By Nancy Dillon and Larry McShane
Bronx-born Penny Marshall, who found ‘70s sitcom success on “Laverne and Shirley” before stepping behind the camera for Hollywood hits like “Big” and “A League of Their Own,” died Monday night at her California home. She was 75.
“Yes she did (die) ... peacefully at her Hollywood Hills home,” said her publicist Michelle Bega. “She passed away from complications from diabetes.”
Marshall’s triumphs as a director broke new ground the male-dominated movie industry, and she became the first female director to score a $100 million gross with “Big” in 1988. She turned the financial trick again with “A League of Their Own” four years later.
But she directed only one feature film after 1996, and kept a low acting profile with cameo roles in films like “Get Shorty” and “Blonde Ambition.”
“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,” said a statement from her family, referring to the monogrammed wardrobe of Marshall’s blue-collar protagonist Laverne De Fazio.
Though one of three kids born to a show biz family, Marshall’s road to success was hardly a smooth or typical trip – starting in an apartment on the Grand Concourse where mom warmed the kids’ clothes on the radiator in the winter.
Her mother Marjorie was a tap school teacher, and little Penny began taking lessons at age 3. Dad Tony Marshall was a director and producer who changed the family name from Marsciarelli.
The aspiring actress was hardly blessed with typical Hollywood looks _ she once appeared as the “before” photo in an ad for a beauty product, with Farrah Fawcett as the “after” girl – and Marshall never lost the thick accent of her home borough.
But she became a huge television star as blue-collar beer factory work Laverne before changing her career path, with both Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro earning Oscar nominations for their work in Marshall-directed films.
Marshall, one of three kids born to a showbiz family, landed her breakthrough role in the mid-’70s with the help of her big brother Garry, a well-known director/producer/screenwriter. Sister Ronny Harlin became a casting director and producer.
Penny was an unknown actress scrambling for work in commercials and small roles before landing a recurring part as the nasal secretary Myrna Turner on “The Odd Couple” in 1971. That was followed by a pair of appearances on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
“I can’t act that well, but I can sell a bit,” she told The New Yorker in 2012 when promoting her memoir “My Mother Was Nuts.” “It’s partly the way I talk, but I’m also good with business _ going through my purse, looking for my glasses, lighting a cigarette.”
Her big break came when Garry cast Penny and actress Cindy Williams as Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney on his hit television show “Happy Days.” The wise-cracking pair, workers in the fictional Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee, proved so popular that Garry created a spinoff.
The show became an instant ratings-grabber, running from 1976-83 before its cancellation. The newly-unemployed Marshall then found herself pigeonholed by her success as Laverne, with good roles difficult to find.
And so the actress decided to step behind the camera, an unlikely career move that provided a successful second act to her career.
Hanks was nominated for a best-acting Oscar for his role in “Big,” while De Niro was nominated for the same award for the Marshall-directed film “Awakenings.” Hanks returned, alongside Geena Davis. Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna, for the tale of an all-women baseball league in “A League of Their Own.”
Her first shot in the director’s chair came in 1985, when pal Whoopi Goldberg urged her to take the job for the movie “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
She was married to actor Rob Reiner in 1971, with the pair divorcing a decade later. She had actually tried out for the role of Gloria on “All In the Family,” losing out to Sally Struthers for the role opposite Reiner.
Marshall once joked that their epitaphs were already written: “For me, all they’ll say is ‘Laverne’ and for Rob all they’ll say is ‘Meathead.’”
The New York native was also a die-hard fan of the New York Knicks, seen often in the crowd at Madison Square Garden, and a collector of sports memorabilia.
She previously had a daughter Tracy after a teen-age romance with a football player at the University of New Mexico, but that union too ended in divorce. Marshall also dated singer Art Garfunkel for five years.
“I led an oddly charmed life for someone who thought she was not a charming person,” Marshall once observed.
Marshall was treated 10 years ago for cancer of the brain and lung.
Her family said plans for a “celebration of her life” will be announced at a later date. She was survived by her older sister Ronny, her daughter and three grandkids – Spencer, Bella and Viva.