Remember that line from the late 1970s? It was the opening of every episode of Laverne & Shirley, the Happy Days spin-off that introduced many of us to Penny Marshall, a feisty, tough-talking comedian. Though she’d been playing small roles on other TV shows (including The Odd Couple with her then-husband Rob Reiner), it was playing Laverne with the big L emblazoned on her tops that cemented her in the pop-culture pantheon—and when we heard Marshall was dead this week, Laverne popped into our minds immediately.
But Marshall, who passed away at 75 due to complications from diabetes, was much more than just Laverne DeFazio. She made perhaps her biggest contribution directing movies that struck a nerve with millions of Americans. (The directing gene seems to run strong in her family—her brother, the late Gary Marshall, orchestrated Pretty Woman and other hits.)
It was playing Laverne with the big L emblazoned on her tops that cemented her in the pop-culture pantheon.
Among Marshall’s films: 1988’s Big, starring Tom Hanks, which was so successful that it made Marshall the first woman to direct a movie that grossed more than $100 million. And for good reason: The movie was fresh, funny (the baby corn scene!) and appealed to anyone—or everyone—who kind of wished they could time-travel. She followed that up in 1992 with A League of Their Own, starring Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell, and Madonna in a story about a female baseball league in the 1940s. She also directed Awakenings, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams; Riding in Cars with Boys, featuring Drew Barrymore; and The Preacher’s Wife, starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston, among others.
Humanity and Humor
Her eye was attuned to human behavior—and humor—in her early years. Raised in the Bronx, she was encouraged to perform by her mother, who ran a neighborhood dance and acrobatics school for kids. Marshall immortalized her mother in her memoir, titled—ahem—My Mother Was Nuts. She left college to marry husband #1 and raise a daughter, but she soon found herself divorced and struggling to make ends meet.
When she moved to Los Angeles and began getting small TV roles, her luck began to change. She never lost her love for entertainment and being entertaining, pulling through substance-abuse issues and a bout of cancer. In recent years, she popped up as director of a few United States of Tara episodes and appeared on Portlandia. She once said, “I want you to laugh and cry. That’s what I do.” And she did just that, so very well.
And that’s why, to us, Penny Marshall will live forever.