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Penny Marshall Advises Budding Directors: Drop the Ambition

By Andrea Burzynski, Reuters
on Sep 21, 2012 09:36 AM EDT
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  • Legendary comedienne and director Penny Marshall (L) is shown in a family photograph with friend, actress and writer Carrie Fisher in this undated handout photograph provided to Reuters September 20,
  • Legendary comedienne and director Penny Marshall (L) is shown in a family photograph with friend, actress and writer Carrie Fisher in this undated handout photograph provided to Reuters September 20, 2012. (Photo : Reuters)

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Pioneering film director and producer Penny Marshall has some advice for future filmmakers: Take some chances and don't be a slave to Hollywood ambition.

The 69-year-old Marshall who rose to fame as a comedic actress in the sitcom "Laverne and Shirley," and ultimately broke barriers for female directors in a male-dominated field with a string of hit Hollywood films, chronicles her colorful life in a new memoir, "My Mother Was Nuts" that hit U.S. stores this week.


The book is filled Marshall's anecdotes about her childhood in the Bronx with her dance instructor mother, her shotgun marriage in 1961, drug-fueled times with a circle of famous names, her bout with cancer and an acting and directing career spanning 44 years.

She said her lack of fear of being thrown out of Hollywood helped her succeed as the first female director to make a film that grossed over $100 million with 1988's family comedy "Big" starring Tom Hanks.

"I'll try anything. What are they gonna do, kick me out of show business?" she told Reuters in an interview. "I didn't have that problem because I wasn't ambitious enough."

Another key success ingredient? Don't be afraid to ask for help.

"I talked to my crew and said, 'Just tell me the truth.' I turned to the crews and asked them for their help," she said.

The gambit worked: "Big" was both a box office and critical success and her second film, "Awakenings," picked up an Oscar nomination for best film, while her third, the baseball comedy drama "A League of Their Own," became a Marshall fan favorite.

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But after helping pave the way for female directors to helm critical and box office hits, these days Marshall said she doesn't have an opinion on the lack of female directors that still haunts Hollywood. She said her situation was unique since "they asked me - I didn't knock on their door."

She did encourage aspiring filmmakers to use current filmmaking tools that were not available to her, including advances in technology and social media.

"Look at YouTube, how many talented people there are," she said. "It's a whole new world of how to express yourself. I don't know how to work that world, but take advantage of it."

Throughout her life, her propensity for trying new things extended beyond the professional realm: she writes candidly about her drug use during the 1970s and 80s, which included cocaine, marijuana, qualudes, and ecstasy.

Contrast that to now, she said, where vitamins, thyroid medication, and the occasional Motrin are her legal drugs of choice. But she does support legalizing marijuana, especially for medical use.

"I have nothing against anyone who smokes it, I like the smell of it, if it helps with people's illness, I say yes," she said.

She is also vocal about her support for abortion rights after her own experience with unplanned pregnancies. Her first pregnancy with her boyfriend-turned-husband resulted in her daughter, Tracy. Her second, following her second marriage and divorce to Hollywood director Rob Reiner, resulted in an abortion.

"I'm pro-choice. But I'm glad that there was no choice back then, because I have a wonderful daughter and three grandchildren," she said.

These days, after beating a brain-tumor scare, she is passionate about activism on behalf of war veterans with brain injuries. She also directs the occasional television episode.

She has not directed a Hollywood film in years -- her last movie in cinemas was 2001's "Riding in Cars with Boys." But she would not rule out getting behind the camera for a big movie again.

"We'll see," she said, smiling. 

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