The Trailblazing American actor-director Penny Marshall, who is indelibly starred in the top-rated sitcom Laverne and Shirley before turning into the trailblazing director of smash-hit big-screen comedies, for example, Big and A League of Their Own, has kicked the bucket. She was 75.
Michelle Bega, a spokesperson for the Marshall family, said on Tuesday that Marshall died in her Los Angeles home on Monday night due to complications from diabetes. Marshall earlier fought lung cancer, which went into remission in 2013. “Our family is heartbroken,” the Marshall family said in a statement.
In Laverne & Shirley, among television’s biggest hits for much of its eight-season run between 1976-1983, the nasal-voiced, Bronx-born Marshall starred as Laverne DeFazio alongside Cindy Williams as a pair of blue-collar roommates toiling on the assembly line of a Milwaukee brewery. A spinoff of Happy Days, the series was the rare network hit about working-class characters, and its self-empowering opening song (“Give us any chance, we’ll take it/ Read us any rule, we’ll break it”) foreshadowed Marshall’s own path as a pioneering female filmmaker in the male-dominated movie business.
“Almost everyone had a theory about why Laverne & Shirley took off,” Marshall wrote in her 2012 memoir My Mother Was Nuts. “I thought it was simply because Laverne and Shirley were poor and there were no poor people on TV, but there were plenty of them sitting at home and watching TV.”
Marshall directed several episodes of Laverne & Shirley, which her older brother, the late filmmaker-producer Garry Marshall, created. Those episodes helped launch Marshall as a filmmaker. When Whoopi Goldberg clashed with director Howard Zieff, she brought in Marshall to direct Jumpin’ Jack Flash, the 1986 comedy starring Goldberg.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash did fair business, but Marshall’s next film, Big, was a major success, making her the first woman to direct a film that grossed more than $100m. The 1988 comedy, starring Tom Hanks, is about a 12-year-old boy who wakes up in the body of a 30-year-old New York City man. The film, which earned Hanks an Oscar nomination, grossed $151m worldwide, or about $320m in accounting for inflation.
The honour meant only so much to the typically self-deprecating Marshall. “They didn’t give ME the money,” Marshall later joked to The New Yorker.
Marshall reteamed with Hanks for A League of Their Own, the 1992 comedy about the women’s professional baseball league begun during World War II, starring Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell. That, too, crossed $100m, making $107.5m domestically.
More than any other films, A League of Their Own and Big ensured Marshall’s stamp on the late ’80s, early ’90s. The piano dance scene in FAO Schwartz in Big became iconic. Hanks’ reprimand from A League of Their Own — “There’s no crying in baseball!” — remains quoted on baseball diamonds everywhere.
TRIBUTES POUR IN
On Tuesday, Marshall’s passing was felt across film, television and comedy. Big producer James L. Brooks praised her for making “films which celebrated humans” and for her helping hand to young comedians and writers. “Too many of us lost ones she was, at the time, the world’s greatest den mother.”
Hanks wrote on Twitter: “Goodbye, Penny. Man, did we laugh a lot! Wish we still could. Love you. Hanx.”
“She had a heart of gold. Tough as nails,” recalled Danny DeVito, who starred in Marshall’s 1994 comedy Renaissance Man. “She could play round ball with the best of them.”
Marshall’s early success in a field where few women rose so high made her an inspiration to other aspiring female filmmakers. Ava DuVernay, whose A Wrinkle in Time was the first $100 million-budgeted film directed by a woman of colour, said on Tuesday: “Thank you, Penny Marshall. For the trails, you blazed. The laughs you gave. The hearts you warmed.”
In between Big and A League of Their Own, Marshall made the Oliver Sacks adaptation Awakenings, with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. The medical drama, while not as successful at the box office, became only the second film directed by a woman nominated for best picture.
Marshall never again matched the run of Big, Awakenings and A League of Their Own.
Her next film, the Army recruit comedy Renaissance Man, flopped. She directed The Preacher’s Wife (1996) with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. Her last film as director was 2001’s Riding in Cars With Boys, with Drew Barrymore. Marshall also helmed episodes of ABC’s According to Jim in 2009 and Showtime’s United States of Tara in 2010 and 2011 and directed the 2010 TV movie Women Without Men.
Marshall, a courtside regular at Los Angeles Lakers games, left behind a long-in-the-making documentary about former NBA star Dennis Rodman. When the project was announced in 2012, Marshall said Rodman asked her to do it.