Director to Some, Laverne to Many, Beloved by All
Penny Marshall, who died today from diabetes at age 75, is being lovingly remembered as a masterful comic actor and the first female director to make a $100 million film. All of that is true, and important. Her turns as droopy-voiced Myrna Turner on The Odd Couple and then the salty and self-deprecating Laverne DeFazio were both jammed with killer lines. When Shirley, always the “cute one,” said she’s shaving her legs to get rid of “ugly stubble,” Laverne replied that ugly stubble was all that’s holding up her nylons. Marshall came by her working-class Italian persona honestly— she was born and raised in the Bronx and her family name had been Masciarelli—and it showed, even in the most canned era of laugh-track sitcoms.
And she did in fact steer Big to nine digits—and Tom Hanks’ first Oscar nomination. Her light touch made it both funny but also kind of profound in its treatment of lost playfulness. Her star-studded A League of Their Own followed a few years later, a box-office smash with a vintage Hanks catchphrase about crying in baseball.
But to me, Penny Marshall was at her best examining the spaces in between. Her movie Awakenings covered the hardly made-for-big-opening topic of a stupefied patient and the neurologist who kinda gets him. Casting Robert De Niro in an encephalitic trance and Robin Williams—her old pal from Tuesday nights on ABC—as something other than loud and attention-grabbing could have gone either way. Her skill steered it home (and helped earn De Niro an Academy Award nomination).
Her best movie was another thoughtful and quiet character study. It was also the last movie she directed. And I gotta think she identified with it strongly. Riding in Cars With Boys was based on the gorgeous memoir of the same name, written by Beverly Donofrio. The author was born to a tight-knit Italian family and had a kid before she was quite ready. The kid in the book grew up to be my bookie (and a good and honorable one at that) and it’s hard not to see parallels in Marshall, an Italian girl who had a daughter with her first husband, a college sweetheart.
I met Penny Marshall a couple times. It’s just so uncool to tell someone with a varied and long career how much you cared about one role. But I felt like I owed it to an old friend from Milwaukee, an Italian girl who often wore her own first initial on her sweater in tribute to her comic idol, to tell Marshall how much I loved Laverne.
One time in 2015, I ran into her at Ron Perelman’s townhouse; he was one of her closest friends. Penny Marshall, Fran Lebowitz and Lorraine Bracco were catching up and laughing and kibitzing. It was like a dreamscape of funny, smart women. Penny Marshall saw me listening and said to me, come closer if you want to hear how real New Yorkers talk. I tossed out my Laverne admiration and the other two made her do a bit from the show. I snuck a photo and you can see Fran leaning over to hear her friend better — you get the feeling there aren’t all that many people in the world Fran Lebowitz would bend over to hear better.
People who knew her and people who knew her work all loved the same thing about her—she was real. So I’ll end this with a detail that a friend of hers shared. “One thing about her that she would love included. She was a lifelong Lakers fan like her buddy Jack Nicholson—she had season court tickets and had a championship ring that she wore all the time.”