Penny Marshall, the beloved comedic actor who emerged from her ‘70s television stardom to become one of the few woman directors with big-time Hollywood clout in the ‘80s and ‘90s, has died, TMZ reports. The cause was complications due to diabetes. She was 75.
Marshall was born and raised in the Bronx, New York, the daughter of director Tony Marshall and tap teacher Marjorie Marshall. In the late ‘60s, she began landing small roles on television shows like The Odd Couple and The Mary Tyler Moore Show and, once, as “Liberation Lady” in the 1971 TV film The Feminist and the Fuzz. Her acting career truly broke out, though, in 1976, when she was cast on her brother Garry Marshall’s Happy Days spinoff Laverne & Shirley. As Laverne, the sort of haphazard, boneheaded foil to her best friend Shirley, Marshall’s goofy delivery was a comedic gift that would later inspire Lisa Kudrow’s character Phoebe on Friends.
By the 1980s, Marshall had largely shelved her regular sitcom career in lieu of directing. Her first film, the vibrant 1986 Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Jumpin’ Jack Flash, served as a vehicle to her breakout hit, the classic Tom Hanks film Big, which in 1988 became the first-ever film directed by a woman to gross over $100 million. She also saw critical and box office success with her woman-centric films A League of Their Own (1992), The Preacher’s Wife (1996), and Riding in Cars With Boys (2001), the first of which was a touchstone for a new emergent ‘90s feminism in a year widely conceived of as “The Year of the Woman.” But Marshall balked at the idea of directing a large cast of women as an act of feminism or a reason to pigeonhole A League of Their Own as a “woman’s movie,” telling The New York Times in 1992:
“I hadn’t worked with so many women before,” she says. “I thought it was something I should do. Cause I keep getting asked about it.” She gestures with annoyance at her visitor. “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.”
Riding in Cars With Boys was Marshall’s last film, but she continued acting in television and movies throughout the decades, most recently serving as the narrator in Mother’s Day, her brother Garry’s final film before his death in 2016. Marshall is survived by her daughter, actor Tracy Reiner.