Actor, director, and producer Penny Marshall, who gained fame as one of the dynamic leads on Laverne & Shirley, died Monday evening in Hollywood from diabetes complications. She was 75.
Marshall was born on October 15, 1943, in the Bronx, the younger sister to director/writer Garry Marshall. After a childhood as a tap dancer, she moved to Los Angeles to join her brother and begin an acting career in 1967.
After a few commercial roles, she joined the cast of The Odd Couple as Oscar Madison's secretary, Myrna Turner, in 1971. At the same time, she also appeared in several TV movies and additional television roles, including guest spots on The Bob Newhart Show and Mary Tyler Moore. She married Rob Reiner in 1971 (they later divorced, in 1981).
Then Garry Marshall hired her to guest star in an episode of Happy Days.
On the episode, she and Cindy Williams played Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney, respectively. They were big-personality, lower-class brewery workers from Milwaukee. The episode was called "A Date with Fonzie," and it aired Nov. 11, 1975. Gary Marshall described the characters as being from "the other side of the tracks."
As Garry Marshall told the Archive of American Television, when he was soon after approached to do a Happy Days spinoff, he thought these two popular characters could fill a void, since no "blue-collar girls" were on television at the time. His off-the-cuff pitch was a hit, and the rest is history.
Laverne & Shirley premiered in January 1976 on ABC. By its third season, it had become America's most-watched show. Marshall was nominated for three consecutive Best Actress Golden Globes, from 1978 to 1980. She provided a relatable personality as one of the show's leads, playing the tough, no-nonsense Laverne, who had a secret soft spot for her loved ones, while Williams provided the show's bright-eyed optimist in Shirley. Together they were unlucky in love for eight seasons and 178 episodes. The show's finale aired in 1983.
After Laverne & Shirley ended, Marshall transitioned to directing. She had already helmed a few episodes of the TV show, so when 20th Century Fox asked her to direct Jumpin’ Jack Flash as a last-minute replacement after Howard Zieff worked for only a week on the film, she accepted immediately.
"I didn't have time to think, 'Should I or shouldn't I?' " Marshall told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. "They wanted me. I go where I'm wanted. I said, 'OK, I'll just jump right in here.' I have the Lone Ranger Syndrome. I tend to work best under pressure. My problems come when it's quiet."
Marshall was soon smashing boundaries and records in Hollywood as a female director. When she helmed the Tom Hanks film Big in 1988, it made her the first female director to gross more than $100 million at the domestic box office. The fantasy drama about a boy who finds himself transported magically into a 30-year-old's body is still a cult favorite today.
She did the same with A League of Their Own in 1992. The sports drama featured Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty, and Rosie O'Donnell as female players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, with Hanks as their gruff, drunken coach. There is an entire generation of film-goers who now know one of baseball's key unspoken rules, thanks to Marshall. (For the uninitiated: "There's no crying in baseball!")
Marshall's later directing credits include the Danny DeVito starrer Renaissance Man, the 1996 holiday film The Preacher’s Wife, and 2001's Riding in Cars With Boys, as well as episodes of United States of Tara and According to Jim.
Marshall is survived by her sister Ronny, daughter and actress Tracy Reiner, and three grandchildren.