Penny Marshall: A Penny for your Thoughts

Marshall - Awakenings

Twenty-five years ago, director Penny Marshall spoke with Movieline about her upcoming drama, Awakenings, how she became one of two prominent female directors in Hollywood at the time and what it was like working on her brother’s sitcom while being married to Rob Reiner.

I’m chatting with Penny Marshall in the den of her gated villa in the Hollywood Hills. The place is as long as a football field. In the living room there is a grand piano–she doesn’t play it, but Randy Newman does when he comes over. There’s a rutted wooden table in the dining room that looks 200 years old and seats 12. In the kitchen, hundreds of novelty magnets are stuck up on the cabinets and the refrigerator. Everywhere there are Early American tchotchkas and old trunks and funky clocks that don’t work. “Who needs to know the time?” Penny Marshall says.

Actually, time is something Marshall has been paying close attention to lately. The director of the 1988 comedy hit Big, Marshall is in the final stages of editing her latest movie, Awakenings, and her house is filled with people who require her attention on countless decisions. At the moment, for instance, there are these very tan men milling around the dining room. I’m told they’re Columbia executives who have come over to show Penny three trailers. A publicist floats about, occasionally alighting somewhere to ask her client a question. A handsome young man, Penny’s assistant, brings iced coffee and informs Penny that the John McEnroe tennis match will be on TV soon. Now that captures her interest. I met Mac on the celebrity tennis circuit. He’s been to the house.” Everyone, it seems, has been to the house. “People show up here, and I don’t know who they are,” she says. “I feed them and hope they leave.

Out in back, a pool has been chiseled into the terrain. “I tried to lie out and get a little sun this morning, but then the calls started.” There’s a plastic duck floating in the water. “That cleans the pool,” she says.

“How does it work?”

“I don’t know,” she answers, giving the kind of sheepish shrug that I associate with people who don’t know how to fix things.

I’ve been told Penny Marshall is a perfectionist on the set, an absolute stickler for getting it right, but her demeanor here doesn’t betray the sort of aggressiveness you’d expect from one of only two women directors who’ve ever had a megahit (the other is Amy Heckerling, who did Look Who’s Talking). Marshall seems to have floated rather than clawed her way to the top. “I don’t have a story to tell about how tough it’s been,” she says. “I was not knocking on people’s doors. But if my success helps other women, that s good.”

Awakenings is the first project Marshall has actively pursued. She brought it first to Fox honcho Barry Diller, who turned it down. “The people at Fox didn’t consider a small drama to be my strong suit,” says Marshall. It’s not too hard to figure out why. A true story about a British neurologist who experimentally administered the drug L-Dopa to people suffering from sleeping sickness brought on by encephalitis might not seem to be the most likely follow-up to the light-hearted nonsense of Big.

Dawn Steel bought the project during the ten minutes she was running Columbia, and it was made between administrations (Steel out–Guber-Peters in). It tiptoed past the marketing department. “I don’t know who was looking at our dailies,” says Marshall. “Maybe the janitor.” Jon Peters finally visited the set four months after shooting began. “He said hi. I said hi. That was it.”

Robin Williams plays the doctor and Robert De Niro is the main patient. The script describes the euphoria and the tragedy of the patients who came to life after the L-Dopa treatments, only to realize that 30 years of their lives had been stolen from them. You can see what drew Marshall to the material. Like Tom Hanks in Big, De Niro suddenly wakes up in a world not of his making. “I identify with people who have to adapt to new situations,” Marshall says.

No wonder. Her life seems to have been a series of such adventures. As a kid from the Bronx, she was sent to a Kosher camp in the Poconos even though she wasn’t Jewish. Her father, whose name was Marscharelli, was a director of industrial films. Her mother was a dance teacher who taught Penny tap. As a teenager, Marshall was dancing on the “Jackie Gleason Show.”

She went to college at the University of New Mexico. Why New Mexico? Her mother thought New Mexico was near New York, New Jersey, and New Hampshire, Penny says, and you can’t tell whether she’s kidding or not. In her junior year, she married a football player and they had a daughter, Tracy, who is now 26 and acting.

After college, Marshall played a season of summer stock in Durango, Colorado, and then in 1967, with her daughter in tow, she arrived in Hollywood, where she made her debut on “The Danny Thomas Hour.”

