ETI Salutes Actress and Director Penny Marshall

In order to be a legend you have to learn from and study the legends.

A legend today is known for their noted celebrity and larger-than-life accomplishments, whose fame is well-known.

Who’s going to help Shirley make her dreams come true now?

Even without “Laverne & Shirley,” Penny Marshall – who died Monday, December 17, 2018 at the age of 75 of complications from diabetes, family spokeswoman Michelle Bega confirmed – would count as Hollywood royalty. She was the sister of late TV mogul Garry Marshall and the ex-wife of Rob Reiner, which ties her to two great comedy traditions.

More importantly, on her own she became one of the most successful female film directors of all time, with hits such as “Big,” “Awakenings” and “A League of Their Own”  to her credit.

Yet for millions of Americans, she remains Laverne DeFazio, the gravel-voiced, gangly Milwaukee brewery worker with the tough act, soft heart and the big “L” on her sweater. Easily riled and easily hurt, Laverne was the more down-to-earth realist to Shirley Feeney’s (Cindy Williams) boo-boo-kitty-loving idealist. They were vastly different but shared the same dream in their 1950s-set blue-collar sitcom: to find true love and a way out of that basement apartment.

It was a role Marshall was born to play, and not just because her brother was the show’s producer (though that family tie, and the corresponding hints of favoritism, eventually caused backstage problems with Williams).

Marshall revealed she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2010 but said two years later she was in remission. 

Marshall spent much of the ’70s perfecting her comedy skills, starting off as Oscar’s woebegone secretary Myrna on “The Odd Couple,” another Garry Marshall series. After a somewhat similar stint as Mary’s new neighbor on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” she made a 1975 guest appearance with Williams on “Happy Days,” and a classic character was born.

Well, almost. Laverne and Shirley were softened considerably – made a bit more feminine and a bit less sexually voracious – for the 1976 debut of ABC’s spinoff “Laverne & Shirley.” What remained was an instantly likable yin-yang onscreen chemistry between the stars. And that, along with terrific supporting work from Michael McKean and David Lander as the girls’ gross neighbors, Lenny and Squiggy, vaulted the show to the top of the ratings.

“Laverne & Shirley” was loud and silly and, aside from those four stars, often incredibly badly acted. Often, it was also wildly funny, particularly when it exploited Marshall and Williams’ complementary slapstick skills. Marshall was never a subtle actress, and Laverne was not a subtle role. But when she and Williams were clicking along at their best, they produced some comedic physical  stunts that held their own with the best of Lucy and Ethel.

Their sitcom didn’t stay popular for long; bad scheduling decisions and Williams’ departure saw to that. But there’s no denying the breadth of its appeal.

Laverne ended in 1983, and for all intents and purposes, so did Marshall’s acting career. She seemed more comfortable behind the camera, making her big-screen directorial debut with the 1986 comedy “Jumping Jack Flash” and following it with “Big,” a breakout role for Tom Hanks in 1988, and “A League of Their Own,” which starred Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell as members of a World War II women’s baseball league. 

She appeared on screen only rarely in recent years, including a brief role in CBS’ short-lived 2016 remake of “The Odd Couple.” 

But as fine as her film work may have been, for many of us, she’ll always hopping down that Milwaukee street, arm in arm with Shirley chanting “Schlemiel, schlemazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated.”

In our dreams, if nowhere else.

Marshall is survived by her older sister Ronny, daughter Tracy Reiner and three grandchildren, Spencer, Bella and Viva. 


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