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Penny Marshall Makes 'Big' Impact

June 08, 1988|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Penny Marshall insisted she wasn't tired. "I'm beyond tired," she groaned, waving a limp hand in the air as she lay on a couch in her living room. "I just want to rest now--I've got to get some brain cells back."

Her new film, "Big," which stars Tom Hanks as a 12-year-old boy suddenly transformed into manhood, just opened last weekend--to favorable reviews and hefty ticket sales.

However the prospect of the film's opening, which was preceded by celebrity-studded premiere a few days earlier, had Marshall immobilized with anxiety.

"I'm a worrier," she explained, lighting a Marlboro. "I got all worked up about this screening--you know, all the industry people and their expectations, whether my friends will show up or go to the Lakers game instead. So I woke up at about 3:30 in the morning in a complete panic.

"I always have these anxiety attacks. But my anxiety manifests itself in strange ways. I usually get catatonic--so when I get really distraught I fall asleep. Who knows--I'm going to New York tomorrow, so I'm worried about packing. I could just pack now, but that would be too easy. Or I could pack when I get up, but. . . . "

Marshall furrowed her brow--was there a brooding spell she'd forgotten to mention? "I'm always worried about forgetting my toothpaste, as if they don't have toothpaste in New York."

A self-professed lazybones with a nasal New York accent and a self-deprecating sense of humor, she happily tells tales of her bumpy transition from TV celeb to film director--all the while reclining on her couch, lifting her head only to answer the telephone or slurp her favorite drink, a bubbly concoction of milk and Pepsi.

"I could just sleep forever," she said. Then her mood brightened. "Maybe the writers' strike will go through Christmas and I won't have to work again this year!"

After "Big's" brawny opening weekend, Marshall will have to turn down plenty of offers. The light-hearted comedy did $8.2 million in 1,100 theaters, making it the week's No. 2 box-office contender, beating out "Rambo III" and Chevy Chase's "Funny Farm," even though both films opened in far more theaters.

To hear Marshall describe it, her career has been buoyed by a series of lucky accidents, abiding friendships and convenient family ties. She insists she's "not really" driven, admitting that her initial ambition in life was to be a secretary.

"I was never goal-oriented," she said. "I just stay in my bed and wait for someone to call. That way, I figure if they call and I'm in bed, then they must really want me."

Born in New York, she attended the University of New Mexico and subsequently moved to Hollywood. There she married Rob Reiner and began working in television, first as a bit player, then as a semi-regular on "The Odd Couple" and finally, in 1976, as the co-star of the long-running "Laverne and Shirley." (She and Reiner split up in 1979.)

After the show left the air in 1983, she took a few years off and traveled. Since then--at least by her account--she's devoted most of her energy to catching up on her sleep. During her few waking hours, she directed "Jumping Jack Flash" with Whoopi Goldberg and now "Big." (In late 1984 she was slated to direct "Peggy Sue Got Married" but lost the job after a flurry of "creative differences.")

It's easy to understand why Marshall has such a wide circle of show-biz friends, including Debra Winger, Carrie Fisher and Albert Brooks. Longtime pals say she's intensely loyal and always approachable.

"She's a 24-hour friend," said longtime pal Dennis Klein, who was a writer-producer of "The Buffalo Bill Show." "She's very lovable and accepting. And she's such a worrier and so insecure that she's always there for you. You can call her at 3 a.m. and get some good talk going--you could say she comes through when others are asleep."

To a first-time acquaintance, her dedicated pessimism was somehow endearing. She's a comic-depressant, an '80s Oscar Levant. (Asked how deep her insecurities are, she quipped: "I was born with a frown.")

Even in her frazzled state, she was candid and full of fretful energy--you sense that Marshall is a vulnerable spirit who freely crosses the border between humor and Angst. At one point, her male assistant answered a call before she could reach the phone. "Can you believe it--they hung up because a man answered," she explained. "It could've been Mr. Right!"

Early in her career, Hollywood wags claimed she got preferential treatment--her brother, Garry, produced "The Odd Couple" and "Laverne and Shirley" and was a dominant force in '70s TV. "I'm sure people thought I got parts because my brother was being nice, and at first I probably thought the same thing," she said. "But my brother finally told me--'I'm not giving you a job 'cause I'm nice. I'm not that nice.' "

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