Marshall says she had no intention of staying, but then she got a job playing Oscar Madison’s secretary on TV’s “The Odd Couple,” a show her older brother Garry helped develop. In 1975, Garry, who was by this time producing “Happy Days,” created two lower-middle-class girls to double date Richie and Fonzie. The next season, Penny and Cindy Williams had their own show, “Laverne and Shirley.” It ran for seven years, and along the way, it got better ratings than “All in the Family,” which featured her second husband, Rob Reiner.

Marshall and Reiner’s home was known as “Comedy Central” or “The House That Yucks Built” Their TV comedy peers used the place as a clubhouse. According to Bob Woodward, John Belushi once stopped by with some heroin, which Marshall flushed down the toilet. I ask if she and husband Rob ever saw each other during those days. “Hardly,” she says. “He started working, and then I started, then he stopped, and I kept working, and soon he realized that I wasn’t home. That was a problem. I’d be going out the door, and he’d say, ‘Where are you going?’ and I’d say, ‘You remember that show I’m doing?’ ”

Then they made the mistake of adding on. “You hire an architect, and you assume that he knows what he’s doing. Wrong. It turned into ‘Goofy and His Wife Build Their Dream House.’ ” Her infrequent exchanges with Reiner went something like this: “You pick out the doorknobs!” “I thought you were picking out the hinges!” “I can’t. I’m working!” She leans back on the couch and takes a long drag on a cigarette. “Oh God,” she sighs.

Marshall’s refuge from the stress of a showbiz marriage was the Paramount lot where “Laverne and Shirley” was done. For an actress in a hit show, there’s probably no more safe and secure environment than the Paramount “campus,” where grown men get around on bicycles and producers shoot baskets and the guards at the gate smile and wave. Marshall would wile away the time between tapings in the commissary with her pals, Henry Winkler and Ron Howard and Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, and her brother Garry. Marshall gets all dreamy-eyed when she relives those days. “Actresses are pampered. You get flowers. Plus I’d always close my deal with a little present to myself. I’d get a washer/dryer or a refrigerator. Like I was on a game show. And the agents can’t take a commission on that.”

I’d always heard Marshall didn’t like acting, but she denies this. “An actor can stay the baby. Directing is more lonely.” Would she like to change places with Julia Roberts? “I’d like to look like Julia Roberts and not have to act.”

If Paramount was a cozy college campus, Garry Marshall was the BMOC, and Penny’s career blossomed under his tutelage. Toward the end of “Laverne and Shirley’s” run, the producer–that is, Garry–gave her a chance to direct. She wound up doing four episodes. “It was funny directing people I’d been working with. They’d look at me, and I’d say, ‘What are you looking at? Just do it, and I’ll tell you what’s wrong.’ ”

When the show ended, Marshall was divorced and tired. She took a three-year break. Then, in 1984, Debra Winger asked her to direct Peggy Sue Got Married, in which Winger was set to star. Marshall was handed the job, but three weeks into pre-production, she was fired. “The producers told me that the film had gotten too big for a first-time director. I said, ‘You knew I was a first-time director three weeks ago, what’s changed?’ I guess they figured they had Winger, so they could get rid of me. But then Debra quit.” Francis Coppola ended up making the film, and Kathleen Turner starred. “Francis called me later and said, ‘What happened?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I didn’t even have a camera in my hand.’ ”

Another year went by, and Marshall decided to leave town. But just as she was packing to move to New York, the phone rang. Director Howard Zieff had just been fired from Jumpin’ Jack Flash, the Whoopi Goldberg comedy thriller that had nothing to do with the Rolling Stones. Would Marshall like to step in? She would, and did. The film was a bomb, but it kept Marshall around long enough for Jim Brooks to plop the Big script down on her desk. “This is your next film,” he said.

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? Up until Awakenings, Marshall seems never to have actively sought a directing job. Instead, the mountain has come to Marshall. And (to continue the religious imagery), this is in a town where it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a former sitcom actress to direct a feature. It’s not as if she’s an avid film buff. She says she’s never watched a movie twice. She doesn’t write, and she knows nothing about lenses (‘I didn’t take that course.”) She’s become a director the way mold becomes penicillin.

