Penny Marshall, the star of TV comedy Laverne & Shirley who went on to become an acclaimed film director, has died at the age of 75.
According to TMZ, Marshall, born Carole Penny Marshall, passed away at her Hollywood Hills home on Monday night. The cause of death is believed to have been the result of complications from diabetes.
From humble beginnings as one of three children born to a tap dance teaching mother and a director/producer father in the Bronx, Marshall went on to become a trailblazing woman in entertainment. Struggling early in her career — including appearing as the “before” girl in a beauty ad that featured Farrah Fawcett as the “after” — her big break came with the help of her brother, Garry Marshall, himself an influential writer, producer, directer, and actor. He got her a role on The Odd Couple as Myrna Turner, her first major recurring part, in 1972.
Three years later, Marshall was cast in her iconic role as Laverne DeFazio on Happy Days, a program which Garry created. The part became a defining one for Marhsall, her dynamic with Cindy Williams’ Shirley Feeney leading to spin-off series in 1976. Over the course of Laverne & Shirley’s eight seasons, Marshall earned three Golden Globe nominations. However, Laverne and her memorable cursive “L” on her sweater became so definable for Marshall that acting roles became harder to come by when the show was canceled in 1983.
Marshall moved behind the lens (as she had for a handful of Laverne & Shirley episodes), becoming a groundbreaking film director. Her first feature was the 1986 Whoopi Golderbg-starrer Jumpin’ Jack Flash, but her landmark production came two years later with Big. The movie led to Marshall becoming the first female director with a film that grossed over $100 million at the box office. It also earned star Tom Hanks his first Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win.
She followed Big up with her adaptation of Awakenings, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, which received Best Picture and Best Actor Oscar nominations. Marshall then reunited with Hanks for the classic A League of Their Own, which saw her directing her own daughter with ex-husband Rob Reiner, Tracy Reiner, who played Betty. (Tracy also had a bit part in Jumpin’ Jack Flash, incidentally as a secretary, which is what Marhsall’s character did in The Odd Couple.) Marshall gave Mark Wahlberg his first major acting role in Renaissance Man, and would later helm acclaimed films The Preacher’s Wife and Riding in Cars with Boys.
Though she never returned to acting on a regular basis, she did have a number of notable appearances in film and TV throughout the ’90s and ’00s. She was the first-ever celebrity guest to voice a character on The Simpsons, playing the criminal babysitter Ms. Botz in what was meant to be the show’s pilot (animation issues led to a delay that made it the first season finale). In 1993, she cameoed in Hocus Pocus as the wife of The Master/The Devil, a part played by her brother, Garry. She also had roles as herself in Get Shorty, as well as episodes of Bones and Entourage. She returned to play Myrna in the 1993 TV movie The Odd Couple: Together Again, and cameoed in the 2016 reboot series as Patty.
Marshall was a close friend of Carrie Fisher. She was the godmother to Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd.
In a statement, Marshall’s family said,
“Our family is heartbroken over the passing of Penny Marshall. Penny was a tomboy who loved sports, doing puzzles of any kind, drinking milk and Pepsi together and being with her family. As an actress, her work on Laverne & Shirley broke ground featuring blue-collar women entertaining America in prime time. She was a comedic natural with a photographic memory and an instinct for slapstick. We hope her life continues to inspire other to spend time with family, work hard and make of their dreams come true.”