The untold truth of Penny Marshall

Penny Marshall passed away on December 16, 2018 at age 75 at her home in California. She was a fixture of entertainment — first in front of the camera, and then behind it — for more than 40 years. Marshall was a true original, forever approachable, self-deprecating, and possessing a signature, often-imitated, nasally, Bronx-accented voice. 

She already belonged to the ages thanks to a long run on ABC's Laverne & Shirley, which aired from 1976 to 1983. To call that show popular is an understatement — the Happy Days spinoff about two single, working women who were best friends and roommates was a pop culture phenomenon. The show spent many of its years among the most-watched programs on TV, thanks to the charm and likability of Marshall (as Laverne) and her chemistry with Cindy Williams (Shirley). Marshall never starred in another sitcom, because she chose to make film history instead, directing several classics of the '80s and '90s, including Big, Awakenings, and A League of Their Own.

Here's a look back on her remarkable rise and accomplishments.

A brand new Penny

"Penny Marshall" is such a perfect name for a star — catchy, friendly, easy to spell and remember — that it sounds made up. It's only partially invented, however. The actress and director was born Carole Marshall, after Golden Age of Hollywood legend Carole Lombard (per The Hollywood Reporter). The middle name of the future Laverne DeFazio: Penny. According to a 1977 feature in the Kentucky New Era, that was born out of a compromise with Marshall's older sister, Ronny. Ronny desperately wanted a horse, but her parents told her that it wasn't really feasible, as they lived in the heart of the Bronx. Distraught over saving her pennies for nothing, mom and dad gave the new baby the middle name "Penny" in tribute.

The seeds of showbiz had already been planted, too. Both of Marshall's parents worked in entertainment, although in the very far reaches of the biz. Her father made industrial films for a living, while her mother was a tap dance instructor.

The men of Penny

Despite her family's connections to the entertainment industry, Penny Marshall didn't initially plan to pursue a career in Hollywood. Instead, she majored in psychology at the University of New Mexico, and met a football player named Michael Henry. Marshall dropped out and the two got hitched in 1963, having a daughter, Tracy, during their three years of marriage. By the early '70s, she was ready to give acting — and love — another shot. In early 1971, Marshall married actor Rob Reiner, who just so happened to grow up on the same street in the Bronx where she lived, although they weren't acquainted. The street was "very wide," Marshall joked in her memoir My Mother Was Nuts (via Newsweek). Reiner and Marshall both auditioned for roles on All in the Family. Reiner got the part of Mike Stivic, but Marshall didn't get cast as Gloria. 

After a divorce in 1981, Marshall dated another Boomer icon: Art Garfunkel, one of the top two musicians in Simon & Garfunkel. The singer says that Marshall helped him through a particularly tough period of depression, both when they were romantically involved and after. "Penny is a sweet human being who can bring anybody down to earth," Garfunkel told The Daily Mail in 1998 (via his official website). "We had a lot of laughs, great sex, and a ton of party nights." 

A Penny who earned (her place in Hollywood)

After paying the bills in the mid-1960s, as her mother did, working as a dance teacher and secretary (per The LA Times), Marshall caught the acting bug and made a go of it in Hollywood in the late '60s and early '70s. Whoever booked talent for Head & Shoulders shampoo commercials during this period really had an eye for talent, casting Farrah Fawcett and Penny Marshall as roommates in one ad. Marshall then paid her dues on TV, winning small roles on shows like That Girl, The Bob Newhart Show, Love, American Style, and a made-for-TV movie called The Feminist and the Fuzz (Marshall portrayed "Liberation Lady"). 

Marshall landed her breakout gig in 1972: the recurring role of Myrna, secretary to Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) on The Odd Couple. A few years later, Marshall easily got the part of Laverne on Laverne & Shirley, not only because she previously played the character on Happy Days, but because the spinoff show was created obviously with her in mind — by her brother, TV writer and mega-producer Garry Marshall.

The Musical Stylings of Laverne and Shirley

Ancillary merchandise for TV sitcoms exploded in the 1970s. Shows that were particularly popular with kids spawned all kinds of souvenirs, like lunchboxes, dolls, and LPs. (Check your parents' attic for that eBay-ready Fonzie action figure, kids!) Laverne & Shirley premiered to instant success in January 1976, and by the end of the year, hardcore fans of Laverne and or/Shirley could purchase Laverne & Shirley Sing

Released by Atlantic Records, the album featured Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams — in character as Laverne and Shirley — warbling their way through covers of songs from their show's late '50s / early '60s setting, including the Everly Brothers' "All I Have to Do is Dream," the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron," and Connie Stevens' "Sixteen Reasons." Marshall and Williams performed "Da Doo Ron Ron" during the 1976 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, while "Sixteen Reasons" became a minor hit, peaking at #65 on the pop chart.

Marshall approached it all as a lark. "I knew I couldn't sing," Marshall said in an episode of Biography. "How often do you get asked to make a record? We can't sing, let's do it!" 

As a director, she was... in a league of her own

Marshall plotted her move from actor to director during her time on Laverne & Shirley. She directed four episodes of her show between 1979 and 1981, along with Working Stiffs, a pilot starring a pre-fame Michael Keaton and Jim Belushi. 

