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

After her television success, Marshall became a director of hit movies including "Big" and "A League of Their Own."

Penny Marshall in 1990.

Penny Marshall in 1990. Photo Credit: AP / Chrystyna Czajkowsky

Penny Marshall, the co-star of "Laverne & Shirley" who became one of Hollywood's elite film directors, has died. She was 75.

Marshall died in her Los Angeles home on Monday due to complications from diabetes, according to her publicist, Michelle Bega.

Like her older brother, Garry, and "Happy Days" co-stars Ron Howard and Henry Winkler, Marshall went from sitcom success to Hollywood royalty. She earned an Oscar nod for 1990's "Awakenings" but never quite lost the Bronx bearings of her childhood, nor the accent from growing up on the Grand Concourse. A self-described "mumbler," she said in a 1990 Newsday interview that, as a director, "I talk quietly [and] I'm not adamant that this is my movie. I don't have the arrogance, I'm not demanding. Sometimes I don't know the proper words to say. I just say do it again, I'll know it when I see it."

As an actress — or at least during the seven-year 1976-83 run on "Laverne" — Marshall was a dynamo, and along with co-star Cindy Williams, revitalized a form of TV comedy that had gone out of style with "I Love Lucy." Garry Marshall — creator and producer of "Laverne & Shirley" who died in 2016 — once called them "fearless" in a TV interview, adding, "Physical comedy is what we do better than anybody else."

"Laverne & Shirley" was a huge success, and propelled ABC's Tuesday lineup (where it was paired with "Happy Days") to ratings supremacy.

Carole Penny Marshall was born in the Bronx on Oct. 15, 1943. Her mother, Marjorie Irene, ran a tap dance school, while her father, Anthony Masciarelli, produced industrial films. (He changed his name to Marshall before she was born.) Her career, and life, would be profoundly shaped by her brother, six years her senior, after she moved to Hollywood with him in the late '60s. 

He'd go on to produce "The Odd Couple," in which she was cast as Myrna, secretary to Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) with big dreams of becoming a tap dancer. (Marshall also had performed as a tap dancer when she was a toddler.) Around the same time, she landed a quick, one-time cameo on "The Bob Newhart Show" and another more regular role  on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Her brother then cast her and Williams in episode on his ABC hit, "Happy Days." That Nov. 11, 1975, one-off ("A Date With Fonzie") spawned a TV franchise, which itself became an empire that sold everything from albums to sweatshirts emblazoned with Laverne's iconic "L."

Marshall and Williams — Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney, respectively — played a pair of bottle cappers at a Milwaukee's Shotz Brewery and also were roommates. They struggled to make a living, struggled at romance, struggled with family and struggled with friends too, notably Andrew "Squiggy" Squiggman (David L. Lander) and Leonard "Lenny" Kosnowski (Michael McKean). Like Laverne and Shirley, Lenny and Squiggy had household name status over the series' 178-episode run.

Also like "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley" was a nostalgia play, set in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which conspicuously avoided contemporary themes. Instead, "L&S" revolved around basic tropes as old as the sitcom itself: Laverne, ever the cockeyed optimist, was balanced by Shirley, the clear-eyed (sort of) realist. "L&S" was aspirational, which the theme song — among the best-known in TV history — never let viewers forget: "We're gonna make our dreams come truuuue! Doin' it our way!"

Critics hated the show, viewers adored it, while ABC kept it on the air far too long. In a bitter break with the show and Marshall, too, Williams left by the end of the sixth season to have a baby. By then, the series' setting had shifted from Milwaukee to Hollywood, where it proceeded to jump the shark.

But Marshall also used the show to launch a new career — she directed a handful of episodes — and was tapped to direct a Whoopi Goldberg movie, "Jumpin' Jack Flash," when the original director dropped out.

"Flash," a success, led to the 1988 box-office smash "Big" with Tom Hanks. Critical acclaim came with her third movie, "Awakenings," based on the Oliver Sacks book, and starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. It was only the second female-directed picture in history to earn a best picture nod. Other successes followed, including "A League of Their Own" in 1992, about a women's professional baseball league during the 1940s.

Marshall recovered from lung and brain cancer diagnosed in 2009. She was married twice, including to fellow director and actor Rob Reiner, from 1971 to 1981. She is survived by a daughter, Tracy, and by her older sister, Ronny, and three grandchildren.

Penny Marshall’s top credits

TV ACTRESS

“The Odd Couple” (1971-75)

“Thee Bob Newhart Show” (1972-73)

“Happy Days” (1975-79)

“Laverne & Shirley” (1976-83)

MOVIE DIRECTOR

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986)

“Big” (1988)

“Awakenings” (1990)

“A League of Their Own” (1992)

“Renaissance Man” (1994_

“The Preacher’s Wife” (1996)

“Riding in Cars with Boys” (2001)

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