Penny Marshall, who starred in “Laverne & Shirley” before becoming one of the top-grossing female directors in Hollywood, has died. She was 75.
Mashall’s publicist, Michelle Bega, said Marshall passed away in her Hollywood Hills, Calif., home on Monday due to complications from diabetes.
Marshall starred alongside Cindy Williams in the hit ABC comedy “Laverne & Shirley,” which aired from 1976 to 1983. As a filmmaker, she became the first woman to direct a film that grossed more than $100 million with “Big,” the 1988 comedy starring Tom Hanks. She also directed “A League of Their Own,” ”Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Awakenings.”
Yet for millions of Americans, she remains Laverne DeFazio of ABC’s “Laverne & Shirley,” the gravel-voiced, gangly Milwaukee brewery worker with the tough act, soft heart and the big “L” on her sweater. Easily riled and easily hurt, Laverne was the more down-to-earth realist to Shirley Feeney’s (Cindy Williams) boo-boo-kitty-loving idealist. They were vastly different but shared the same dream in their 1950s-set blue-collar sitcom: to find true love and a way out of that basement apartment.
It was a role Marshall was born to play, and not just because her brother Garry was the show’s producer (though that family tie, and the corresponding hints of favoritism, eventually caused backstage problems with Williams).
Marshall spent much of the ’70s perfecting her comedy skills, starting off as Oscar’s woebegone secretary Myrna on “The Odd Couple,” another Garry Marshall series. After a somewhat similar stint as Mary’s new neighbor on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” she made a 1975 guest appearance with Williams on “Happy Days,” and a classic character was born.
Well, almost. Laverne and Shirley were softened considerably – made a bit more feminine and a bit less sexually voracious – for the 1976 debut of ABC’s spinoff. What remained was an instantly likable yin-yang onscreen chemistry between the stars. And that, along with terrific supporting work from Michael McKean and David Lander as the girls’ gross neighbors, Lenny and Squiggy, vaulted the show to the top of the ratings.
“Laverne & Shirley” was loud and silly and, aside from those four stars, often incredibly badly acted. Often, it was also wildly funny, particularly when it exploited Marshall and Williams’ complementary slapstick skills. Marshall was never a subtle actress, and Laverne was not a subtle role. But when she and Williams were clicking along at their best, they produced some comedic physical stunts that held their own with the best of Lucy and Ethel.
Their sitcom didn’t stay hugely popular for long; bad scheduling decisions and Williams’ departure saw to that. But there’s no denying the breadth of its appeal, and the series lasted eight seasons.
“Laverne” ended in 1983, and for all intents and purposes, so did Marshall’s acting career. She seemed more comfortable behind the camera, making her big-screen directorial debut with the 1986 comedy “Jumping Jack Flash” and following it with “Big,” a breakout role for Tom Hanks in 1988, and “A League of Their Own,” which starred Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell as members of a World War II women’s baseball league.
She appeared on screen only rarely in recent years, including a brief role in CBS’ short-lived 2016 remake of “The Odd Couple.” Marshall revealed she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2010, but said two years later she was in remission.
But as fine as her film work may have been, for many of us, she’ll always hopping down that Milwaukee street, arm in arm with Shirley chanting “Schlemiel, schlemazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated.”
In our dreams, if nowhere else.
Marshall is survived by her older sister Ronny, daughter Tracy Reiner (with ex-husband Rob Reiner) and three grandchildren, Spencer, Bella and Viva. A memorial will be scheduled later.
- October, 15, 1943
- The Bronx, New York
- December, 17, 2018
- Los Angeles, California
Cause of Death
- complications of diabetes
- Forest Lawn Memorial Park
- Hollywood, California