Penny Marshall, an actress and trailblazing director, died Dec. 17 at the age of 75 — but the legacy of her artistic impact is sure to remain for years to come. Marshall revolutionized the directing field for women, shattering glass ceilings in the entertainment industry. From the start of her career on television with roles in programs such as “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” to her direction of iconic box office hits “Big” and “A League of Their Own,” Marshall made a name for herself both in front of the camera and behind it.
Born in New York City in 1943, Marshall was shaped by her East Coast upbringing. She spent most of her time as a child in the Bronx with her parents, who were both artists by profession. Her father, Tony Marshall, was a director and producer, and her mother, Marjorie Irene, was a tap dance instructor. A penchant for show business ran in the family, and her two older siblings — sister Ronny Hallin, a producer, and brother Garry Marshall, an actor, director and producer — paved the path for her by establishing professions in entertainment.
Marshall contemplated a number of paths before deciding that show business was her calling. She studied math and psychology at the University of New Mexico where she became pregnant with her daughter, Tracy. She then worked a series of odd jobs to support herself and her family, including working as a choreographer at the Albuquerque Civic Light Opera Association. It was not until 1967 that she moved to Los Angeles to embark on her career in entertainment.
After landing small roles in advertising, film and television, Marshall earned a recurring role on “The Odd Couple” in 1971. “The Odd Couple,” a show on which her older brother Garry Marshall served as executive producer, enabled her to begin to make a name for herself after several years of working odd jobs in entertainment while in Los Angeles.
Marshall then went on to appear in a few episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and in the Gary Marshall-helmed “Happy Days” in recurring roles. Because of the positive reaction from studio audiences, Marshall went on to have a starring role as Laverne DeFazio in the “Happy Days” spinoff, “Laverne & Shirley.” This role turned out to be one of the defining moments in her long career, as “Laverne & Shirley” was a massive success with both audiences and critics, running on the air for eight seasons.
After directing four episodes of “Laverne & Shirley” during her tenure on the sitcom, Marshall directed her first feature film, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” an action comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg, in 1986. Despite reaching decent numbers at the box office, it opened to poor reviews. It was then an uphill battle for Marshall to be recognized as a director of critically and commercially successful films, especially in the male-dominated world of filmmaking.
In 1988, Marshall finally reached A-List status as a director with the success of “Big,” a comedy-drama starring a young Tom Hanks, which helped launch him into stardom. The movie earned Hanks his first Oscar nomination and garnered Marshall major respect within the industry. “Big” released to nearly unanimous critical acclaim and grossed more than $150 million — no small feat for a director so early on in her career. To this day, “Big” is often recognized as one of the greatest comedy and fantasy films. “Big” was not only a breakthrough for Marshall’s career, but it also shattered a long-standing glass ceiling: It was the first film directed by a woman to make more than $100 million. Thus, Marshall’s directorial triumph was a watershed moment for women in cinema.
For a lesser director, the success of “Big” may have been difficult to follow up — but Marshall was no one-hit wonder. In 1990, she worked with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro in “Awakenings” and went on to direct 1992’s “A League of Their Own,” also starring Hanks. The movie grossed almost $140 million and is still the highest grossing baseball movie of all time. Throughout her career, which spanned decades, Marshall earned a total of seven film directorial credits to her name.
Marshall may have died Dec. 17 after facing complications from diabetes — but this is far from the end of her legacy. She was a trailblazer, truly in — as one might say — a league of her own. Marshall created a name for herself through her hard work and creativity at a time when female filmmakers were even fewer in number than they are today. She proved that women can and should be taken seriously in the director’s chair.
Being the driving force behind the camera is still overwhelmingly a boy’s game, but Marshall proved early on that it does not have to be. From “Big” to “A League of Their Own,” Marshall’s films are evidence of the fact that women are truly capable of making critically acclaimed commercial successes — and in the struggle to bring meaning to our blockbusters even today, we have Marshall’s artistic example to follow.
Contact Julia Mears at [email protected].