October 15, 1943 – December 17, 2018
November 13, 1934 – July 19, 2016
Real life brother and sister, Penny and Garry Marshall were comedy gold.
When Carole Penny Marshall was a teen in the Bronx, NY, her sister Ronny was off to college, and brother Garry was a budding television writer in Hollywood. Penny was left at home with her kooky mother Marjorie, who ran a basement tap dance school in their building, and her industrial film producer father, Tony Marshall (born Marciarelli). Her parents couldn’t stand each other so of course they stayed married. Penny was often the focal point of her mother’s unhappiness. At age 69, when Penny was promoting her 2012 memoir MY MOTHER WAS NUTS, she still recalled her mother’s hurtful words to her: “You were a miscarriage, but you were stubborn and held on.”
Penny fled to college in Albuquerque New Mexico, where she was married from 1963-66 to college athlete Michael Henry and had a daughter, Tracy. Penny ended up a divorced single-mother and in 1967 decided to hit up big brother Garry in California. He helped her settle in L.A. where she studied acting and auditioned for commercials and character parts. She landed a guest spot on That Girl in 1968, and she appeared in a low budget biker film that year. Penny considered becoming a stunt woman.
She reportedly auditioned for the role of Witchiepoo on H.R. PufnStuf – but Penny lost out to the only other actress who auditioned, Billie Hayes.
Garry Marshall had started out writing jokes for comedians Joey Bishop and Phil Foster (who he later cast on Laverne & Shirley as Pop DeFazio). In 1961, he moved to Hollywood, where he teamed up as a sitcom writer with Jerry Belson. The pair adapted Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple as a sitcom, and Garry had his first hit show for Paramount Television.
In 1971, Odd Couple star Jack Klugman suggested Penny play his secretary Myrna Turner, Garry obliged. Garry reminded Penny she got the part because she was funny. He said he was “not that nice” to cast her if she wasn’t. Penny played the role for 4 years – until Myrna was married off. Her TV husband was played by real-life husband Rob Reiner.
Penny and Rob married in 1971 and were together for a decade. During the 70s, Rob also became a big TV Star from his years as Mike “Meathead” Stivic on the award-winning sitcom, All in the Family (1971-1979). Rob legally adopted Penny’s daughter Tracy and she took his last name. Penny had auditioned for the role of Gloria Bunker – but lost out to Sally Struthers.
When her stint on The Odd Couple was over, Penny appeared in sitcoms for producer James L. Brooks, and worked with Cindy Williams as a writing team. Penny and Cindy Williams were called on by Garry to play two bimbo girls on a double date with Fonzie and Richie Cunningham on his wildly popular sitcom, Happy Days. The duo was a hit with viewers when the episode aired 11/11/75 and a 15-minute quickie pilot was ordered and shot on the Fonzie apartment set. Cindy almost backed out of the series offer – and ABC-TV contract player Liberty Williams was ready to step in, when Garry convinced Cindy to take the job. Cindy and Penny became very famous, and Garry had his first of many spinoffs.
The theme song was Making Our Dreams Come True by Cindy Greco who also did a disco song, Dancing, Dancing and according to Wikipedia sang the theme for the failed show Blansky’s Beauties.
The characters Laverne and Shirley were supposed to be best friends since grade school and it showed in Penny & Cindy’s on-screen chemistry. Laverne & Shirley debuted in January 1976 as a #3 hit following Happy Days on Tuesday nights at 8:30pm/7:30pm(CT). The show was #1 by 1978 with 20 million viewers a week. Penny made TV comedy magic as Laverne DeFazio, the Brooklyn-born, monogrammed L wearing, Milk & Pepsi drinking, dock sailor and gang member dating, athletic & overprotected Italian daughter of a Milwaukee pizzeria owner.
The L&S format graduated to hyper-physical comedy segments that owed much to Garry Marshall’s years writing for The Lucy Show (“Lucy & Viv put in a shower”; “Lucy & Viv put up a TV antenna”). The sitcom was set in 1959-1962 for the Milwaukee years during the first 5 seasons, and 1964-1967 for the last three seasons in California (the producers chose to spare L&S the pain of JFK’s assassination and jumped the characters to ’64 Hollywood to bring in more “interaction with celebrities”). The geographic move from the Midwest was a comedy killer as the working-girls were no longer slogging through Milwaukee snow storms or worried about heating their basement flat. They now sported sundresses in always-sunny Burbank with a furnished apartment and hunky stuntman building manager.
The apartment building used in the Hollywood years is located near the Hancock Park neighborhood in Los Angeles.
The show had to go on, and Shirley was written out (Shirley had joined her hubby overseas and left Laverne a quick goodbye note). Penny called on her friends, Carrie Fisher & Louise Lasser to guest star and bring the funny, and that ‘Baby Show’ was retooled to feature Vicki Lawrence as the one having labor pains atop a casket at a funeral. Against logic, the network wanted Penny to do a 9th season as solo Laverne, but when her condition was that it be filmed in New York, they passed. Laverne & Shirley were over, except for the endless reruns and a few reunion shows. A L&S primetime clip special with the cast was aired in 1995, followed by another reunion/clip/skit special in 2002 with Penny & Cindy schticking it up. By 2002, after years of not speaking to each other, Cindy was divorced from Bill Hudson and she and Penny rekindled her friendship. They last appeared together in a 2013 episode of kiddie sitcom, Sam & Cat.
