When I was a little girl, I had a sweater that had an ‘L’ sewn onto the chest – just like Laverne DeFazio had worn on her sweater in the ABC sitcom Laverne & Shirley. I wore it because, obviously, my name is Lisa, but also because two of my favorite actresses at the time were Penny Marshall, who played Laverne, and the legendary Lucille Ball. I felt like I was paying homage to both having the L on my shirt.
When you think of women who have made a significant impact on the industry for future women filmmakers and television directors, Lucille Ball is probably one of the first people who pop into your mind. The work she did in television – behind and in front of the camera – changed the course of what I wanted to do in my life.
I also identified with Laverne DeFazio and adored the work that Penny Marshall did portraying her on Laverne & Shirley. Laverne was a tomboy, as was I. She admittedly wasn’t the prettiest in the room, but she had a fun, outgoing personality. Believe it or not, I couldn’t wait to live on my own like Laverne did, even in that dark, dingy basement apartment, creating memories and laughs – albeit cheesy ones – like the ones that she and Shirley created together. Penny Marshall’s slapstick comedy was often the highlight of my week, when I would sit down on Tuesday nights in the late 1970s to watch Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley.
For years, I knew Penny Marshall only as Laverne, but I also knew she had directed A League of Their Own. If you ask most people, they will probably be able to list the same two credits for Penny. It wasn’t until I read her autobiography My Mother Was Nuts, which came out in 2012, that I realized how much I, and much of the Hollywood industry, seriously underappreciated what she has accomplished in her career.
Granted, her brother Garry Marshall, who was making a name for himself in Hollywood, writing for The Danny Thomas Show, The Lucy Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, gave his sister a leg into the business.
In My Mother Was Nuts, Penny writes: “He offered to help me. He asked what I wanted to do. I didn’t know."
“What are you good at?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“When was the last time you were happy?” he asked.
“When I was sitting on the Parkway fence watching boys play softball.”
When Penny continued talking to her big brother about her performances with the Civic Light Opera, she seemed happy. He suggested that she try acting and referred her to acting teachers. After landing several roles of her own, her brother again lent her a helping hand. Dick Clark, who knew Garry, gave Penny a role in The Savage Seven, a low-budget movie. Garry gave her parts in other shows, including Myrna Turner, Oscar’s secretary in The Odd Couple and then Laverne and Shirley’s Laverne DeFazio, where she received three nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. In Hollywood, it’s often not what you know, it’s who you know. And then, it’s what you do with the doors that have been opened for you. Penny Marshall didn’t just step through the doors, she kicked them open.
After directing several Laverne & Shirley episodes and other television episodes and pilots, she directed Big starring Tom Hanks (remember that little movie?). Big grossed $114 million – the first $100 million movie made by a female director -- and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing. Hanks was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Big was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Movie. Penny Marshall wasn’t nominated for anything.
She also directed Awakenings, with Robert DeNiro, which came out in 1991. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Actor, but Penny Marshall was, once again, overlooked. A League of their Own, which made $132.4 million, was a critical success, but once again didn’t garner Marshall any award nominations.
She also directed the well-received Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston movie The Preacher’s Wife, as well as Renaissance Man.
In 1991, she was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award, an honor given by the Women in Film organization. However, Marshall has been Academy Award worthy several times and was overlooked time and time again.
I had the opportunity to interview Carole Ita White, who portrayed Rosie on Laverne & Shirley, and told her I was writing this article/tribute to Penny.
“Penny and I came up together,” said White. “Her brother Garry gave me my start in television. The family is so talented. Ronny, Penny's sister, is a talented producer, and Penny is a masterful comic actor. She has always been somewhat shy and humble like all the greats. She is a consummate pro. She sees things funny and is as gifted as any male comic actor or director of her generation.”
So true. Maybe one day the Academy will recognize Marshall for her accomplishments and dedicate an Honorary Award to her. In the meantime, I’m still going to honor two of my favorite women who accomplished so much in the industry and paved the way for others to follow. Maybe I’ll even break out the L on my shirts again.
© Lisa Iannucci (12/18/18) FF2 Media
Photos Courtesy of CBS Television, 20th Century Fox and Lisa Iannucci