Penny Marshall, who played feisty Laverne in ‘Laverne & Shirley’ before directing movies, dies at 75

Dennis Mclellan
Los Angeles Times

Penny Marshall, who costarred as a Milwaukee brewery worker in the top-rated 1970s and ’80s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” before becoming a director of hit movies such as “Big” and “A League of Their Own,” has died. She was 75.

Marshall died peacefully on Monday night in her Hollywood Hills home due to complications from diabetes, Michelle Bega, a spokeswoman for Marshall’s family, told The Times on Tuesday.

“Our family is heartbroken over the passing of Penny Marshall,” the Marshall family said in a statement.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight! Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated,” Marshall and costar Cindy Williams famously chanted as they skipped down the sidewalk in the opening sequence of “Laverne & Shirley.”

A spinoff of “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” starred Marshall as the feisty Laverne De Fazio and Williams as the idealistic Shirley Feeney, two 1950s working-class roommates who worked on the assembly line at the Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee.

The midseason replacement was launched on ABC in January 1976 and soared to the top of the ratings. Known for its broad physical comedy, it was the No. 1-rated show for the 1977 and ’78 seasons and aired until 1983.

“There were no blue-collar girls on television” when “Laverne & Shirley” debuted, executive producer Garry Marshall, Penny’s brother, once said in an interview for the Archive of American Television. (Garry Marshall died in 2016.)

Viewers, he said, “were dying for somebody that didn’t look like Mary Tyler Moore or all the pretty girls on TV. They wanted somebody who looked like a regular person. And my sister looks like a regular person — talks like a regular person — and Cindy Williams was brilliant as Shirley.”

With her deadpan demeanor and flat-toned Bronx accent that a TV Guide writer once described as sounding like “a groan filtered through a whine,” Marshall had been making minor inroads in Hollywood for several years before the Laverne and Shirley characters debuted as Richie and Fonzie’s double dates on an episode of “Happy Days” in 1975.

That included being a semi-regular on “The Odd Couple” as Oscar Madison’s secretary and a regular on the short-lived “Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers.”

Marshall’s career received big boosts from brother Garry, who had been an executive producer on “The Odd Couple.” He also created “Happy Days” and co-created “Laverne & Shirley.”

“I’m sure people thought I got parts because my brother was being nice, and at first I probably thought the same thing,” Penny Marshall told The Times in 1988. “But my brother finally told me, ‘I’m not giving you a job ’cause I’m nice. I’m not that nice.’”

At the time “Laverne & Shirley” debuted, Marshall was married to Rob Reiner, who had gained fame on “All in the Family” playing Archie Bunker’s liberal son-in-law. They later divorced.

Marshall’s work on her hit series drew the admiration of her then-father-in-law, Carl Reiner.

“She has all the tools,” he told TV Guide in 1976. “She can be the clown one moment, all nutsy crazy, and be very touching the next.”

“Laverne & Shirley” had been off the air three years when Marshall made her feature film debut as a director of the 1986 Whoopi Goldberg comedy “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

She had directed four episodes of “Laverne & Shirley” and the pilot for the short-lived 1979 sitcom “Working Stiffs” when she received an unexpected offer to replace director Howard Zieff 10 days into the shooting of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

“It was real scary,” Marshall told the New York Times in 1992. “I was hired on a Friday and went to work on a Monday. I didn’t know you had to shoot from so many angles!”

The film was not a success, but her next one was.

“Big,” a fantasy tale in which a boy wakes up in the body of an adult man played by Tom Hanks, earned Hanks an Oscar nomination and made Marshall the first female director in Hollywood history to direct a movie that grossed more than $100 million.

“Awakenings” (1990), a medical drama starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, came next. It received three Oscar nominations, including for best picture and actor in a leading role (for De Niro).

Marshall went on to direct “A League of Their Own” (1992), “Renaissance Man” (1994), “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996) and “Riding in Cars with Boys” (2001).

