Actress Penny Marshall, best known for TV’s “Laverne & Shirley” and director of hits like “Big” and “A League Of Their Own”, has died. She was 75. Marshall died Monday night at her home in Hollywood Hills due to complications from diabetes, Marshall’s publicist.
Penny Marshall, an actress, director, and producer, was the daughter of Marjorie Marshall, a tap dance teacher, and Tony Marshall, a film director and producer. Her parents’ background in entertainment, along with her brother, Garry Marshall’s, background as a comedy writer and her sister’s background as a casting director and producer, gave rise to Marshall’s career in the industry. She rose to fame in the 1970s for her role as Laverne DeFazio on the television sitcom Laverne & Shirley (1976–1983), receiving three nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Television Series Musical or Comedy for her portrayal.
Marshall progressed to directing films in the 1980s, making her directorial debut with Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986) before directing Big (1988), which became the first film directed by a woman to gross more than $100 million at the U.S. box office. Her subsequent directing credits included Awakenings (1990), which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, A League of Their Own (1992), Renaissance Man (1994), The Preacher’s Wife (1996), and Riding in Cars with Boys (2001). She also produced Cinderella Man (2005) and Bewitched (2005), as well as episodes of the sitcom According to Jim.
Carole Penny Marshall was born in the Bronx, New York City, New York, on October 15, 1943, to Marjorie Irene (née Ward; 1908–1983), a tap dance teacher who ran the Marjorie Marshall Dance School, and Anthony “Tony” Masciarelli (1906–1999), later Marshall, a director of industrial films and later a producer. She was the sister of actor/director/TV producer Garry Marshall and Ronny Hallin, a television producer. She began her career as a tap dancer at age three and later taught tap at her mother’s dance school. Her birth name, Carole, was selected because her mother’s favorite actress was Carole Lombard. Her middle name was selected because her older sister, Ronny, wanting a horse in the Bronx, was saving her pennies; her mother chose the middle name in an attempt to console her.
Her father was of Italian descent, his family having come from Abruzzo, and her mother was of German, English, and Scottish descent; Marshall’s father changed his last name from Masciarelli to Marshall before she was born. Religion played no role in the Marshall children’s lives. Garry Marshall was christened Episcopalian, Ronny was Lutheran, and Marshall was confirmed in a Congregational Church, because “[Mother] sent us anyplace that had a hall where she could put on a recital. If she hadn’t needed performance space, we wouldn’t have bothered.”
She grew up at 3235 Grand Concourse, the Bronx, a very long street that was also the childhood home of Neil Simon, Paddy Chayefsky, Calvin Klein, and Ralph Lauren. She began her career as a tap dancer at age three and later taught tap at her mother’s dance school. She graduated from Walton High School, a public girls’ high school in New York and then went to the University of New Mexico for 2 1/2 years where she studied math and psychology. There, Marshall got pregnant with a daughter, Tracy Reiner, and soon after married the father, Michael Henry, in 1963. The couple divorced three years later in 1966. During this period, Marshall worked various jobs to supported herself, including working as a choreographer for the Albuquerque Civic Light Opera Association. In 1967, she moved to Los Angeles to join her older brother Garry Marshall, a writer whose credits at the time included TV’s The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–1966). She married Rob Reiner on April 10, 1971.
Laverne & Shirley
She first appeared on a television commercial for Head and Shoulders beautifying shampoo. She was hired to play a girl with stringy, unattractive hair, and Farrah Fawcett was hired to play a girl with thick, bouncy hair. As the crew was lighting the set, Marshall’s stand-in wore a placard that read “Homely Girl” and Fawcett’s stand-in wore a placard that said “Pretty Girl”. Farrah Fawcett, sensing Marshall’s insecurity about her looks, crossed out “Homely” on the Marshall stand-in placard and wrote “Plain”. Marshall and another actress Billie Hayes were the only two auditioned for the role of Witchiepoo for H.R. Pufnstuf, produced by Sid and Marty Krofft. Marshall thought that she wasn’t right for the part. Hayes got the role.
After her divorce, Marshall worked as a secretary and raised her daughter alone. She accepted an offer from her brother to appear in a movie he had written and was producing, called How Sweet It Is (1968). She landed another small role in the film The Savage Seven (1968), as well as a guest appearance on the hit television series That Girl, starring Marlo Thomas.
In 1970, Garry Marshall became the executive producer of the television series The Odd Couple. In 1971, Penny Marshall was added to the permanent cast to play Oscar’s secretary, Myrna and held the role for four years. In Marshall’s final appearance on The Odd Couple, her character, Myrna, married her boyfriend, Sheldn (“They forgot the ‘o’ on his birth certificate; legally, it’s ‘Sheldn'”), played by her then-real-life husband, Rob Reiner. The episode included Marshall’s real-life siblings, Garry and Ronny, as Myrna’s brother and sister, Werner Turner and Verna Turner. Before appearing on The Odd Couple, Marshall was considered for the role of Gloria Bunker Stivic on All in the Family. She ultimately lost the part to Sally Struthers while her husband, Rob Reiner, was cast as Gloria’s husband, Michael “Meathead” Stivic.