Penny had directed a few episodes of L&S during those 8 seasons. She once told an interviewer that the way a network got actors to renew for another season was to give you sponsor’s appliances & let you direct a show. She also directed a few episodes of 1979’s Working Stiffs starring Jim Belushi & Michael Keaton. She was hired to direct the film The Joy of Sex, but that fell through. When the 1986 film comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash fired their director and needed a quick replacement – they called Penny with an immediate start date. She called her brother Garry for advice, he told her “It’s a strange business. They pay you to learn.” Learn she did. She brought in improv actors Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz & Lynn Marie Stewart to try to inject more comedy into the caper film with Whoopi Goldberg.
The film wasn’t much of a hit, but Penny got a big screen credit under her belt, and next came BIG, which earned over $100mil (a first for a female director). Awakenings starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro was a drama that earned a Best Picture nomination. Penny was the second female director to ever helm a Best Picture nominated film. Her love of improvisation and honesty with actors was her calling card, and these skills made her 3rd film: A League of Their Own another huge hit. The film featured cameos by her L&S alum Eddie Mekka & David Lander, with small roles to her brother Garry and daughter Tracy Reiner. During these late 80s/early 90s years, as fate would have it, Garry Marshall, along with Ron Howard, and Rob Reiner all became A-list film directors churning out hits.
Penny directed a several more films in the 90s, gave Mark Wahlberg his first acting role, and co-starred as her brother Garry’s wife in the film Hocus Pocus, and did a series of K-Mart commercials with pal Rosie O’Donnell.
Penny’s famous friends through the years included, Louise Lasser, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Marvin Hamlisch, Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson (Who nicknamed her Pendal), Anjelica Huston, Robin Williams, Rosie O’Donnell and Lorraine Bracco. Penny also dated Art Garfunkel for several years.
Penny’s best friend of 30-plus years was Carrie Fisher, with whom Penny always celebrated their joint October birthdays. From Penny’s memoir: “We’ve lasted longer than all of our marriages combined. Our crazy lives have meshed perfectly. We’ve always said it’s because we never liked the same drugs or men, but I know there’s more to it.” I did ask Carrie Fisher about this and although she said nothing negative at all, stated that the press had blown it out of proportion and they hadn’t had one together in a while. This was late 90’s. Her mouth to my ears, so don’t write me telling me I’m FOS.
Angelica Huston spoke of their faded friendship, “Her habits conflicted with mine. She stayed up all night smoking cigarettes in subzero temperatures. Her rooms were freezing. Like air-conditioned, way up. She stayed up all night, followed QVC for beanbag dolls and stuff. She had this collection of sports memorabilia. She had a sort of museum in her basement full of signed baseballs and Lakers shirts. I just couldn’t relate. And also, frankly, she took a lot of coke.”
Penny proclaimed that she had “dodged a bullet” after her 4-year battle with a brain tumor and lung cancer that began in 2009. After her book press tour in Sept. 2012, and the 2016 deaths of Garry Marshall and Carrie Fisher, Penny spent less time in the spotlight. She went to fewer Lakers games and worked quietly behind the scenes on her NFL curiosity, Dennis Rodman’s documentary.
Penny recalled a fantastic incident that occurred when two masked men entered her home to rob her. They demanded her jewelry. “I can’t. I’m doing a movie. I wore them on camera. I have to match the shots.” Penny was wearing a facial mask and just told the thieves that she was going to wash her face, and did. When they recognized her, one exclaimed, “Oh, my God. If we’d known it was you, we never would have come up. “Well, you can leave anytime.” It’s a great story that I read in the free preview of her book. Seriously, it’s free. It’s worth a look to read this story.
Her health grew worse. I have skads of tabloid articles from over 8 years before her death… “Penny’s Last Days” “Penny Has Months To Live” “Penny Still Smoking!” “Penny’s Weight Balloons” “Roly-Poly Penny” “Penny Battling Cancer Again”. One article claims that after Carrie’s death, Penny reached out to Mark Wahlberg who moved her into his huge Hollywood home. “He’s helping her cope with her grief, and keeping an eye on her health.” That sounds unlikely, but if it’s in print it has to be true.
Penny was asked about her legacy in 2012 and said: “For me, all they’ll say is Laverne.” She accepted that she was “stuck with it.”
Upon her death, the Hollywood Walk of Business Cards (50k price tag) put a wreath on her star, but, afraid it would end up for all to see in our museum, quickly snatched the name tag and stomped off. God love them.
Photo by Brian Donnelly
In the end it was the 40-year-old memories of Laverne that drew fans back to mourn the actress who brought her to life and gave viewers so much joy. It was the love for young, feisty and funny Penny as Laverne that gathered fans and her surviving cast members to a memorial tribute & all-day marathon of L&S episodes at the Garry Marshall Theater in North Hollywood on January 27, 2019.
Trivia: Cindy Williams claimed that she and Penny would decorate the set themselves. They brought in their own props to give it a more “working class” look. She brought in her high school yearbook for the set, and never saw it again.
Wanna see Penny’s mailbox?
Henry Winkler (who probably owes his career to Garry, and Winkler acknowledges it) wrote, “Wisdom. Generosity. No-nonsense. Warm. Funny. Loyal. He carved his own avenue through the world. He did it Garry’s way. He was allergic to 132 things. He spent most of his life sneezing. Garry told him, “It doesn’t matter what show you’re doing, as long as [there’s] a nice bunch of people doing it.”
Supporting the fact that he was a hypochondriac, Garry’s wife said that she was volunteering at an LA free clinic when Garry was directing the movie Pretty Woman in 1989. “Garry would never visit me at the clinic, he was afraid of getting a disease.” But he did send in Julia Roberts. (Go on, Julia. It’ll be… great.) Barbara paid two hookers $35 each to hang out with Julia so she could research the role.
Upon Garry’s death, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce – who ditched their office on the filthy Hollywood Blvd. for a comfy home miles away on Sunset Blvd, put a wreath on Garry’s star. No one loves Hollywood more.