Penny Marshall Finally Leaves Laverne Behind and Scores Big as a Director—So Why the Long Face?

updated 08/15/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The hotshot director whose career has just been rekindled with a big—make that Big—box office bonanza is barefoot and sitting, her knees tucked up under her, in an overstuffed chair in her Hollywood Hills den. Behind her hangs a brass wall plaque with the inscription, "Whine Bar." Within minutes it's clear she earned the metal. First of all, she says, she doesn't like talking about herself. She doesn't like sitting still, can't bear the sound of her own voice (her answering machine greeting is recorded by a housekeeper) and doesn't like having her picture taken: "I'm all nose and teeth," she complains. "I thought directors didn't have to do this." Like the sign says: whine, whine, whine.

Does Penny Marshall sound a little like the character she played so long on ABC's Laverne & Shirley? Not even her transition from co-star in that top-rated TV series to director of the Tom Hanks comedy Big has helped bolster her notoriously low self-esteem. No matter that Big is a huge hit, pulling in close to $85 million at the box office so far. Or that it is the most successful feature ever directed by a woman. Or that Penny marshalled Hanks, as a 12-year-old boy who suddenly finds himself inhabiting the body of a 35-year-old man, to a likely Oscar nomination and what the actor, echoing critics, calls "the best work I've ever done." Big deal, shrugs Marshall, 45. "I'm used to comin' from under, so I get a little nervous about people liking something," she says with her native Bronx twang. "The whole thing's a crapshoot. I was just tryin' to make a movie."

"She's the ultimate pessimist," says Hanks's co-star, Elizabeth Perkins. And a mild-mannered one at that. "There were times when Tom and I would say, 'Well?' " says Perkins. "And she'd go, 'Well, I don't kno-o-o-w.' And we'd go, 'Oh, c'mon! We're on the 12th take!' " But don't, warns Marshall, misinterpret her mumbling as indecision. "I know exactly what I want," she says. "It's just hard sometimes to manipulate the actors to do it."

If pressed, Penny admits to "feeling good about" Big's success. "But I don't know if that'll mean I'll be more confident on my next job," she adds hastily. "I just basically hope I don't get kicked out of this business." So far, she says, her laurels are a gift of serendipity. "I've just been lucky in some of the things that walked into my hands."

That luck, the Hollywood grapevine once hissed, stemmed from nepotism. Penny's brother Garry Marshall, now 53, produced The Odd Couple and launched Penny's career in 1971 with her role as Jack Klugman's secretary. When that series died four years later, Garry plopped Penny in her most infamous role, the loud-mouthed bottle capper in Laverne & Shirley—which he created and produced. It was Garry who let her direct four episodes. But Penny still bristles at the "she's-the-boss's-sister" jibes. "This is a factory business; of course the sons and daughters of people in it are going to go in it."

The Marshall family did just that with a vengeance. Penny was the youngest of three children born to Tony Marscharelli, an industrial filmmaker, and his wife, Marjorie, a dance teacher, in the Bronx. Marjorie taught Penny tap. Despite appearances on The Jackie Gleason Show and Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, Penny got bored with dancing. In her early 20s she went off to the University of New Mexico to study math and psychology but dropped out before graduation. In her junior year she married a UNM football player, Michael Henry. They had a child, Tracy, now 24, and divorced after two years. In 1967 Penny, with Tracy in tow, moved on to L.A. She met director Rob (The Princess Bride) Reiner and married him in 1971. (They split up in 1979.)

By 1976, when she debuted on Laverne & Shirley, most of Marshall's family joined Penny and Garry in the credits: sister Ronny as casting director, Dad as co-producer. After the show went off the air in 1983, Marshall landed roles in two TV movies and an off-Broadway play. In 1986, on the strength of her Laverne & Shirley work, she was hired as a last-minute replacement for just-sacked director Howard (Private Benjamin) Zieff on Whoopi Goldberg's comedy Jumpin' Jack Flash. It didn't win her any awards, but the film proved to the industry that Marshall could make a movie.

As Flash was on the verge of release, producer Jim (Broadcast News) Brooks "walked into my office, put the Big script on my desk and said this is your next movie," Marshall recalls. So it was. "I believed in her," says Brooks. "She came into Jumpin' Jack Flash under the most insane conditions imaginable and showed a lot of imagination."

Getting work was the good news; the bad news, says Marshall, is that the time spent on films has cut down on her social life. Relationships with actor David Dukes and singer Art Garfunkel are ancient history. Any new candidates? "N-o-o-o, not happening," she says. "But if you know anyone, that would be fine."

Marshall is on cordial terms with Reiner (who legally adopted her daughter) and says that the postdivorce period of loneliness is "pretty much" over. So are the days of her hell-bent foray into the Hollywood social scene where she met and befriended John Belushi. Wired, Bob Woodward's 1984 biography of the late comic, tells of Belushi's bringing heroin over to Marshall's house and her flushing it down the toilet. "The 1970s was a party period for most of the people I know," says Marshall, who once tried heroin. "We couldn't deal with being famous. We were all holding onto each other. But the party's over now."

So is the occupational pressure cooker—for the moment. Even after Big was completed, she continued to fret about it. "There were still things where I knew I should have shot it this way or that way," she says.

Contrary to accumulating evidence, Marshall is capable of enjoying herself. She splits her time between Manhattan and L.A. and has recently returned from a jaunt to Russia, where she met a "very cute guy." Alas, he was a Mr. Nyet: married, without English, and "a little commute there too," quips Marshall. Now her agenda is sketched in pencil. Daughter Tracy, an actress currently appearing in bit parts in Big and Bruce Willis' Die Hard, moved out on her own in January, and Penny, who shares her home with niece Penny Lee Hallin, is spending time pondering scripts and projects. "Some part of me must be ambitious because I keep doing things," she muses. Not any things. No Shakespeare: "I can barely speak English," Marshall proclaims. "And I won't ever act in a movie I'm directing. I could never look at myself that long."

—By Tom Cunneff, with Jack Kelley in Los Angeles

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