We salute the extraordinary…

Penny Marshall

Garry Marshall and his sister Penny

Garry Marshall and his sister Penny

Penny Marshall, sister to Garry Marshall, will forever be remembered as the lovable tomboy ‘Laverne DeFazio’ playing opposite Williams’ ‘Shirley Feeney’ in one of the most popular and memorable series in television history -- about two blue collar friends in Milwaukee in the late 1950s.  

It was 43 years ago on January 27, 1976 that “Laverne& Shirley” first aired and took America and the world by storm. The Pepsi&Milk-drinking duo began their on-screen antics as guest-stars on “Happy Days” before ABC ordered the infamous spin-off. “Laverne& Shirley” was created by Garry Marshall, Lowell Ganz and Mark Rothman, and premiered in 1976 running for eight seasons, becoming the most-watched TV series by 1977, surpassing “Happy Days.”

 “There were no blue-collar girls on television” when ‘Laverne & Shirley’ debuted,” executive producer Garry Marshall said in an interview for the Archive of American Television. Viewers “were dying for somebody that didn’t look like Mary Tyler Moore or all the pretty girls on TV. They wanted somebody who looked like a regular person. And my sister looks like a regular person — talks like a regular person — and Cindy Williams was brilliant as Shirley.”

 The series followed the lives of Laverne DeFazio (Marshall) and Shirley Feeney (Williams), who were friends and roommates working as bottle-cappers in the fictitious Shotz Brewery in late 1950s Milwaukee. Later they moved to Burbank, California, current hometown of the Garry Marshall Theatre.  

 Michael McKean and David Lander played Lenny Kosnowski and Andrew “Squiggy” Squiggman, their friends and neighbors, and the cast included Eddie Mekka as Carmine Ragusa, Phil Foster as Lavern’e father Frank DeFazio and Betty Garrett as Edna Babish, the girls’ landlady.

 By the third season “Laverne and Shirley” was the most watched American television program and was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards and a primetime Emmy Award in 1979.  Laverne and Shirley were first introduced as acquaintances of Fonzie (Henry Winkler) on “Happy Days” when the timeline of the series began in 1958, and continued through 1967, roughly when the series ended.

 The first episode of “Laverne & Shirley” aired in January 27, 1976 and paired with “Happy Days,” it quickly became a top ten hit – and eventually overtook “Happy Days” itself for the number one highest Nielsen rated series, a distinction it held for two seasons.  Original episodes continued to air through 1983.

 James Poniewozik in The New York Timessaid, “Part of its appeal was the same mix of nostalgia, slapstick and wacky characters, but it added a feisty, pop-feminist rebelliousness from the get-go: two best friends, dancing down a sidewalk, singing nonsense (“Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”), sufficient on their own.”

 “She was terrific at the big physical moments the show demanded … but she also let Laverne reveal the parts of herself that she tried to guard. Penny Marshall would go on to do far more in her career, but she made her mark as Laverne DeFazio, of the Milwaukee DeFazios, one L of a woman.”

The camera loved “Laverne & Shirley” – but Penny Marshall was later considered a visionary behind the camera. 

She directed episodes of the series before becoming a renowned director. After her film directorial debut, Whoopi Goldberg in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Marshall directed “Big,” starring Tom Hanks who was nominated for an Oscar, and became the first female director to make a film that grossed over $100 million. That fantasy about a 12-year-old in an adult’s body, who then has to live in an adult world, was beloved by audiences and hailed by critics; no one who saw the film ever forgot Hanks dancing on a life-sized keyboard at FAO Schwartz.

”Awakenings” (1990) followed. Based on a book by Oliver Sacks, it starred Robert De Niro as a patient suffering from Encephalitis lethargicand Robin Williams as his neurologist, garnering De Niro an Oscar nomination. Later she directed “Renaissance Man” starring Danny DeVito, Gregory Hines, James Remar and Cliff Roberston (1994), “The Preachers Wife” starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston (1996), and “Riding in Cars with Boys” starring Drew Barrymore (2001).  She also produced “Cinderella Man” (2005) and “Bewitched” (2005) and directed episodes of “According to Jim” and “United States of Tara.”

Carole Penny Marshall, named after her mother’s favorite actress Carole Lombard, was a tomboy who loved sports, doing puzzles of any kind, drinking milk and Pepsi together and being with her family. She was a comedic natural with a photographic memory and an instinct for slapstick.

She grew up on the Bronx’ Grand Concourse (3235) which was the childhood home of Neil Simon, Paddy Chayefsky, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren.

She began her career appearing in a commercial for Head and Shoulders shampoo opposite Farrah Fawcett. Her big break was in 1970, when Garry, her brother, cast her to play Myrna in “The Odd Couple” series starring Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. In her final appearance she married her boyfriend Sheldon, played by Rob Reiner, who at that time was her real-life husband.  Later she appeared on “The Bob Newhart Show” (1972-1973) and “Paul Sands in Friends and Lovers” (1974).

Kathleen Marshall LaGambina, Penny Marshall’s niece, said, “Penny was a girl from the Bronx, who came out West, put a cursive ‘L’ on her sweater and transformed herself into a Hollywood success story. We hope her life continues to inspire others to spend time with family, work hard and make all of their dreams come true.”

“I like something that tells a story or that tells me something I didn’t know,” Penny told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1992. “It should have humor in it — or it should have heart.  And if it doesn’t, I’ll make it have heart.”

In 1992 she directed “A League of Their Own” about a woman’s baseball league during World War II, which starred Madonna, Geena Davis, Rosie O’Donnell and Tom Hanks – which also grossed $132 million.  Justine Siegal, founder of Baseball for All, which organized girls baseball tournaments, told USA Today that her players have “memorized the movie.” 

Shirley Burkovich, one of the last surviving team members from the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, which lasted from 1943 to 1954 said“young, young girls come up to me to show their appreciation.  And we have everything in the world to thank Penny Marshall.”