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Penny Marshall starred as sitcom actor, director

Penny Marshall, who starred in the long-running sitcom “Laverne & Shirley” and parlayed her fame into a career directing crowd-pleasing movies such as “Big” and “A League of Their Own,” died Monday at her home in Hollywood Hills. She was 75.

ABC released this publicity photo of Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall to promote the start of the “Laverne & Shirley” sitcom, which first aired in January 1976. (Source: ABC)

Michelle Bega, a spokeswoman for Marshall’s family, said the cause was complications from diabetes.

Marshall – who attended the University of New Mexico in the ’60s and had other ties to New Mexico – was the first woman to helm movies that earned more than $100 million.

She was born Carole Penny Marscharelli on Oct. 15, 1943, in the Bronx. During a career spanning four decades, she rose up the ranks with help from her elder brother, Garry Marshall, an established TV and film writer, producer and director. He worked her into featured parts in his sitcoms, including “Happy Days,” in which Marshall’s deadpan comic style and nasally Bronx accent made

Penny Marshall arrives at the premiere of “New Year’s Eve” in Los Angeles in Dec. 2011. Marshall died Monday. (Matt Sayles/Associated Press)

her an instantly recognizable television performer.

Her recurring role on “Happy Days” as Laverne DeFazio led to the Garry Marshall-produced spinoff “Laverne & Shirley,” which aired on ABC from 1976 to 1983 and was one of the most popular shows of the era. Marshall and Cindy Williams co-starred as employees in a Milwaukee beer-bottling plant who roomed together and shared misadventures in dating and on the job.

Marshall was a well-known figure in Albuquerque. She attended the University of New Mexico in the early 1960s, majoring in psychology. She later joked about her Bronx-centric upbringing, noting that “my mother thought New Mexico was near New Jersey, New York and New Hampshire – don’t ask.”

While at UNM, she met and married UNM football player Michael Henry, with whom she had a daughter, Tracy, in 1964.

“I must say what I remember most was getting married after a Brigham Young football game,” she told the Toronto Globe and Mail, “and all that was on television the whole weekend was John Kennedy’s funeral. That was sort of an omen for the whole marriage.”

To help support her family, Marshall dropped out of the university and took a job as a dance teacher. It wasn’t that much of a stretch. She got her first taste of show business at age 14 as a member of her mother’s tap-dancing troupe, the Marshalettes, and won the grand prize during an appearance on Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour.”

An Albuquerque Journal story from 1967 shows that Marshall, who was affiliated with the Litka School of Music and Dance, produced a show called “New York in Dance” that was performed in the auditorium of St. Vincent’s Academy, then located at Sixth and Lomas.

During the late 1970s and well into the 1980s, Marshall returned to Albuquerque along with her “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” co-stars, and occasionally with stars of other then-popular TV shows, to play in a celebrity baseball game to benefit the Special Olympics. The Albuquerque team they played was made up of local TV and radio personalities led by UNM baseball team coaches.

Marshall also served as the master of ceremonies for a Special Olympics celebrity pro-am tennis doubles tournament in 1979 played at Tanoan Country Club.

When first breaking into TV, Marshall said she was often cast as the “plain” girl because “I looked like a coconut and had buck teeth.” In one appearance opposite Farrah Fawcett in a shampoo television advertisement, Marshall was shown with a frizzy and frumpy hairdo while Fawcett’s Head and Shoulders-infused curls bounced and gleamed.

Being pegged as the ugly duckling was devastating. “She’d come home in tears,” Garry Marshall once told the New York Times. “I said, ‘They’ll learn to like you. They just don’t understand you yet. They will someday.”

Along with other former sitcom actors Ron Howard and Rob Reiner – the second of whom was her husband in the 1970s – Marshall used her television connections to forge a career as a Hollywood director. Her first film was the modestly successful comic spy romp “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986), starring Whoopi Goldberg.

With “Big” (1988), a comic fantasy starring Tom Hanks as a boy who magically transforms overnight into an adult, Marshall became the first woman to direct a movie grossing more than $100 million (it reportedly made $115 million domestically).

The movie’s profitability brought her credibility in an industry that was historically wary of allowing women to direct big-budget productions. She followed up with the medical drama “Awakenings” (1990), starring Robin Williams as a shy doctor and Robert De Niro as his patient who wakes up from a 30-year coma.

In 1992, Marshall directed Madonna, Geena Davis and Hanks in “A League of Their Own,” about women who played professional baseball during World War II. The film earned nearly $108 million and became one of the highest-grossing baseball movies of all time, surpassing “The Natural” (1984) and “Bull Durham” (1988).

Marshall said her reputation as a moneymaker helped bring more film-directing jobs to women, and she made her best-known films when other women such as Amy Heckerling and Nora Ephron were starting to make inroads as directors. But film historian Jeanine Basinger, who specializes in the study of women in cinema, was skeptical of Marshall’s assertion that she opened opportunities for women. Basinger noted that the environment was and remains largely biased against female directors.

Marshall’s other directing credits included “Renaissance Man” (1994), with Danny DeVito as a teacher who tries to inspire Army recruits; “The Preacher’s Wife” (1996), starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in a remake of the 1947 Cary Grant-Loretta Young-David Niven fantasy drama “The Bishop’s Wife”; and “Riding in Cars with Boys” (2001), starring Drew Barrymore in a drama about a teenager and the pregnancy that shapes the rest of her life.

Reviewers found Marshall’s movies sentimental and technically undistinguished but noted her ability to wring disarming performances from her actors.

“What she had was an instinct for knowing what would please moviegoers, large crowds of people,” Basinger said. “She had learned on TV what people enjoyed, what kind of characters, what kind of performances, and what kind of comedic material. She had an instinct for that, and that’s what her films represented.”

Marshall often shrugged off similar criticism, telling the New York Times: “But I like corny. I like what moves me. I go see movies and I think … ‘I don’t get it.’ I get intimidated by what they’re saying, and there’s all these artsy parts that go right past me.”

In another interview, Marshall explained that a screenplay she reviews “should have humor in it and it should have heart. And if it doesn’t, I’ll make it have heart.”

In recent years, Marshall produced such films as “Cinderella Man” (2005), starring Russell Crowe as a boxer, and “Bewitched” (2005), starring Nicole Kidman in an adaptation of the 1960s sitcom about a suburban witch.

Marshall said she was not especially proud of the films she directed after “A League of Their Own” because more demands were put on her in making and marketing the productions. She spoke of having lost control of the films. She said she had been much happier as a television actress, telling one interviewer, “No matter how many movies I direct, I’ll always be Laverne.”

In addition to her daughter, Tracy Reiner, Marshall is survived by a sister and three grandchildren. Her brother, Garry, died in 2016.

Journal reporters Rick Nathanson and Adrian Gomez contributed to this story

 

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