Which is not to say that Marshall isn’t gifted. Her strong suit, it seems to me, is the ability to coax honest and consistent performances from her actors. Robin Williams’s portrayal of the doctor in Awakenings is especially noteworthy because the writer chose to make him pathologically shy, which had to have been a stretch for the extroverted Williams. (There were rumors of hot tempers and even a punch-out on the set. De Niro reportedly had his nose broken. When I ask Marshall about this, she says that during a fight scene with Robin, Bobby accidentally punched himself in the nose.) Whatever really went down, it didn’t hurt any of the performances.

Did Marshall have any trouble dealing with movie stars and their entourages? “I don’t work with actors who have entourages,” she says. Her relationships with both De Niro and Williams go way back. “Robin worked with my brother on ‘Mork and Mindy.’ Bobby I’ve known for years. I once ran into him on the beach in Hawaii. His baby was strapped to his chest. I was afraid he was going to dribble soup on the kid.” Still, Marshall was thrilled to be directing De Niro. “I went over to him on the set and started to tell him that, and he said, ‘Stop. Don’t do that’ I said it anyway, but I assured him I wouldn’t do it again.”

The first cut of Awakenings came in at over four hours. “I showed it to [Columbia chief] Frank Price, and I said, ‘I know I went over, time-wise and budget-wise. Can you bear with me?’ He was terrific.”

The second cut came in at over three hours. “I showed it to Garry. There was no music so we hummed the soundtrack. There were about 15 endings. He kept saying, ‘I think it’s over here.’ ” With the help of her editors, Marshall cut it down to 2:18. “I called Frank Price again and said, ‘I’d like to get it under 2, can you give me a week?’ ”

Like the patients in Awakenings, Marshall has mixed feelings about her transformation from baby to grown-up. “Directing is such a hard, horrible job,” she says. “I’m not that secure, and when someone questions me, it’s rough. My first response is to think, this is the actors’ movie, and I’m ruining it. On the other hand, you want the actors (and your friends who see the picture) to be honest. You’re desperate for feedback. You need to be told the truth. I used to call Jim Brooks in the middle of the night and say, ‘Jim, I don’t know…’ ”

Indeed, many of Marshall’s conversations occur in the middle of the night. She suffers from insomnia. “It started when I was a child. I was afraid if I went to sleep, I’d miss something. Later, when I was working, I used to panic when I couldn’t fall asleep. But after a while I began to accept it. I’d just get up and put a movie in the VCR. Some of those -movies put me to sleep in five minutes.”

In a town where parents regularly compete with kids and some siblings only see each other at funerals, Marshall stays close to her family. I ask her how she and Garry have gotten along so well. “Probably because our parents didn’t speak to each other.” They didn’t divorce, but presumably their incompatibility forced the children to rely on one another. The third Marshall, a sister who is between Garry and Penny, is a television producer. “She was going to work with Garry on Pretty Woman, but the pace of features was too slow for her.” I get the feeling Marshall thinks I’m slow when I ask her the inevitable question about nepotism. “I don’t understand why you wouldn’t help your family,” she answers.

Garry and Penny read each other’s scripts, view each other’s rough cuts, and commiserate. “Garry called me the other day, and said, ‘Every day, as a director, you make at least 100 decisions. You know ten of them are wrong. So you come home every night feeling like a failure.’ Never mind that 90 were right,” Marshall says, “you still have this sense of failure. But you just gotta keep going. I don’t know if I’m getting better or not. “You think you got it down. You say, I’m not going to make those mistakes, and then a whole different set of problems comes at you. I try not to be in too much pain.

“What do you do for fun?” I ask.

“I haven’t had much fun lately,” Penny Marshall says. “Carrie Fisher and I were talking about going to Fiji–but that was before Iraq invaded Kuwait. I went to a camp reunion a few weeks ago. I got all the crap out of the way, and went right back to being a kid. It was great feeling the mushy bottom of the lake again.”


Posted on December 22, 2015, in Movieline Articles, Movies and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Did the movie “Riding in Cars with Boys” severely ruin Penny Marshall’s career:

    It’s to date, the last theatrically released movie that she has directed. From what I’ve recently read, in her autobiography, Penny claims that the reason why she retired from film-making is because her movies had “heart” to them. And after 9/11, studios were mainly interested in producing movies w/ a bunch of action and violence but otherwise, little “heart” too them.

    I often assumed that it was because of her health issues and not necessarily studio politics for why she hasn’t directed another movie in over 10 years.

    The arguably misleading advertising perhaps didn’t help matters:


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