A TV superstar turned director

Penny Marshall, 75, died on Monday from complications of diabetes.
Penny Marshall, 75, died on Monday from complications of diabetes. PHOTO: REUTERS

Penny Marshall made her mark as an actress before becoming the first woman to direct a film that grossed more than US$100 million

NEW YORK • Penny Marshall, the nasal-voiced co-star of the slapstick sitcom Laverne & Shirley and later the chronically self-deprecating director of hit films like Big (1988) and A League Of Their Own (1992), died on Monday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 75.

Her publicist, Ms Michelle Bega, said the cause was complications of diabetes.

Marshall became the first woman to direct a feature film that grossed more than US$100 million when she made Big. That movie, a comedy about a 12-year-old boy who magically turns into an adult (Tom Hanks), was as popular with critics as with audiences. Hanks received his first Oscar nomination for his performance.

Four years later, she repeated her box-office success with A League Of Their Own, a sentimentally spunky comedy about a wartime women's baseball league with an ensemble cast that included Madonna, Geena Davis, Rosie O'Donnell and Hanks.

In between, she directed Awakenings (1990), a medical drama starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. Awakenings, based on a book by Oliver Sacks, was only moderately successful financially, but De Niro received an Academy Award nomination.

A writer for Cosmopolitan magazine once commented that Marshall "got into directing the 'easy' way - by becoming a television superstar first."

That was a reference to her seven seasons (1976 to 1983) as Laverne DeFazio, the brasher (yet possibly more vulnerable) of two young roommates on the hit ABC comedy series Laverne & Shirley, set in 1950s and 1960s Milwaukee.

In Hollywood, Marshall had a reputation for instinctive directing, which could mean endless retakes. But she was also known for treating film-making as a team effort rather than a dictatorship.

"I have my own way of functioning," she told The New York Times Magazine in 1992.

"My personality is, I whine. It's how I feel inside. I guess it's how I use being female too. I touch a lot to get my way and say, 'Pleeease , do it over here.' So it can be an advantage - the anti-director."

Carole Penny Marshall was born on Oct 15, 1943, in the Bronx, New York, and grew up there. Her father, Anthony, was an industrial film-maker and her mother, Marjorie (Ward) Marshall, taught dance. The family name had been changed from Masciarelli.

Marshall attended the University of New Mexico. There she met and married Michael Henry, a college football player. They had a daughter, but the marriage lasted only two years and Marshall headed for California, where her older brother, Garry, had become a successful comedy writer.

She made her film debut in The Savage Seven, a 1968 biker-gang drama, and had a small part the same year in How Sweet It Is!, a romantic comedy starring Debbie Reynolds and James Garner.

Marshall got her big break in 1971, when she was cast in the recurring part of Jack Klugman's gloomy secretary, Myrna Turner, on the ABC sitcom The Odd Couple.

That same year, she married Rob Reiner, who was then a star of the hit series All In The Family. He adopted her daughter, but they divorced in 1979.

Marshall's two films after A League Of Their Own - Renaissance Man (1994) and The Preacher's Wife (1996) - were not as well received.

Riding In Cars With Boys (2001), starring Drew Barrymore, was the last film Marshall directed. Her final screen appearance was on the new version of The Odd Couple, in a November 2016 episode.

Marshall, who lived in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, is survived by her older sister, Ronny; a daughter, actress Tracy Reiner; and three grandchildren.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2018, with the headline 'A TV superstar turned director'. Print Edition | Subscribe