Penny Marshall: A Penny for your Thoughts

Forget all the horror stories you hear about how hard it is to build a career as a woman director in Hollywood, it's as easy as pie. Just ask Penny Marshall.

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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."

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