Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Late Great Penny Marshall

Penny Marshall, the director who made such films as Big (1988), Awakenings (1990), and A League of Their Own (1992) and the actress who played Myrna on The Odd Couple and Laverne DeFazio on Laverne  & Shirley, died Monday, December 17 2018, at the age of 75.

Penny Marshall was born Carole Penny Marshall on October 15 1943 in the Bronx. Her father, Tony Marshall, was a director of industrial films and later became a producer. Her mother, Marjorie, was a tap dance teacher and ran the Marjorie Marshall Dance School. Her older brother was Garry Marshall, who would go on to become a successful director and producer. Miss Marshall started taking tap dancing lessons when she was only three years old. With her mother's troupe of tap dancers, she appeared on both Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour and The Jackie Gleason Show. Despite her parents' professions, when she was young Penny Marshall had no desire to go into show business. In fact, she was a tomboy who loved baseball.

Penny Marshall studied mathematics and psychology at the University of New Mexico for two and half years. She afterwards worked at a variety of jobs to support herself. It was in 1967 that Penny Marshall moved to Los Angeles where her older brother Garry Marshall was already an established television writer who had written for such shows as The Dick Van Dyke Show, Make Room for Daddy, and The Lucy Show, and was the creator and producer of the short-lived sitcom Hey Landlord.

Penny Marshall made her film debut in Savage Seven in 1968. That same year she appeared in the film How Sweet It Is! (1968). She made her television debut as an actress in a guest appearance on My Friend Tony in 1969. In the late Sixties she guest starred on such shows as Then Came Bronson; That Girl; Love, American Style; Barefoot in the Park; and The Wonderful World of Disney. She appeared in the movies The Grasshopper (1970) and Where's Poppa? (1970).

It was in 1972 that her brother Garry Marshall cast her in the role of Oscar Madison's secretary Myrna Turner on The Odd Couple. She continued to appear on the show for the rest of its run. She later played Jane Dreyfuss on the short lived sitcom Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers. It was in 1975 that her brother cast her in a guest appearance on Happy Days as Laverne DeFazio, who along with Shirley Feeney (played by Cindy Williams), were blind dates for Richie (played by Ron Howard) and Fonzie (played by Henry Winkler). The two characters proved popular and after two more guest appearances on Happy Days received their spin-off, Laverne & Shirley. The sitcom eventually became the number one show on television.

In the Seventies Penny Marshall also guest starred on such shows as Getting Together, The Super, The Bob Newhart Show, Banacek, Chico and The Man, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Good Heavens, Blansky's Beauties (as Laverne), and Mork & Mindy (as Laverne). She appeared in the films How Come Nobody's on Our Side? (1974) and 1941 (1979). She began her directorial career in the late Seventies. She directed the pilot for the short-lived sitcom Working Stiffs, as well as three episodes of Laverne & Shirley.

It was after Laverne & Shirley in 1983 ended its run that Penny Marshall directed her first feature film, Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986). Her next film, Big (1988), would become a major success. It was the first film directed by a woman to gross more than $100 million. She closed the decade with Awakenings (1990), which earned nominations for the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (for Robert De Niro), and Best Adapted Screenplay. She provided the voice of Laverne in the Saturday morning cartoon Laverne & Shirley in the Army and subsequent cartoons. She guest starred on The New Show and The Simpsons. She directed an episode of The Tracey Ullman Show. She appeared in the film Movers & Shakers (1985) had a cameo in the film She's Having a Baby (1988).

In the Nineties Penny Marshall directed what might be her most successful film, A League of Their Own (1992). She also directed the movies Renaissance Man (1994) and The Preacher's Wife (1996). She directed an episode of the short-lived sitcom A League of Their Own, which was based on her movie of the same name. She appeared in the films The Hard Way (1991), Hocus Pocus (1993), Get Shorty (1995), and Special Delivery (1999). On television she reprised her role as Myrna in the reunion movie The Odd Couple: Together Again. She guest starred on the show Nash Bridges.

In the Naughts Miss Marshall directed her final film, Riding in Cars with Boys (2001). She directed episodes of the TV shows According to Jim and The United States of Tara, as well as the TV movie Women Without Men (2010). She guest starred on the shows Frasier, Bones, Entourage, Campus Ladies, and The Game. She appeared in the TV movie Women Without Men. She appeared in the films Stateside (2004), Everybody Wants to Be Italian (2007), Alice Upside Down (2007), and Blonde Ambition (2007).

In the Teens Penny Marshall was the voice of Sylvia Goldenberg on the animated TV series Murder Police. She guest starred on the shows The Life & Times of Tim, Mulaney, and the Teens version of The Odd Couple. She directed an episode of The United States of Tara. She appeared in the films New Year's Eve (2011) and Staten Island Summer (2011). She served as the narrator on the film Mother's Day (2016).

There can be no doubt that Penny Marshall was a major talent. I think it is safe to say that she will always be remembered as Laverne on Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Indeed, the character remains one of the most iconic television characters to emerge in the Seventies. That having said, I will remember her best as Myrna, Oscar Madison's much put-upon secretary, on The Odd Couple, as I am sure many others will as well. Penny Marshall had a gift for creating characters with which the average person could identify. These were women much like people one might know. If Laverne DeFalco and Myrna Turner remain beloved characters, it is because Penny Marshall's talent made them seem real.

Of course, while Penny Marshall was remarkable as an actress, she may have been even more talented as a director. She was a pioneer as a director, her career beginning at a time when very few women occupied the director's chair. Miss Marshall's gift as a director was in creating films with fully realised characters with whom audiences could identify. Even characters in her films that would seen at first glance as if they should be unlikeable, such as alcoholic manager Jimmy Dugan (played by Tom Hanks) in A League of Their Own, emerge as sympathetic. Indeed, Penny Marshall's films are infused with a humanity that was rare in movies made in the Eighties and Nineties and remains rare today. In Big, Josh ultimately has to stop being an adult, a situation wrought with both sadness and happiness. While none of Penny Marshall's films were tragedies, it was rare that one had a perfectly happy ending. If Penny Marshall paved the way for female directors today, it is because she was so very good as a director herself.

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