Back in the day when there were three network channels, a couple of locals on UHF (whaaaaa?), and your TV had rabbit ears, if a show took off, its star or stars didn’t become part of the zeitgeist—they were the zeitgeist. Among them The Fonz. Bo and Luke Duke. Archie Bunker. Laverne DeFazio.
DeFazio, played by The Bronx-born-and-raised Penny Marshall, was the brassy, blue-collar successor to the comparably prim Mary Richards. TV hadn’t seen her before but, boy, Marshall sure would never let us forget we had. In an archetype-creating performance, she brought laughs to living rooms everywhere as “Laverne and Shirley” quickly steamrolled to the #1 fucking show in America for two straight years (and several Top 5 showings). Sadly, the beloved actress, director, and producer passed away yesterday at 75 due to complications from diabetes.
Needless to say, the TV, film, and sports worlds were crushed. From the people who knew her, worked with her, and loved her…
And this one made me laugh.
After several guest roles on several shows, her brother Garry cast her in a spin-off from his behemoth hit show “Happy Days”. TV viewers “were dying for somebody that didn’t look like Mary Tyler Moore or all the pretty girls on TV. They wanted somebody who looked like a regular person. And my sister looks like a regular person — talks like a regular person” said her brother said years ago. And so, “Laverne and Shirley” was born and it quickly followed the success of the show that birthed it.
Marshall and her co-star Cindy Williams were soon household names and getting the full merch treatment. Everybody watched and loved L&S. The 1950s-set comedic adventures of two bachelorette roommates was the #1 show in the land then a consistent ratings performer. A legal dispute between Williams and producers led to its abrupt end in 1983 after eight seasons.
So many comedic female roles today can trace their DNA back to Laverne, a new kind of TV character. She wasn’t the loyal wife or the knockout or the bimbo but rather a sharp-tongued comedian with a gift for physical and verbal comedy. She held a manual labor job at a brewery, drank milk and Pepsi together (inspiring untold number of kids to do the same before gagging), and wore her trademark cursive L on the left side of her chest, a part of her character as distinctive as her voice. There was nobody like Laverne before her and I’m not sure there’s been anyone close since.
In addition to creating an all-timer in Laverne, Marshall kicked in doors for female directors when she became the first woman to direct a movie that made $100M with her second flick, the beloved Tom Hanks vehicle BIG. Two years later, the terrific but underseen AWAKENINGS garnered three Oscar noms including Best Picture.
Two years after that, Marshall helmed arguably her most popular fare, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN. The heartfelt and funny story about the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was a big hit and shined a light on a story many were unaware of. It also gave us the oft-repeated classic line “There’s no crying in baseball!” as uttered by Hanks.
But more important than her trailblazing work, Marshall was seemingly beloved by all (including ex-husband Reiner per his above Tweet). Friends spoke of her fierce loyalty. She might not have been a happy person (“I’m a depressed person”) but she sure did make everyone else smile.
In just the last handful of years, I’ve said farewell a lot of celebrities I grew up watching, listening to, admiring, and being inspired by. But some of the losses are just different in that they sting just a little bit more. Losing Penny Marshall stings just a little bit more.
MeTV is going to air Marshall’s favorite “Laverne and Shirley” episodes on Sunday at 5PM ET.