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Penny Marshall, Director and ‘Laverne & Shirley’ Actress, Dead at 75

Filmmaker behind Big, Awakenings and A League of Their Own succumbs to complications from diabetes

LOS ANGELES - 1979:  Actress Penny Marshall poses for a portrait in 1979 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry Langdon/Getty Images)

Penny Marshall, TV's Laverne and the director behind 'Big,' "Awakenings' and 'A League of Their Own' has died at the age of 75.

Harry Langdon/Getty Images

Penny Marshall, the influential actress who became a trailblazing filmmaker, died Monday night at her home in California. A rep confirmed the entertainer’s death to Rolling Stone, adding that her death was due to complications from diabetes. She was 75.

“Our family is heartbroken over the passing of Penny Marshall,” Marshall’s family said in a statement. “She was a comedic natural with a photographic memory and an instinct for slapstick. 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 loved Penny. I grew up with her. She was born with a great gift,” Marshall’s ex-husband Rob Reiner said in a statement. “She was born with a funnybone and the instinct of how to use it. I was very lucky to have lived with her and her funnybone. I will miss her.”

“What an extraordinary loss,” said Cindy Williams, Marshall’s co-star on the hit sitcom Laverne & Shirley. “My good friend, Penny Marshall is gone – one in a million. Utterly unique; a truly great talent. And, oh what fun we had! Can’t describe how I‘ll miss her.”

“Penny Marshall was a sweet woman,” Danny De Vito wrote on Twitter. “I was very fortunate to spend time with her. So many laughs. She had a heart of gold. Tough as nails. She could play round ball with the best of them.”

After making a name for herself with recurring roles on The Odd Couple and Happy Days, Marshall shot to fame with Laverne & Shirley, a Happy Days spinoff that ran from 1976 to 1983. She stepped behind the camera in the Eighties, directing a string of blockbusters: Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Big, Awakenings and A League of Their Own, among others. Both Big and A League of Their Own grossed more than $100 million — the former became the first film by a female director to surpass that financial mark — breaking new ground for female filmmakers. She also produced the hit films Cinderella Man and Bewitched, among others.

Marshall was born on October 15th, 1943 in the Bronx to industrial filmmaker Tony and his wife, Marjorie, who operated a school for tap dancing. Tony would later produce Laverne & Shirley, which her brother, TV impresario Garry, co-created. Los Angeles Times describes her as a tomboy who played baseball but also danced at her mother’s school. She once made an appearance on The Jackie Gleason Show as part of her mother’s troupe.

After high school, she majored in psychology at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She met and married football player Michael Henry there and the couple had a daughter, Tracy, in 1964. After dropping out of school, she provided for her family by working as a secretary and teaching dance. She and Henry divorced, and she moved to Los Angeles, where Garry lived, and took acting classes.

Her first film role was a bit part in the 1968 biker film The Savage Seven and she continued getting small roles until getting the role of Oscar Madison’s secretary, Myrna Turner, on The Odd Couple, on which she appeared from 1972 to 1974. She married Rob Reiner in 1971, but the couple would divorce 10 years later.

Success came swiftly once Garry cast her as the rough-hewn, Brooklyn-born Laverne DeFazio opposite actress Cindy Williams, who played her meeker friend, Shirley Feeney, on Happy Days. The roommates worked in a Milwaukee brewery and encountered numerous colorful people, like their neighbors, Lenny and Squiggy. Their own show, Laverne & Shirley, premiered as a midseason replacement in 1976 and soon became a Number One hit. Marshall would be nominated for three Golden Globes for her portrayal of DeFazio.

“I’m sure people thought I got parts because my brother was being nice, and at first I probably thought the same thing,” she told the L.A. Times in 1988. “But my brother finally told me, ‘I’m not giving you a job ’cause I’m nice. I’m not that nice.'”

She continued doing small roles on TV after Laverne & Shirley until she tried her hand at directing Jumpin’ Jack Flash, a film about a banker embroiled in a game of espionage. The film’s star, Whoopi Goldberg, had encouraged her to take the gig. Filmed on an $18 million budget, it went on to gross nearly $30 million, proving she could make a hit. She kept her momentum with 1988’s Big, a film about a boy who wishes to instantly become an adult, which she filmed on the same budget. The film grossed more than $151 million, marking the first time a female director had broken the $100 million mark. Star Tom Hanks earned an Oscar nomination for the role.

She followed Big with Awakenings, which earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Actor (for Robert De Niro), among others, and scored another hit in 1992 with A League of Their Own about an all-female baseball team. It earned $132 million and was nominated for two Golden Globes. Two more movies in the Nineties — 1994’s Renaissance Man and 1996’s The Preacher’s Wife — would follow, but neither of them struck a chord with audiences. Her final film, Riding in Cars With Boys, came out in 2001 and earned critical acclaim. Recently, she had been working on a documentary about Dennis Rodman, titled Rodman, which the L.A. Times says is slated to come out on September 1st, 2019.

She continued acting around her directing schedule, most recently appearing as Patty on the rebooted The Odd Couple in 2016.

Despite all her success, Marshall said that she was plagued by self-doubt. “I always feel like somehow I’m going to be a failure,” she told the L.A. Times. “I’m from the negativity and depression school. When I see bad reviews, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re probably right.’ With directing, I know people on movie sets want leadership, but I don’t exude that captain-of-the-ship image. I’d get on the phone with [producer] Jim Brooks and apologize all the time and say, ‘I’m no good at this.'”

A decade ago, Marshall was treated for brain and lung cancer. Her family said they will hold a “celebration of life” in her honor, which they will detail at a later date.

Looking back on her career, in a quote published by the Daily News, she had a typically wry and humorous assessment of her success: “I led an oddly charmed life for someone who thought she was not a charming person.”

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