Penny Marshall, who died Monday at age 75, was an original voice in the entertainment landscape. Literally.
She sounded and looked unlike anyone else on the air in the 1970s. That’s what landed her the role as bouncy blonde Farrah Fawcett’s plain brunette best friend in an ad for Head & Shoulders shampoo.
And years later, her thick Bronx accent, distinct charm and innate comedic chops made her a television sensation when she and Cindy Williams hit it big with the “Happy Days” spin-off “Laverne & Shirley.” It helped that the series was co-created by her brother, Garry Marshall, but nepotism is clearly not what fueled her storied career. Her considerable talents, and her ability to bring out the best in the talent around her, made her an icon.
Born Carole Penny Marshall, the middle child of an Italian-American family, she briefly studied at the University of New Mexico before hightailing it out to California to give acting a go in 1967. Though she struggled to find work and weathered criticisms about her looks (her unconventional beauty would eventually lead to her getting jobs), she landed a bit part in the James Garner-Debbie Reynolds comedy, “How Sweet It Is!”
But it was her breakthrough role as Myrna in “The Odd Couple” that provided the career jolt she needed, carrying her forward to “Happy Days,” and to the role that would make her a a household name: Laverne DeFazio, bottle-capper on the Shotz Brewery line and peppy roommate of wise-cracking Shirley Feeney.
Thanks to the chemistry between Williams and Marshall, their characters went on to have their own highly-rated, now-legendary TV series, “Laverne & Shirley,” which ran from 1976 to 1983. The dynamic duo were Lucy and Ethel for a new generation — and spoke directly to women both in and out of the workforce.
The impeccably performed and well-written show showcased many modern ideals of feminism, despite the setting of the ’50s and ’60s. Unlike such earlier sitcoms as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” the show spotlighted women working a blue-collar job in a primarily masculine world. When it came to “Laverne,” much of the show’s humor was subversive, revolving around her inability to master domesticity, which allowed Marshall to demonstrate her talent for physical comedy as well as her deadpan delivery.
Toward the end of the show’s run, Marshall’s second act as a director was birthed as she helmed a handful of episodes. She quickly parlayed her newfound love of being behind the camera into film work. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” marked her feature film directorial debut and while it did modest business for 20th Century Fox, it’s a farce that’s overdue for a critical re-assessment.
Her sophomore effort, “Big,” became a massive and enduring hit, making her the first woman to direct a film that grossed over $100 million. With “Awakenings,” she achieved another career milestone, becoming only the second woman ever to helm a Best Picture Oscar nominee without actually landing a director’s nomination.
Marshall would later repeat her previous $100 million home run with “A League of Their Own,” a narrative about an all-women’s baseball team that, much like her subversive role on TV, is repeatedly cited as pioneering feminist entertainment. Nevertheless, she would often balk whenever the film would be labeled as such.
She told The New York Times in 1992, “I hadn’t worked with so many women before. I thought it was something I should do. Cause I keep getting asked about it. But I wasn’t doing it just to do a women’s picture. ‘Women’s issue’ is a turnoff altogether. The problems as they’re presented in the movie apply to both men and women — it’s about, ‘Don’t be ashamed of your talents.’ It’s a universal thing.”
As both an actress and a director, Marshall always knew what made her characters tick. Her instinct for getting to the heart of a character’s motivation shines through in the films she so lovingly directed and the characters she fearlessly portrayed. Her legacy is bound to empower generations to come.