Penny Marshall, Star of Laverne & Shirley, Dead at Age 75

The beloved director passed away "due to complications from diabetes," according to a family spokesperson

By Zach Johnson Dec 18, 2018 6:55 PMTags
Penny Marshall20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock

Actress and director Penny Marshall died "peacefully" last night at age 75 at her Hollywood Hills home, E! News has confirmed. Her cause of death was complications from diabetes, and a celebration of life ceremony will be held at a later date. "Our family is heartbroken over the passing of Penny Marshall," a spokesperson for the star's family told E! News in a statement. Born Oct. 15, 1943, Penny is predeceased by her brother, actor/director Garry Marshall. She is survived by her sister Ronny Marshall; her daughter Tracy Reiner; and her three grandchildren.

A no-nonsense New Yorker, Penny's Hollywood breakthrough came from starring in the hit sitcom Laverne & Shirley, which ran for eight seasons on ABC from Jan. 27, 1976, until May 10, 1983. But Penny found even more success behind the camera, directing hit films like Big (1988), Awakenings (1990), A League of Their Own (1992), The Preacher's Wife (1996) and Riding in Cars With Boys (2001), among others. With Big, Penny made history as the first woman to direct a movie that grossed $100 million—something she did again with A League of Their Own.

"With directing, I didn't have to wear makeup or get my hair done. But I do not like getting up that early," she said in a Women and Hollywood interview in 2012. "In TV we did our show in front of an audience, so we got up early only one morning. We did camera blocking in the morning and we shot at night which was a much more humane existence. No one is funny at 7 a.m. It's faster to act, but a lot of times you are sitting in a Winnebago waiting. Directing is more fun—if you can create stuff, if you can create business for people to do and not just pull lines out of people's mouths. So if people come prepared then you can add business. I like behavior."

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A multitalented workhorse, Penny also produced a number of movies and TV series. "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," the Marshall family said. "We hope her life continues to inspire others to spend time with family, work hard and make all of their dreams come true."

After high school, Penny attended the University of New Mexico (where she met her first husband, Michael Henry) before joining Garry in L.A. in 1967. She booked her first film role in 1968's How Sweet It Is, starring James Garner and Debbie Reynolds (which her brother co-wrote). Not regarded as an ingénue, Penny struggled to find work for the next few years. But everything changed after Garry cast her in two shows he produced: The Odd Couple (as Myrna Turner) and Happy Days (as Laverne De Fazio). The latter series, of course, spawned the spinoff Laverne & Shirley. In the show's heyday, Penny was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards.

Paramount Television

"I didn't know my brother that well," Penny told Tavis Smiley in a 2012 interview, recalling her early days. "I went and said, 'Let me go meet him.' He was doing well. He was writing for Dick Van Dyke and Joey Bishop and every show, so why not to meet him? He's a great guy. I wouldn't have a career without him. He told me go have lunch with this person, go take acting classes from this person. I said, 'Mommy wants me to change my name.' He said, 'Why?' 'Because she doesn't want me to embarrass the family.' He said, 'Don't listen to her; she's nuts.'"

Penny married actor Rob Reiner in 1971 and amicably divorced him a decade later.

After learning of his ex-wife's death Tuesday, Rob simply tweeted, "So sad about Penny."

Gary Gershoff/WireImage

Afterward, Penny enjoyed a long, serious romance with singer Art Garfunkel in the mid-1980s. By the time she made her directorial debut with Jumpin' Jack Flash in 1986, Penny had essentially retired as an actress. But, she later had cameo roles in movies and shows like Get Shorty, High Fidelity, Hocus Pocus, Mother's Day, Nash Bridges, New Year's Eve and Portlandia.

Penny was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, which she beat within a few years. As she told the Television Academy Foundation in 2016, "being alive" was her "biggest achievement." With her dry sense of humor, she joked, "I'm the only one who gained weight! Everyone else with cancer shrinks. I gained 50 lbs.! I don't know why. I have this very strange constitution. Why could I lift [Laverne & Shirley's Cindy Williams] up and spin her around? I have a strange constitution. I never worked out. I never did gym. Don't like it! I'd rather play a game. I'd rather play tennis badly. I'd rather shoot a basket—anything!—than do a treadmill or sit on a bike that hurts your butt. No. So, I have strange constitution. Right now—except that I'm overweight, and I know it—I've been pretty lucky. So, that's a big thing that I overcame, and I'm very lucky."