Pat Reeder, Staff writer
(This story is from “Huckabee” writer and our resident pop culture guru, Pat Reeder. Check out his hilarious book “Hollywood Hi-Fi” and its Facebook page, where he’s currently sharing rare celebrity Christmas records, at http://www.facebook.com/hollywoodhifibook )
We're all sad to hear of the death of comic actress/director/writer/producer Penny Marshall. She died Monday night at her Hollywood Hills home at 75, from complications of diabetes.
Your first thought of her might depend on which phase of her remarkable career you came of age in. After playing a number of bit parts in ‘60s comedies, she landed her breakthrough role in the sitcom version of “The Odd Couple” as Oscar Madison’s schlumpy secretary Myrna, a part that Jack Klugman insisted she be cast in. Most fans will instantly think of her with an “L” embroidered on her blouse as Laverne DeFazio, one of two plucky brewery workers with big dreams in the ABC mega-hit, “Laverne and Shirley.” But younger readers might first recall her for the hit movies she directed, such as “Big,” “A League of their Own,” “Awakenings” and “The Preacher’s Wife.”
There will be a lot of tributes and obituaries for her in the news, so instead of repeating all the things they’ll say, here are some cool trivia bits about her that you might not know:
She was the kid sister of legendary sitcom writer/producer Garry Marshall, but she wasn’t handed stardom through nepotism. She barely knew Garry when she moved to Hollywood, and he gave her some advice and introductions. But as a divorced mom, she worked as a secretary to support herself and her daughter while studying acting and going to auditions.
Her first TV role was in a Head & Shoulders dandruff shampoo commercial, in the rather humiliating part of the golden-tressed Farrah Fawcett’s Plain Jane roommate.
She auditioned for the role of Gloria on “All In The Family,” but was rejected. But her then-husband, Rob Reiner, got the part of Mike.
The “Happy Days” spin-off “Laverne & Shirley” debuted at #1, and in its first two years, beat “All In The Family” in the ratings. It ran for eight years and was so popular it once pulled a 60 share in the ratings. Penny said, “That doesn’t happen except for the Academy Awards or things like that, like the Super Bowl.” It was sold into syndication for the then-record price of $50,000 an episode and is still being enjoyed by new generations.
Producer Garry Marshall said, “People were dying for someone that didn’t look like Mary Tyler Moore, a regular person. My sister looks like a regular person, talks like a regular person.”
Despite its popularity, “L&S” was repeatedly snubbed by the Emmy Awards. Neither Penny nor co-star Cindy Williams was ever nominated for Best Comedy Actress. The show received only one Emmy nomination, for Best Costume Design.
At the height of its popularity, two albums were released: “Laverne & Shirley Sing” and “Lenny and Squiggy Present Lenny & The Squigtones,” featuring the comedy rock tunes of supporting cast members Michael McKean and David Lander. Their band included Christopher Guest under the alias Nigel Tufnel, making this the earliest incarnation of the satirical, fictional rock band, Spinal Tap.
After making the leap to directing, she seldom acted again. It’s very unusual for a TV sitcom star to become a major motion picture director. Ron Howard is also such a rarity, and by a weird coincidence, he starred in “Happy Days,” which begat “Laverne & Shirley.”
Penny Marshall was only the second woman in history to direct a film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (“Awakenings.”) She’s one of seven women to do that without getting nominated for Best Director.
She was a lifelong Yankees fan (she used to skip school as a kid to attend their games) and a supporter of the Lakers and Clippers. You’d be more likely to spot her courtside at a basketball game than at a chic showbiz party. And she was a major sports memorabilia collector who owned everything from Michael Jordan’s jersey to rare vintage baseball photos from Cuba. “A League of Their Own” was a dream project for her because she wanted the world to know about the history of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.