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Penny Marshall Played an Underachiever on TV. In Real Life She Was Anything But

4 minute read

In the olden days of TV, long before Netflix or binge-watching and certainly before DVRs, people used to tune in on certain days and times to watch the shows they liked: If you were a kid in the mid-1970s—maybe, particularly, a girl—one of those shows was likely to be Laverne & Shirley, the Happy Days spinoff that became a huge hit by itself. Its stars, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams, played young single women, roommates and best friends, in late 1950s Milwaukee. They worked at a brewery (and horsed around) by day. They went on dates (and horsed around) at night. The cheerful theme song that opened the show included the lyric “We’re gonna make our dreams come true,” but these girls—we thought of them as girls at the time, because they were sort of like us, and we were girls—weren’t exactly go-getters. During that opening song, we saw Laverne Defazio and Shirley Feeney hustle into their plain wool coats and race out the door to get to work on time. On the job, they’d daydream as a forever’s worth of beer bottles drifted by on the conveyor belt. At the end of the day, they couldn’t get out of there soon enough. Today, young women characters are mostly required to be role models, following big dreams instead of merely living out little ones. But Laverne and Shirley, who would dance and laugh and play practical jokes on one another, were the kind of almost-grownups you dreamed of being. They were still having fun, even if that meant getting through drudgery first. They made underachieving look awesome.

Laverne and Shirley - 1976-1983
Penny Marshall on 'Laverne and Shirley,' 1976-1983Paramount Television—Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Penny Marshall, who died on Dec. 17 at age 75, may have played a charming underachiever on TV. But in real life, she was anything but: Even though Marshall had been playing small parts on TV for years, that role on Laverne & Shirley (the show ran for eight seasons) ignited a career that included not just acting but directing and producing as well—all at a time when women had to work much harder to carve out their own success.

Marshall was born in the Bronx in 1943; her brother was producer and director Garry Marshall, who, as the creator of Happy Days, tapped her for the spinoff. She directed four episodes of the show, eventually going on to to produce and direct feature films, beginning with 1986’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash, starring Whoopi Goldberg. Other directing projects included the 1990 Oliver Sacks adaptation Awakenings, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, and, in 1992, A League of Their Own, a fictionalized story based on the real-life members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, starring Geena Davis and Tom Hanks and featuring Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell. But Marshall’s finest film may be the 1988 comedy Big, in which Hanks plays a kid who wishes he were a grown-up: His wish comes true, but he ends up being a thirteen-year-old boy trapped in a grown man’s body, which wasn’t exactly what he was expecting. The picture is filled with broad jokes and small ones, and Marshall navigated both deftly. You get the sense that her own sense of humor, self-deprecating and mildly raucous, was her truest guide.

Marshall’s final film as a director was an as yet unreleased documentary about NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman, and her resume over the last 35 years or so is dotted with acting roles of various sizes. But her most enduring character is Laverne, an outgoing girl with a glorious honk of a voice and a saucy, flirtatious smile. The characters Laverne and Shirley first appeared on an episode of Happy Days, as a type of “fast” girl—a characterization in keeping with the show’s retro appeal. And it’s true that their gameness was part of their charm. They were up for anything, as long as it was fun, and as long as it didn’t involve an endless row of bottles on a conveyor belt. Parents used to tell kids that watching TV all the time would rot their brains, but they didn’t know that so much of what we watched would stick with us—and that our brains weren’t rotting, they were actually working. TV, and people like Penny Marshall, made us who we are: Schlemiels or schlimazels some of the time, but at least able to laugh our way through it all.

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