Most Americans think of Penny Marshall as Laverne DeFazio, the title character of the popular TV show Laverne and Shirley. I think of her as the first female director to make movies (Big, A League of Their Own) that grossed over $100 million.
From her modest beginnings as an extra in television commercials (she played the stringy-haired one in an ad where Farrah Fawcett had the shiny, bouncy locks) to her unofficial role as Hollywood godmother of comedy (and official godmother to Carrie Fisher's daughter, Billie), the Bronx-born Marshall was present at the creation of entertainment classics. On TV she worked with James L. Brooks and her brother Gary; she was married to Rob Reiner and produced a movie by Ron Howard. She directed Whoopi, Madonna and Tom Hanks.
She was cast in many defining TV shows, starred in one of her own (and directed many of its episodes). In the movies she directed, Marshall hit a sweet spot between slapstick and emotionalism. She saw qualities in actors not apparent to male directors.
Has Tom Hanks ever been better than he was in Marshall's Big? Has Denzel Washington ever been suaver than in A Preacher's Wife? Madonna ever been as easygoing and unselfconscious as in A League of Their Own?
Those three features are my favorite Marshall movies. They are in the category that Glen Macnow calls "click and stick movies" -- if you're cable-surfing you inevitably stop and watch them. Besides those three films, I'm also fond of Awakenings, which she directed, and Cinderella Man, which she produced.