Penny Marshall, who went from starring on the smash Happy Days spinoff Laverne & Shirley to helming such features including Big and A League of Their Own, died Monday night of diabetes complications at her home in the Hollywood Hills. She was 75.
Marshall also directed films including Riding in Cars with Boys, The Preacher’s Wife, Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Renaissance Man, which she also produced along with League of Their Own. She was in postproduction on a feature about basketball Hall of Famer and Kim Jong-un pal Dennis Rodman.
Laverne & Shirley was an out-of-the-box smash after premiere in January 1976 on ABC. The characters appeared on briefly on Happy Days — which was created by her brother Garry Marshall — but made enough of an impression to lead their own series. Also starring Cindy Williams, the midcentury-set sitcom about a pair of lower-class workers at Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee would finish as the No. 3 series in all of primetime for the 1975-76 season, far outpacing Happy Days.
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The next season, Happy Days was the No. 1 in primetime, followed by Laverne & Shirley at No. 2, but the latter would rule the ranking for the next two seasons, averaging a 31 rating.
In a 2013 interview for the Television Academy Foundation’s “The Interviews” series, Marshall said: “Fred Silverman went to my brother and said, ‘Got any spin-offs?’ He didn’t, but he said, ‘Well, there’s these two girl bottle-cappers in Milwaukee from Happy Days …’ ‘Good, let’s do it!’ That was around Thanksgiving. We went to work in December, and Laverne & Shirley was on the air in January, the No. 1 show on television.”
Sporting the trademark “L” on her sweater, her Laverne DeFazio character — for which Marshall scored three consecutive Best Actress Golden Globes noms from 1978-80 — was defensive and quick-tempered but had a soft spot for roomie and co-worker Shirley Feeney (Williams). The show’s opening credits was among the era’s most memorable, with the two friends high-stepping with locked arms and chanting, “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” before the title theme “Making Our Dreams Come True” kicked in. (It was a minor pop hit in the U.S> and Canada.) Also starring Phil Foster, Michael McKean, David L. Lander, Eddie Mekka and Betty Garrett, it would be one of the decade’s most popular comedies, airing more than 175 episodes before wrapping in 1983.
An animated series based on the characters, Laverne & Shirley in the Army, aired in 1981-82, with Marshall and Williams voicing their respective roles.
Born on October 15, 1943, in the Bronx, Marshall already was a TV veteran by the mid-1970s, having played Oscar’s secretary Myrna Turner on more than two dozen episodes of The Odd Couple and guesting on such popular series as The Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show, That Girl and Love, American Style.
Marshall directed a handful of Laverne & Shirley episodes, setting up a second career behind the camera. Her breakthrough was 1988’s Big, which earned the first Best Actor Oscar nom for rising actor Tom Hanks. The film made more than $115 million domestically, becoming the year’s fourth-biggest grosser. Marshall followed that success with the Robert De Niro-Robin Williams film Awakenings (1990) before scoring another $100 million-plus hit with A League of Their Own, about the World War II-era all-women’s baseball league. Hanks played the team’s manager — uttering the oft-quoted line, “There is no crying in baseball!” — and the players included Geena Davis, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and Lori Petty.
Marshall also helmed 2001’s Drew Barrymore pic Riding in Cars with Boys (2001) and produced films including Calendar Girl (1993), Getting Away with Murder (1996), Risk (2003) and Bewitched (2005). She also continued to act in films and TV up through 2016, when she appeared on CBS’ revival of The Odd Couple.
She received a number of career honors over the decades, including from the American Comedy Awards in 1993, New York Women in Film & Television in 1994, the Israel Film Festival in 2002 and the Society of Camera Operators in 2013.
Marshall was married twice, the first time in 1963 to a college classmate, with whom she had a daughter, Tracy. The couple divorced after three years, and in 1971 Marshall married actor Rob Reiner, who adopted her daughter. Marshall and Reiner divorced in 1981.
“I loved Penny,” Reiner wrote in a tweet today. “I grew up with her. She was born with a great gift. She was born with a funnybone and the instinct of how to use it. I was very lucky to have lived with her and her funnybone. I will miss her.”
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