Penny Marshall Biography

Penny Marshall photo

Born: October 15, 1942
Died: December 17, 2018


Date of Birth: October 15, 1942

Born in the Bronx, New York, Penny Marshall was born to a show business family — her father made industrial videos, and her mother was a dance instructor. Penny began dancing at a young age, and when she was 15, she appeared as one of a troupe of dancers on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour. She attended a private girls’ school before enrolling at the University of New Mexico to study math and psychology. While there, she became pregnant with her daughter, Tracy, and married the father, Michael Henry. Unfortunately, the marriage ended in divorce two years later. Meanwhile, Penny’s older brother Garry was making a name for himself in Hollywood as a writer, penning scripts for hit series such as The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Lucille Ball Show.

After her divorce, Marshall worked as a secretary, but she was struggling to make ends meet while raising her daughter alone, so she gratefully accepted an offer from her brother to appear in a movie he had written and was producing, called How Sweet It Is(1968). Penny played one of many "tour girls" in the film, but she got a taste of performing for the camera and never looked back. Soon after, she landed another small role in the film The Savage Seven (1968), as well as a guest appearance on the hit television series That Girl, starring Marlo Thomas. In 1970, Garry Marshall became the executive producer of the television series The Odd Couple, and in 1971, Penny was added to the cast as Oscar’s whiny-voiced secretary, Myrna. The show was a hit, and Penny ended up playing the role for four years. On April 10, 1971, she married Rob Reiner, who was then one of the stars of the popular TV series All in the Family.

While enjoying her regular gig on The Odd Couple, Penny gained valuable experience playing small roles in TV movies such as Evil Roy Slade (1972), starring Mickey Rooney (and produced by brother Garry); The Crooked Hearts (1972) starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in which she played a waitress; The Couple Takes a Wife, starring Bill Bixby; and a Walt Disney made-for-TV movie called Wacky Zoo of Morgan City (1972). From 1972 to 1973, she did double duty, appearing as a regular on The Bob Newhart Show as well as keeping up her role on The Odd Couple.

In 1975, Garry cast her as Laverne DeFazio on an episode of his new hit TV series, Happy Days. Her friend, Cindy Williams, was cast as her buddy, Shirley. They would return for five more episodes before Garry created the spin-off Laverne & Shirley, which debuted in 1976. The series was a big hit and made Penny and Cindy household names. In 1978, Penny and her husband Rob Reiner, who by then had given her daughter Tracy his last name, starred together in a TV movie, More Than Friends (1978). Unfortunately, just two years later, they underwent a less-than-friendly divorce in 1980.

While starring on Laverne & Shirley, Penny made her debut as a director on the show, and went on to direct several episodes over the years. In 1979, she directed several episodes of the short-lived sitcom Working Stiffs, starring Michael Keaton and James Belushi. When Laverne & Shirley came to an end in 1983, Penny’s acting career foundered. She gladly accepted the opportunity to make the leap to feature film director with Jumping Jack Flash (1986), when the original director dropped out. In true Marshall family tradition, she gave her daughter Tracy a role (Tracy made her film debut in 1984 in her uncle Garry’s film Flamingo Kid). Penny also returned her brother Garry’s many favors by giving him a role in the film as well. Unfortunately the movie was not a critical or box-office success, but Penny’s next film, Big (1988), starring Tom Hanks, was box office gold. Big earned Penny the distinction of being the first female to direct a movie that grossed over $100 million dollars domestically. Having distinguished herself as a top-rate comic director, Marshall next took on a drama. Awakenings (1990) starred Robert De Niro as a man who comes out of his catatonic state when given a new treatment by his doctor. The film was Marshall’s second big success and earned a Best Picture Academy Award® nomination.

Her next project was A League of Their Own (1992), again starring Tom Hanks, with Marshall’s brother Garry and daughter Tracy appearing in supporting roles. The film was another box office success, earning over $100 million and firmly establishing Marshall as one of Hollywood’s top directors. Unfortunately, her run of success seemed to have come to an end when her next film, Renaissance Man (1994) lost money at the box office, followed by The Preacher’s Wife (1996), which didn’t fare much better. Marshall made a rare TV guest appearance playing an NYPD detective on Nash Bridges in February 1998, but returned to directing with Riding in Cars with Boys (2001), starring Drew Barrymore. Most recently, she completed a documentary titled Rodman (2019), about Dennis Rodman.

Marshall's hobbies include needlepoint, putting jigsaw puzzles together and collecting antiques.

On December 17, 2018, Marshall passed away in Los Angeles, California from complications related to diabetes.

Filmography (director):

Rodman (2019)
Riding in Cars with Boys (2001)
The Preacher’s Wife (1996)
Renaissance Man (1994)
A League of Their Own (1992)
Awakenings (1990)
Big (1988)
Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986)

Filmography (actress):

Mother's Day (2016) (voice)
Staten Island Summer (2015)
Special Delivery (1999)
Get Shorty (1995) (uncredited)
Hocus Pocus (1993) (uncredited)
The Hard Way (1991)
She's Having a Baby (1988) (uncredited)
Movers and Shakers (1985)
1941 (1979) (uncredited)
How Come Nobody's on Our Side? (1975)
The Grasshopper (1970)
The Savage Seven (1968)
How Sweet It Is! (1968)

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