R.I.P. Penny Marshall, 'Laverne & Shirley' star turned blockbuster director
Penny Marshall will rightfully always be remembered as Laverne DeFazio, the beer-bottling tough-girl from Milwaukee with a sweet tooth for milk-and-Pepsi. First introduced on Happy Days, the character would go on to headline eight seasons of Laverne & Shirley. But Marshall gave us so many more memorable characters on television.
There was Myrna Turner, Oscar's secretary, on The Odd Couple. On The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she played Paula Kovacs, a neighbor. Just before she put on all those sweaters with the cursive "L," Marshall portrayed Janice Dreyfuss on the short-lived series Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers. She also had the honor, years later, to become the first guest star on The Simpsons.
Marshall first worked with her Laverne & Shirley co-star Cindy Williams when the two were writers for Francis Ford Coppola. Around the time of our nation's bicentennial, the Godfather director was producing a spoof dubbed "My Country Tis of Thee." Marshall and Williams were on the writing team, along with Steve Martin, Martin Mull and Harry Shearer. Garry Marshall, Penny's brother, would pluck the two and cast them as Laverne and Shirley.
Laverne & Shirley was a Marshall family affair. Obviously, Penny starred — and she directed some episodes, as well. Her brother Garry created, produced, directed and scripted. Ronny Hallin, their sister, served as the show’s casting director. Anthony Marshall, their father, produced as well.
Much of Laverne's character came from Penny's upbringing. "Pepsi milk," which is just what it sounds like, was Laverne's comfort drink of choice on the show. The treat was an old favorite of Marshall's. She got in the habit as a child, when her mother would make her drink a glass of milk before having some soda. Young Penny would top off her unfinished milk with a splash of cola and — voila! — a new treat.
The "Schlemiel! Schlimazel!" heard as Laverne and Shirley skip along the sidewalk in the opening credits also comes from Marshall's childhood. As Cindy Williams herself explained to us in an interview, the duo's hopscotch mantra was from Marshall's youth. "[Garry's] the one who told Penny, 'Teach Cindy that little ditty you used to do on the way to school. We'll shoot that.'" Williams said. "Penny taught me 'Schlemiel! Schlimazel!' I had no idea what it meant and I'm still kind of shakey on it…. When Penny and her school chums would walk to school, they'd link arms and count off their steps, '1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated!' Then they'd run and stop and start counting again. Garry remembered that."
After the success of the sitcom, Marshall worked more behind the camera. In 1986, Marshall made her feature directorial debut, Jumpin' Jack Flash, an action-comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg. Her three masterpieces would follow — Big (1988), Awakenings (1990) and A League of Their Own (1992). In each case, Marshall displayed her knack for evoking emotional, dramatic performances from comedians. (She even got the most out of Madonna.) Renaissance Man (1994), The Preacher's Wife (1996) and Riding in Cars with Boys (2001) followed, establishing Marshall as one of Hollywood's few breakthrough female directors.
On Monday, December 17, Marshall passed away due to complications from diabetes, as reported by TMZ. She was 75.