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Obituaries

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

  • Marshall played the unrefined but lovable Laverne DeFazio in television show Laverne & Shirley
  • She went on to direct beloved movie hits including Big and A League of Their Own
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2018, 3:55am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2018, 6:20am

Penny Marshall, who played an endearingly graceless character with a thick Bronx accent in US television’s Laverne & Shirley before becoming a pioneering film director with hits including Big and A League of Their Own, has died at 75, her publicist said on Tuesday.

Marshall died of complications of diabetes Monday at her home in Hollywood Hills, California, her publicist, Michelle Bega said in a phone interview.

Marshall played the unrefined but lovable Laverne DeFazio on Laverne & Shirley, a sitcom that ran on the ABC network from 1976 to 1983, following the lives of two single women and their nutty friends in 1950s and 60s Milwaukee.

Marshall, known for her bluntness, described the success of the series this way: “We dared to be stupid.”

Marshall, the younger sister of successful TV and film director and producer Garry Marshall, turned to directing after her series ended.

Her first film was the underwhelming 1986 Whoopi Goldberg comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash, but that was followed by the charming 1988 hit Big, starring fellow former TV sitcom star Tom Hanks.

Hanks delivered a great performance in the wistful comedy as a 12-year-old boy whose wish to become an adult is magically granted. The film is known for its classic scene in which Hanks and Robert Loggia play duets by dancing on a toy store’s foot-operated electronic keyboard.

The success of Big made Marshall the first woman to direct a film that made more than US$100 million at the US box office. The 1992 women’s baseball comedy A League of Their Own made her the first woman to direct two films topping US$100 million at the US box office.

Hanks also appeared in A League of Their Own alongside Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and pop star Madonna in the story of the first female professional baseball league. The film’s most famous line comes after a player starts sobbing when Hanks, the team’s irascible manager, chews her out for a baseball blunder.

“Are you crying?” Hanks asks with incredulity. “There’s no crying. There’s no crying in baseball.”

Marshall noted that the starring role in Big almost went to tough-guy actor Robert De Niro, who she would later direct in Awakenings (1990), also starring Robin Williams. Awakenings was nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture.

Other films Marshall directed included: Renaissance Man (1994) with Danny DeVito; The Preacher’s Wife (1996) with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston; and Riding in Cars with Boys (2001) with Drew Barrymore.

“Our family is heartbroken over the passing of Penny Marshall,” the Marshall family said in a statement, adding that Penny was a tomboy who loved sports, doing puzzles of any kind, drinking milk and Pepsi together and being with her family.

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Thousands of social media users, including many celebrities, expressed their condolences on Twitter

Actor James Woods wrote online, “I am absolutely devastated. #PennyMarshall was one of my dearest friends. I loved her. Funny, warm, a true individual and remarkable talent. #RidingInCarsWithBoys.”

“Thank you, Penny Marshall. For the trails you blazed. The laughs you gave. The hearts you warmed,” wrote director Ava Duvernay.

She said her lack of fear of being thrown out of Hollywood helped her succeed. “I’ll try anything. What are they gonna do, kick me out of show business?” Marshall said in 2012. “I didn’t have that problem because I wasn’t ambitious enough.”

Laverne & Shirley was a spin-off from the popular Happy Days series created by her brother Garry.

Laverne & Shirley also starred Cindy Williams as Shirley, indelicate tomboy Laverne’s more well-mannered apartment roommate and brewery co-worker. Laverne was known for a cursive “L” monogrammed on her shirts and guzzling milk and Pepsi.

The supporting cast included Michael McKean and David Lander as goofy neighbours Lenny and Squiggy. The series ran for eight seasons, with 178 total episodes.

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Marshall chronicled her life in a 2012 book My Mother Was Nuts, filled with stories about growing up in New York City’s Bronx borough, her dance-instructor mother and Marshall’s drug-fuelled times in the 1970s among famous names.

She also battled health problems, including dual diagnoses of lung cancer and a brain tumour in 2009.

Before Laverne & Shirley, Marshall appeared as sports writer Oscar Madison’s secretary Myrna on the sitcom The Odd Couple and popped up as a neighbour of main character Mary Richards on Mary Tyler Moore.

She was a finalist for the role of Gloria, daughter of the bigoted Archie Bunker on the successful sitcom All in the Family, but did not get the role. That series also starred future film director Rob Reiner (The Princess Bride; When Harry Met Sally), to whom Marshall was married from 1971 to 1979.

She had a daughter, Tracy, from an earlier first marriage.