Heckerling and Nora Ephron, were starting to make inroads as directors. But film historian Jeanine Basinger, who specializes in the study of women in cinema, was skeptical of Ms. Marshall’s assertion that she opened opportunities for women. Basinger noted that the environment was and remains largely biased against female directors.
Ms. Marshall’s other directing credits included “Renaissance Man” (1994), with Danny DeVito as a teacher who tries to inspire Army recruits; “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996), starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in a remake of the 1947 Cary Grant-Loretta Young-David Niven fantasy drama “The Bishop’s Wife”; and “Riding in Cars with Boys” (2001), starring Drew Barrymore in a drama about a teenager and the pregnancy that shapes the rest of her life.
Reviewers found Ms. Marshall’s movies sentimental and workmanlike but noted her ability to wring disarming performances from her actors.
“What she had was an instinct for knowing what would please moviegoers, large crowds of people,” Basinger said. “She had learned on TV what people enjoyed, what kind of characters, what kind of performances, and what kind of comedic material. She had an instinct for that, and that’s what her films represented.”
Ms. Marshall told the New York Times: “I like corny. I like what moves me. I go see movies and I think . . . ‘I don’t get it.’ I get intimidated by what they’re saying, and there’s all these artsy parts that go right past me.”
In another interview, Ms. Marshall explained that a screenplay she reviews “should have humor in it and it should have heart. And if it doesn’t, I’ll make it have heart.”
A start in tap dancing
Carole Penny Marscharelli was born in the Bronx on Oct. 15, 1943. She got her first taste of show business at 14 as a member of her mother’s tap-dancing troupe, the Marshalettes, and won the grand prize during an appearance on Ted Mack’s “The Original Amateur Hour.”
She attended the University of New Mexico in the early 1960s, later saying of her Bronx-centric upbringing that “my mother thought New Mexico was near New Jersey, New York and New Hampshire — don’t ask.”
Ms. Marshall was not an academic standout at the school, which she left when she married Michael Henry, a player on the university’s football team. “I must say what I remember most was getting married after a Brigham Young football game,” she told the Toronto Globe and Mail, “and all that was on television the whole weekend was John Kennedy’s funeral. That was sort of an omen for the whole marriage.”
She had a daughter with Henry before they divorced in 1967. Besides their daughter, Tracy Reiner, survivors include a sister and three grandchildren. Her brother, Garry, died in 2016.
Ms. Marshall spent the late 1960s in a succession of odd jobs, including as a tap-dance instructor, before her brother invited her to join him in Hollywood. At first, she said, she was often cast as the “plain” girl because “I looked like a coconut and had buck teeth.” In one appearance opposite Farrah Fawcett in a TV shampoo advertisement, Ms. Marshall was shown with a frizzy and frumpy hairdo while Fawcett’s Head and Shoulders-infused curls bounced and gleamed.
Being pegged as the ugly duckling was devastating. “She’d come home in tears,” Garry Marshall once told the New York Times. “I said: ‘They’ll learn to like you. They just don’t understand you yet. They will someday.’ ”
In recent years, Ms. Marshall produced such films as “Cinderella Man” (2005), starring Russell Crowe as a boxer, and “Bewitched” (2005), starring Nicole Kidman in an adaptation of the 1960s sitcom about a suburban witch.
Ms. Marshall said she was not especially proud of the films she directed after “A League of Their Own” because more demands were put on her in making and marketing the productions. She spoke of having lost control of the films. She said she had been much happier as a television actress, telling one interviewer, “No matter how many movies I direct, I’ll always be Laverne.”
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