Penny Marshall, director of Big and star of TV's Laverne & Shirley, dead at 75

Penny Marshall, who starred in the top-rated sitcom Laverne & Shirley, has died at age 75. The endearingly graceless actress with the thick Bronx accent went on to become a pioneering film director with hits including Big and A League of Their Own.

Trailblazing director and female mentor to Hollywood stars dies of complications from diabetes

Penny Marshall, seen here in 2014, first gained fame and laughs playing the unrefined but lovable Laverne DeFazio in Laverne & Shirley, a sitcom that ran on the ABC network from 1976 to 1983. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)

Penny Marshall, the trailblazing movie director who indelibly starred in the top-rated sitcom Laverne & Shirley, has died. She was 75.  

Marshall's publicist, Michelle Bega, said Tuesday that Marshall died in her Los Angeles home on Monday due to complications from diabetes.

"Our family is heartbroken," the Marshall family said in a statement. 

In Laverne & Shirley, among television's biggest hits for much of its seven-season 1976-1983 run, the nasal-voiced, Bronx-born Marshall starred as Laverne DeFazio alongside Cindy Williams as a pair of blue-collar roommates toiling on the assembly line of a Milwaukee brewery.

A spinoff of Happy Days, the series was the rare network hit about working class characters, and its self-empowering opening song ("Give her any chance, she'll take it/ Give her any rule, she'll break it") foreshadowed Marshall's own path as a filmmaker in Hollywood. 

In this, Nov. 14, 1979, photo taken by Associated Press photographer Lennox McLendon, actresses Cindy Williams, left, and Penny Marshall, stars of the ABC-TV comedy series Laverne and Shirley, make an impression in cement after the taping of their show in Los Angeles. (Associated Press)

"Almost everyone had a theory about why Laverne & Shirley took off," Marshall wrote in her 2012 memoir My Mother Was Nuts. "I thought it was simply because Laverne and Shirley were poor and there were no poor people on TV, but there were plenty of them sitting at home and watching TV."

Groundbreaking film career

Marshall directed several episodes of Laverne & Shirley, which her older brother, the late filmmaker-producer Garry Marshall, created. Those episodes helped launch Marshall as a filmmaker. When Whoopi Goldberg clashed with director Howard Zieff, she brought in Marshall to direct Jumpin' Jack Flash, the 1986 comedy starring Goldberg.
The film did reasonable business, but Marshall's next film made her the first woman to direct a film that grossed more than $100 million. Her 1988 hit comedy Big, starring Tom Hanks, was about a 12-year-old boy who wakes up in the body of a 30-year-old New York City man. The film, which earned Hanks an Oscar nomination, grossed $151 million US  worldwide, or about $320 million accounting for inflation.   

Marshall teamed with Hanks again for A League of Their Own, the 1992 comedy about the women's professional baseball league begun during the Second World War, starring Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell. That, too, grossed $100 million, making $107.5 million domestically.

More than any other films, A League of Their Own and Big ensured Marshall's stamp on the late '80s, early '90s. The piano dance scene in FAO Schwartz in Big became iconic.

Hanks's memorable quote from A League of Their Own — "There's no crying in baseball" — is still repeated on baseball diamonds everywhere. 

'Tough as nails' 

"She had a heart of gold. Tough as nails," recalled Danny DeVito, who starred in Marshall's 1994 comedy Renaissance Man. "She could play roundball with the best of them."

The pair of hits also made Marshall a beacon to other aspiring female filmmakers. Ava DuVernay, whose A Wrinkle in Time was the first $100 million-budgeted film directed by a woman of colour, said Tuesday: "Thank you, Penny Marshall. For the trails you blazed. The laughs you gave. The hearts you warmed."

Marshall also made the Oliver Sacks adaptation Awakenings with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. The medical drama, while not as successful at the box office, became only the second film directed by a woman nominated for best picture. 

Carole Penny Marshall was born Oct. 15, 1942, in the Bronx. Her mother, Marjorie, was a dance teacher, and her father, Anthony, made industrial films. Their marriage was strained. Her mother's caustic wit — a major source of inspiration for Marshall's memoir — was formative. (One remembered line: "You were a miscarriage, but you were stubborn and held on.")

"Those words are implanted in your soul, unfortunately. It's just the way it was," Marshall once recalled. "You had to learn at a certain age what sarcasm is, you know? When she says it about somebody else, you laughed, but when it was you, you didn't laugh so much." 

During college at the University of New Mexico, Marshall met Michael Henry, whom she married briefly for two years and with whom she had a daughter, Tracy. Marshall would later wed the director Rob Reiner, a marriage that lasted from 1971 to 1981. Tracy, who took the name Reiner, became an actress; one of her first roles was a brief appearance in her mother's Jumpin' Jack Flash

Marshall is also survived by her older sister, Ronny, and three grandchildren.

She never again matched the run of Big, Awakenings and A League of Their Own. Her next film, the army recruit comedy Renaissance Man, flopped. She directed The Preacher's Wife (1996) with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston.

Her last film as director was 2001's Riding in Cars With Boys, with Drew Barrymore. Marshall also helmed episodes of ABC's According to Jim in 2009 and Showtime's United States of Tara in 2010 and 2011, and directed the 2010 TV movie Women Without Men.


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