Marshall got her first feature film directing work on the 1986 movie Jumpin' Jack Flash. According to the Associated Press, star Whoopi Goldberg and the film's original director, Howard Zieff, didn't get along, so Goldberg managed to bring in Marshall to replace him. Marshall's next film: Big, the 1988 comedy that earned Tom Hanks his first Academy Award nomination as well as just under $115 million at the box office. With that, Marshall became the first woman to direct a movie that hit the $100 million blockbuster threshold, according to Variety (She'd do it againwith A League of Their Own a few years later). In between, she directed the based-on-a-true story Awakenings, which got an Oscar nomination for Best Picture — only the second time a female-helmed movie earned that honor, according to Vox

What she really wanted to do was direct…but not just anything

While Penny Marshall landed her first feature directing job with Jumpin' Jack Flash, a few other movies could have easily been her filmmaking debut. According to a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Marshall very nearly directed Peggy Sue Got Married, which, like Laverne & Shirley, was set during the Eisenhower administration. While the finished film starred Kathleen Turner with Francis Ford Coppola directing, it fell apart due to "creative differences, as they say," according to Marshall. Around 1983 or so, she also had a crack at The Joy of Sex, an '80s teen sex comedy in the vein of Porky's that was also a loose adaptation of the bestselling sex manual of the same name. Why did Marshall back away? "I didn't have the time, because I was in the middle of Laverne & Shirley," she explained. 

A few other scripts found their way to Marshall, but she wasn't interested because she found them puerile. "When I'd get to the place where it said, '… and then they put underpants on their heads,' I would lose interest," Marshall explained.

Laverne's beverage of choice was Penny Marshall's, too

Laverne and Shirley's many unique quirks helped make Laverne & Shirley something special, and perhaps there's no quirkier quirk from the beloved sitcom than Laverne's favorite drink: milk mixed with Pepsi. That's so specific (and kind of gross-sounding) that it could only have come from real life. It did — Penny Marshall herself drank that weird combo throughout childhood. 

As she told Good Morning America during a Laverne & Shirley cast reunion in 2012, she asked her mother to have a soda with a meal one day. Her mother relented, provided young Penny drank her milk first. That's when the tastes converged. "She didn't wash out the glass so she then poured the soda in. I used to drink it a lot." 

Marshall still drank the stuff in real life for years — she downed a milk n' Pepsi during an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1988. But how does it taste? Maybe not terrible: According to PopSugar, the drink tastes like "a Pepsi float once the ice cream has started to melt."

She's responsible for that opening rhyme at the beginning of Laverne & Shirley

Laverne & Shirley boasted one of the best theme songs ever — all that dazzling talk about making one's dreams come true — as well as a great opening credit sequence. As the title characters, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams cavorted around a fictional, retro Milwaukee, goofing at work at the Shotz Brewery and banging apartment doors into each other. But the whole thing starts off with Marshall and Williams skipping down the street, almost in sync, singing what seems like a schoolyard chant: "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight / Sclemeel, schlemazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated." 

As related to Good Morning America in 2012, that couplet actually is a schoolyard chant, a "Yiddish-English hopscotch rhyme" that Penny Marshall loved to sing on her way to school when she was a kid. Laverne & Shirley co-creator — and Penny Marshall's brother, Garry Marshall — remembered it when shooting the show's opening sequence. "Penny, teach Cindy, 'Sclemeel, schlimazel,'" Williams remembered Garry Marshall saying, and so Penny Marshall did.

Hollywood: when you're here, you're family

Penny Marshall and Garry Marshall (who passed away in 2016) were one of the few sibling pairs to find lasting fame in show business, just like the Osmonds and Carpenters, although way less creepy. Actually, they did do one mildly unsettling thing together. The Marshalls showed up for an extended cameo sequence in the classic Halloween family film Hocus Pocus. Garry plays a suburban man in costume as the Devil who flirts wildly with the witchy Sanderson sisters. That angers and upsets his wife … portrayed by the actor's sister, Penny Marshall.

Penny Marshall worked for her brother, and vice versa, on more than one occasion. For example, Penny directed A League of Their Own, which featured Garry as Walter Harvey, the candy company bigshot who starts the women's baseball league central to the film. And Penny Marshall's final movie credit was as narrator of the 2016 ensemble comedy Mother's Day. That's the last film Garry Marshall directed before his death.

Carrie on, Penny

On television, Penny Marshall was best friends with Cindy Williams — she was the Shirley to her Laverne. Offscreen, Marshall's best friend was a Hollywood legend: Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. As Marshall discussed in her 2012 memoir My Mother Was Nuts (via Jezebel), she and Fisher got chummy in the late '70s when Paul Simon, Fisher's husband at the time, and his close friend, Saturday Night Live boss Lorne Michaels, introduced the two women, convinced they'd "hit it off." Simon and Michaels were right, but who could have predicted that beginning in 1981, the BFFs would throw annual joint birthday parties for themselves (both Marshall and Fisher had an October birthday).

Those parties because the stuff of Hollywood legend. Only the truly elite got an invite, which over the years included people like Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson, and Nicole Kidman. On one occasion, David Bowie had to crash because even he couldn't get an the guest list.

Parties are fleeting, but book dedications are forever — and Marshall called out Fisher at the beginning of her memoir. "I want to thank Carrie Fisher, my friend and partner in crime for more than 30 years," she wrote. "We've lasted longer than all of our marriages combined. Our crazy lives have meshed perfectly."