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Penny Marshall, actress and director, dead at 75

The actor/director was known for Laverne from "Laverne & Shirley" and for directing "Big" and "A League of Their Own."

Penny Marshall arrives at the premiere of "New Year's Eve" in Los Angeles on Monday, Dec. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
Penny Marshall arrives at the premiere of "New Year's Eve" in Los Angeles on Monday, Dec. 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)Read moreASSOCIATED PRESS

Actress and director Penny Marshall, 75, who became famous for her portrayal of Laverne DeFazio in Laverne & Shirley during the 1970s, died Monday in Los Angeles.

Marshall’s publicist, Michelle Bega, said Marshall passed away in her Hollywood Hills, Calif., home on Monday due to complications from diabetes.

The daughter of a tap dance teacher and a film director, Ms. Marshall earned three nominations for the Golden Globe Award for best actress — Television Series Musical or Comedy for her role in Laverne & Shirley. She began directing films in the 1980s. Her film, Big, became the first film directed by a woman to gross more than $100 million at the U.S. box office.

Although, Ms. Marshall was not confident of the movie’s success when she first saw it. “I went into a six-week depression after seeing the first assemblage of Big …” Ms. Marshall told the Inquirer’s Steven Rea in 1989. “Six weeks! I thought, this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life, it stinks, and I can’t make it work, I’m a total failure … It was terrible. Terribly depressing.”

Born in the Bronx in New York City on Oct. 15, 1943, Ms. Marshall began her career as a tap dancer at three years old and later taught tap at her mother’s dance school. In 1967, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment with her older brother, Garry Marshall, a television writer who worked on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Ms. Marshall’s first television appearance was for Head and Shoulders beautifying shampoo. She played a girl with unattractive hair while Farrah Fawcett played a girl with thick, bouncy hair. When Fawcett sensed Ms. Marshall’s insecurity about her being labeled as the “Homely Girl” on her onset placard, she crossed it out and wrote “Plain.”

Ms. Marshall went on to land a role in her brother’s show, The Odd Couple, playing Oscar’s secretary Myrna, and she appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show as Mary’s neighbor along with Mary Kay Place.

Eventually Garry, who was the creator and a writer for Happy Days, arranged for Cindy Williams to guest on an episode of Happy Days with Ms. Marshall. The episode, which aired in 1975, introduced Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney — wisecracking brewery workers who were dates for Fonzie and Richie. It was such a hit with the studio audience that Garry decided to create a spin-off, Laverne & Shirley.

Garry, who passed away in 2016, encouraged Ms. Marshall to pursue directing. She directed four episodes of Laverne & Shirley before moving on to feature films, which included an impressive run of crowd-pleasing dramedies, including 1988′s Big starring Tom Hanks, 1990′s Awakenings starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, 1992′s A League of Their Own with Geena Davis and Hanks, and The Preacher’s Wife starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston in 1996.

“While Marshall treats this storming of what was previously an exclusively male bastion with the pomp that might be reserved for the first woman’s Supreme Court justice’s entry into the chambers, that’s not the film’s point,” former Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey wrote about A League of Their Own. "It’s no sermon on the mound like The Natural; Marshall’s picture is about the joy of the game.

A League of Their Own is for every girl who played catch with her father. And for every dad who watched his daughter swat a homer out of the park.”

In 1991, Ms. Marshall received the Women in Film Crystal Award. In 2013, Women in Film and Video presented the actress and director with the Women of Vision Award.

The last film Ms. Marshall directed was Riding in Cars with Boys in 2001, and her final film as an actor was Mother’s Day, directed by her brother. In 2016, Ms. Marshall appeared on The Odd Couple as Patty Dombrowski in the episode “Taffy Days.”

While a student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Ms. Marshall met Michael Henry, a football player. She left college to marry him when she was 19 and they had one daughter, Tracy. The marriage lasted for three years.

In 1971, she married actor and director Rob Reiner. The marriage ended in 1981, but the couple shared five grandchildren.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.