While she was on The Odd Couple, Marshall played small roles in TV movies such as Evil Roy Slade (1972), starring Mickey Rooney (and produced by brother Garry); The Crooked Hearts (1972) starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in which she played a waitress; The Couple Takes a Wife, starring Bill Bixby; and Wacky Zoo of Morgan City (1972). From 1972 to 1973, she appeared as a regular on The Bob Newhart Show and kept up her role on The Odd Couple.
In 1974, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, executive producers of the hit situation comedy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, cast Marshall as Janice Dreyfuss, sister-in-law to Paul Dreyfuss (played by actor Paul Sand) in the series, Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers. It aired on CBS-TV Saturday nights beginning September 14, 1974, as part of the powerhouse lineup of All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. Despite good reviews and decent ratings, it was canceled mid-season. Brooks and Burns, along with studio head Grant Tinker were so impressed with Marshall’s comedic talent that the following season, they hired Marshall and actress Mary Kay Place to play Mary Richards’ new neighbors (Paula and Sally Jo, respectively) on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, after Mary moved into her new apartment in a high-rise.
Then Garry Marshall, creator/part-time writer for Happy Days, cast Marshall and Cindy Williams to guest on an episode of that show. The installment, titled “A Date with Fonzie”, aired on November 11, 1975 and introduced the characters LaVerne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney (played by Marshall and Williams, respectively). In that episode, Laverne and Shirley were a pair of wise-cracking brewery workers, who were dates for Fonzie (played by Winkler) and Richie (played by Howard). The pair were such a hit with the studio audience that Garry Marshall decided to co-create and star them in a hit spin-off, Laverne & Shirley (1976–1983). The characters of Laverne and Shirley also appeared in five more episodes of Happy Days. In 1982 at the beginning of Laverne & Shirley‘s eighth season, Williams left the show due to her pregnancy. Marshall continued with the show, but it was canceled after the season’s final episode aired in May 1983. It would take a few years before the actresses were reconciled.
In 1983, while still filming Laverne & Shirley, Marshall guest-starred on Taxi in a cameo appearance as herself. In the Taxi episode “Louie Moves Uptown” Marshall is turned down for residency in a new high-rise condo in Manhattan. The Laverne & Shirley episode “Lost in Spacesuits” is referenced in the scene.
She lent her voice to Ms. Botz aka Ms. Botzcowski, the “babysitter bandit”, on the first produced episode of The Simpsons, and played a cameo role as herself on the HBO series Entourage. She also made a cameo appearance alongside her brother Garry in the Disney Halloween-themed movie Hocus Pocus as husband and wife.
She was reunited with her Laverne & Shirley co-star Cindy Williams on a November 2013 episode of Sam & Cat.
At the encouragement of her brother, Marshall became interested in directing. While starring on Laverne & Shirley, Penny made her debut as a director and directed several episodes. She directed four episodes of Laverne & Shirley and other TV assignments. In 1979, she directed several episodes of the short-lived sitcom Working Stiffs, starring Michael Keaton and James Belushi. She soon moved on to theatrical films, her first film being Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986) starring Whoopi Goldberg. She got this gig when the first director dropped out. She also gave her daughter Tracy and her brother Garry roles in the film.
Marshall has directed several successful feature films since the mid-1980s, including 1988’s Big starring Tom Hanks (the first film directed by a woman to gross over US$100 million), Awakenings (1990) starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, A League of Their Own (1992) with Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell, and The Preacher’s Wife (1996) starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. In 1991, she was awarded the Women in Film Crystal Award.
In 2010–2011, she directed two episodes of the Showtime series United States of Tara. In 2013, Women in Film and Video presented her with the Women of Vision Award.
In 2014 she announced she was developing a biopic on Effa Manley entitled Effa.
While attending the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Marshall met Michael Henry, a football player. Aged 20, she left college to marry him in 1963; they had one child, a daughter, Tracy. Marshall worked as a secretary and later as a tap dance teacher. The marriage lasted 3 years.
On April 10, 1971, Marshall married actor/director Rob Reiner, who adopted her daughter and gave her his last name. Her marriage to Reiner ended in 1981 but Reiner and Marshall have five grandchildren.
Marshall had a brief relationship with singer Art Garfunkel in the mid-1980s, and he credits her with helping him through his depression. Their friendship stayed strong even after their romantic relationship ended. Garfunkel would later say of Marshall, “Everything changed. Penny is a sweet human being who can bring anybody down to earth. We had a lot of laughs, great sex, and a ton of party nights.”
In 2010, it was reported that Marshall had been diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to her brain, but she revealed in 2012 that she was in remission.
Marshall died in Los Angeles from complications of diabetes on December 18, 2018, at the age of 75.