Penny Marshall, from the Bronx, had a voice you didn’t forget.
She talked in a molasses-slow, nasal whine, but her mind moved like a torpedo, finding every laugh where it was needed and the time to talk you through whatever got you down. Penny suffered from depression. She was a funny lady with no end of sorrows that she turned into comic shtick. Her death at 75, from diabetes complications, came after tough times for this actress-director-producer dynamo. Following a lung and brain cancer diagnosis in 2010 (“I was a grumpy patient”) and a long recovery, she lost her brother Garry Marshall and her best friend Carrie Fisher within months of each other in 2016. To spend time with those people, alone or together, could lift your spirits over any dark clouds. But Penny was the glue. For a woman of limitless kindness, her sarcasm was killer. Hit her too often with compliments or complaints, she’d squint and slam you with an, “Oh, shut up.”
TV audiences knew Penny best from Laverne & Shirley, in which she and Cindy Williams played Milwaukee brewery workers who laughed at their lousy sex lives. The sitcom ran from 1976 to 1983, after which Marshall, who directed a few episodes, moved behind the camera to direct movies. “No one expected much,” Penny told me in her trademarked deadpan. “I guess having Laverne DeFazio behind the camera wasn’t a big draw.” But her 1985 debut, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, a spy comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg, made its money back. “A profit, even two cents, always get you noticed,” Penny instructed.
Her next film, 1988’s Big, did more than get her noticed, it put her on the map, becoming the first film directed by a woman to gross more than $100 million at the box-office. And Tom Hanks, who starred as a boy who finds himself in the body of a grownup dude, won an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. Big feels so spontaneous in its comic execution, you’d never guess that Penny struggled with it. “I do a lot of takes,” she said. ”It drives actors nuts and the crew, Jesus, they all hate me.” Why the uncertainty? “I don’t know what I like till I see it. Can you imagine?”
Hanks couldn’t have been that annoyed. He was back in Penny’s corner for 1992’s A League of Their Own, playing a boozed out ex-baseball player managing a real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League organized during World War II when men weren’t readily available. Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna had key roles. “There’s no crying in baseball,” Hanks’ chauvinist manager would rant at the women, who proved more than his equal at the game. League, which also grossed over $100 million, fired a shot in the air for feminism long before that era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Penny never hid her pride in that accomplishment.
She was equally pleased with Awakenings, the 1990 drama she sandwiched in between Big and League. This time “Laverne” would direct the legendary Robert De Niro to an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for playing a patient awakened after 30 years in a coma by a doctor, based on Oliver Sacks, who was played by Robin Williams. With Awakenings, Penny became only the second woman in Academy history to direct an Oscar nominee for Best Picture. That Penny herself wasn’t nominated had to sting. “I’ll admit I was depressed,” shrugged Penny, adding, “but then I’m always depressed. Making this movie made me feel good … for about five minutes.”
Penny continued to direct into the new millennium. There was Renaissance Man (1994), featuring the acting debut of Mark Wahlberg; The Preacher’s Wife (1996), with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston (Penny called it “the first black Christmas movie”); and Riding in Cars With Boys (2001) with Drew Barrymore as a 1960s teen who finds her career sidetracked by getting pregnant by Mr. Wrong.
Penny knew about wrong relationships, having dropped out of college to marry football player Michael Henry and have her first and only child, Tracy. She and Henry divorced after two years. In 1971, she married Rob Reiner, who adopted Tracy. Both actors auditioned for All in the Family, but only Reiner got the part. Her breakup with “Meathead” after a decade was the definition of amicable. After Marshall’s death, Reiner tweeted: “I was very lucky to have lived with her and her funnybone. I will miss her.”
So will we all. One of my favorite memories of Penny is being invited to an A-list Oscar party she and Carrie threw in L.A. Actually, I wasn’t invited. “I’ll sneak you in,” Penny told me, conspiratorially. There were stars. And controlled substances. And Penny being herself, as usual. While Carrie held forth, dishing deliciously about the nominated movies, Penny stuck to the sidelines, talking about baseball, the Lakers (she adored that team), anything sports-related (her doc on Dennis Rodman will be released next year). Mostly, I watched Penny taking time for a quiet moment with the friends who approached her.
“I talk good, but I listen better,” she said. One fledgling director, asked her advice about camera lenses. Penny, peering at him over the tinted glasses that always sat on the the bridge of her nose, delivered a compact lesson in filmmaking. “Forget lenses,” she told him. “Let other people do lenses. You need to think about the story, and how to tell it. Funny is good, but don’t force it. And heart, get some heart in there — not the self-pitying, crying-in-your-beer bullshit, I hate that. Tell the actors what you want and get out of their way. If you have to tell them how to act, you shouldn’t have hired them. And if you don’t like what they did, tell them to do it again, until it’s honest and you can live with it. Whine if you have to, I always do. And if you’re still stuck, call me — I’ll listen.”
Penny always listened. That’s why you can feel her laughter and her heart in her work. What you saw on screen was what you saw in life. This is not a woman you can say goodbye to easily. From wherever she is now, I can hear Penny whining, “Oh, shut up.” So having learned my lesson about listening, I will.
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