Penny Marshall, 'Big' director, 'Laverne & Shirley' star, dead at 75

Penny Marshall, who rose to fame on TV’s Laverne & Shirley and enjoyed an unexpected second act as the bankable Hollywood director of Big and A League of Their Own, died Monday of complications from diabetes. She was 75.

Marshall died “peacefully at her Hollywood Hills home,” according to publicist Michelle Bega.

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

As an actress, Marshall was best known as the “L”-branded, Pepsi-and-milk-swilling Laverne DeFazio opposite Cindy Williams’s somewhat more refined Shirley Feeney on Laverne & Shirley, the 1950s/’60s-set ABC sitcom that was one of the top-rated shows of the 1970s.

She was the sister of director-producer Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Happy Days), who cast her as Laverne. He died in 2016.

Born Oct. 15, 1943, in New York City’s the Bronx — as if her nasally whine could have been produced anywhere else — Marshall was a divorced single mom by the time she came to Hollywood in the late 1960s.

In 1972, she won a recurring role on Garry Marshall’s primetime version of The Odd Couple. Three years later, she and Williams appeared on Garry’s Happy Days as two “loose girls,” as Williams would put it, who go on a double date with Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard). Their characters’ names: Laverne and Shirley.

The Milwaukee single ladies were granted a spinoff series in 1976. By the 1977-78 season, Laverne & Shirley surpassed Happy Days to reign as TV’s No. 1 show. Laverne & Shirley ended in 1983, or one season longer than Shirley lasted. (Williams departed the series in 1982.) Marshall never received an Emmy nomination for her Laverne work; she did earn three Golden Globe nominations, however.

Despite having directed a handful of Laverne & Shirley episodes, Marshall was best known as a sitcom star when she was hired, midshoot, to replace director Howard Zieff (Private Benjamin) on the 1986 Whoopi Goldberg comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash. The story goes that a producer, having seen real-life friends Goldberg and Marshall at dinner, bet that Marshall could right the troubled production.

“I was way over my head, but somehow I got through it,” the self-described “anti-director” once told the New York Times.

Marshall wasn’t the first choice to direct her next film. But then, Tom Hanks wasn’t the first choice to star in the film, either. Together, the two made 1988’s Big — the classic that the body-swapping genre didn’t necessarily deserve. The movie grossed more than $100 million and altered both of their careers: Hanks got his first career Academy Award nomination; Marshall became a brand-name filmmaker.

Awakenings, released in 1990, saw Marshall handed a dramatic plotline about a doctor (Robin Williams) who refuses to give up on a ward of comatose patients (among them, Robert De Niro). It became only the second film by a female director to score an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. At the Oscars, the film lost out to Dances With Wolves for Best Picture. Marshall herself was not nominated.

Marshall reunited with Hanks on 1992’s A League of Their Own. The comedy about a World War II-era women’s baseball team was her last big box-office hit. She went on to work with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston (The Preacher’s Wife), Drew Barrymore (Riding in Cars With Boys) and Mark Wahlberg, whom she gave his big-screen break with the military comedy Renaissance Man.

True to self-deprecating form, Marshall never stopped seeing her success as some sort of accident.

“Yes, I’m supposedly hot right now,” she told the Washington Post in 1988, when fresh from the success of Big, she was indeed hot.

Marshall was married and divorced twice. During the 1970s, she and second husband Rob Reiner, then a star of TV’s All in the Family, were the de facto first couple of primetime. The two split in 1979. As news of Marshall’s death broke, Reiner tweeted out his condolences.

In the late 2000s, Marshall, a heavy smoker, confirmed she’d been diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain. But she denied tabloid reports that she was on death’s door (“They made up s***,” she said), and declared herself “fine” as she promoted her 2012 memoir, My Mother Was Nuts.

Penny Marshall at the 2012 TV Land Awards. (Photo: Jim Spellman/WireImage)
Penny Marshall at the 2012 TV Land Awards. (Photo: Jim Spellman/WireImage)

Marshall kept busy with television appearances in recent years, her last coming in an episode of the rebooted Odd Couple that aired in November 2016, two months after Garry’s death.

At the time of her death, Penny Marshall was in postproduction on a documentary profiling eccentric ex-basketball star Dennis Rodman, which is slated for release in 2019, according to IMDb.

Marshall and Williams reunited occasionally over the years, including a 2004 appearance for the joint unveiling of their Hollywood Walk of Fame stars. “I always thought I was a doormat — I let people walk on me,” Marshall was quoted as saying at the ceremony. “Now I’m a piece of cement. It’s harder, but it’s got a star on it.”

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