Marshall appeared in a handful of roles in recent years, most related in some fashion to her late brother Garry Marshall. That same year, Penny Marshall appeared in a special episode of the rebooted CBS series “The Odd Couple” memorializing her brother, in addition to serving as a narrator on her brother’s final film, “Mother’s Day.”

As for her directing career, Marshall had a documentary in post-production about former NBA superstar and recent international diplomat Dennis Rodman. “Rodman” is scheduled for release Sept. 1.

A dedicated sports fan — she had Lakers season tickets and a large collection of sports memorabilia — Marshall was known among longtime friends for being intensely loyal.

She also has been described as a worrier, insecure and self-effacing.

Asked by a Times reporter in 1988 how deep her insecurities were, she joked: “I was born with a frown.”

“I always feel like somehow I’m going to be a failure,” she said in that interview. “I’m from the negativity and depression school. When I see bad reviews, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re probably right.’

“With directing, I know people on movie sets want leadership, but I don’t exude that captain-of-the-ship image. I’d get on the phone with (‘Big’ producer) Jim Brooks and apologize all the time and say, ‘I’m no good at this.’”

Countered Brooks at the time: “Penny has an iron will, which is a thing that almost everybody misses.

“You can’t do the job she’s done and have it be dictated by insecurities,” Brooks said. “Penny has great creative instincts and a real openness to the creative process. She would talk to her actors very honestly and I think that made her actors trust her.”

She was born Carole Marshall in the New York borough of the Bronx on Oct. 15, 1943. Her father, Tony, was an industrial filmmaker — he later was a producer on “Laverne & Shirley” — and her mother, Marjorie, ran a tap dancing school.

A tomboy who loved baseball, Marshall began taking dance lessons at age 3.

As a member of her mother’s troupe of precision tap dancers, Marshall appeared on “Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour” and “The Jackie Gleason Show.”

But she wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in show business.

“I just thought of it as one of my mother’s weirdnesses,” she told New York Newsday in 1990. “I ran away from it.”

Penny, Garry and their sister, Ronny Hallin, who became a TV producer, got their humor from their mother.

“My mother was funny but destructive,” Marshall told the New York Times in 1992. “She had a very sarcastic sense of humor. She used to call me things … . Things like ‘the bad seed.’”

After graduating from high school, she said, “I wanted to get out; I didn’t care where.”

Marshall majored in psychology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she met and married UNM football player Michael Henry, with whom she had a daughter, Tracy, her only child, who was born in 1964.

To support the family, Marshall dropped out of college and worked as a secretary and dance teacher.

In 1967, the by-then-divorced Marshall moved to Los Angeles, where older brother Garry already had carved out a successful career as a TV comedy writer.

Marshall didn’t know what to do with her life, but she had enjoyed the laughter and applause she received playing Ado Annie in a production of “Oklahoma!” in Albuquerque, and she started taking acting classes at night.

She made her film debut in a small part in the 1968 biker film “The Savage Seven” and slowly began landing other small roles in films and television.

But she wasn’t sure she had what it takes to succeed in Hollywood, later complaining in an interview that she was “all nose and teeth.”

At one point early in her career, she appeared in a Head & Shoulders commercial as the plain girl with the lifeless brown hair opposite the beautiful girl with the gorgeous blond mane: Farrah Fawcett.

“I just cannot bring myself to accept that the homely person on the screen is me,” Marshall told TV Guide in 1976. “I grew up believing an actress is supposed to be beautiful. After I saw myself in a ‘Love American Style’ segment, I cried for three days. I’ve had braces put on my teeth twice, but they did no good.”

Despite her later career success as a director, her days on “Laverne & Shirley” had an enduring impact.

“I must say that it seems that people remember or have watched it from reruns on TV Land or Nickelodeon,” she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2007. “I go to the basketball game, and they all still yell, ‘Laverne!’”

Marshall is survived by her sister Ronny, daughter Tracy Reiner and three grandchildren, Spencer, Bella and Viva. Plans for a memorial service have yet to be made.

Times staff writers Nardine Saad and Libby Hill contributed to this report.