Entertainment was in her blood. She was born to it. One might say it was the “family trade.” What do I mean by that? Read on.
Carole Penny Marshal was born in the Bronx, NYC, NY on October 15, 1943. (Do you know the derivation of the name, Bronx? See below.) Her father was a film director and producer; her mother operated a tap dancing school; her brother, Garry, six years her senior, was a very successful actor, screenwriter, director and producer; and her sister, Ronny, was a television producer. Yes, one might say that Penny was born to be an entertainer.
The area in which Penny was raised was a cultural hotbed. Various other creative people with whom you may be familiar grew up there around the same time as well – Paddy Chayefsky, Calvin Klein, Neil Simon and Ralph Lauren, for instance.
The derivation of her name was quite interesting. Her first name was an homage to Carole Lombard who was her mother’s favorite actress. The source of her middle name was a little more convoluted. The story goes that Ronny was saving her pennies to buy a horse, which she wanted desperately. Of course, living in the Bronx, it was not happening, but Penny’s mother hoped that naming the new baby “Penny” would offer Ronny some consolation. True or exaggerated, it makes for a good story.
According to Penny religion was not very important to the family, except in a practical sense. She would tell the story that her mother would “[send] us anyplace that had a hall where she could put on a recital.” So, Garry was christened as an Episcopalian, Ronny a Lutheran, and Penny, Congregational. “If [her mother] hadn’t needed performance space we wouldn’t have bothered.”
Penny Marshall exhibited extensive versatility. She achieved great success as an actress, director and producer. She succeeded both in the movies and on tv. Furthermore, as you will see, she was a pioneer in the entertainment business.
Penny learned to tap dance by the age of three. Later, she became an instructor at her mother’s school. She attended college at the University of New Mexico where she studied math and psychology. She dropped out when she became pregnant. In 1963 she married the father, Michael Henry, but they soon divorced. For a time, Penny worked at various jobs to support her baby and herself. Then, in 1967 she moved to LA where Garry had established himself as a writer. Her life was about to change.
Penny’s career followed a somewhat familiar pattern. She suffered through much frustration and rejection and landed a series of forgettable gigs until she got her big break. For example, she played “uncredited roles” in “Where’s Poppa” (a courtroom spectator), “1941” (Miss Fitzroy), and “High Fidelity” (a funeral attendee). Her first appearance on tv was in a shampoo commercial for Head and Shoulders. She was the “girl with stringy, unattractive hair,” the “before.” You may have heard of the girl who played the glamorous “after,” someone named Farah Fawcett.
Penny was considered for the Sally Struthers role in the ground-breaking megahit, “All in the Family.” She didn’t get the role, but she did meet her future second husband, Rob Reiner. Reiner adopted her daughter, Tracy, from her first marriage, and they have five grandchildren. Tracy has continued the family trade. She is also an actress (“When Harry Met Sally,” “Big”,and “A League of Their Own,” among others.)
Finally, in 1971 she landed a worthwhile part. Garry, who was executive producer of the hit tv show, “The Odd Couple,” cast her as Oscar Madison’s secretary, a role she played for four years. During that period she also appeared on other hit shows, such as “The Bob Newhart Show” and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Her big break came in 1975 when she and Cindy Williams were cast as dates for “Fonzie” (Henry Winkler) and “Richie” (Ron Howard) on the hit show, “Happy Days.” It was supposed to be just a single appearance, but Penny and Cindy “knocked it out of the park.” Penny and Cindy were masters of physical comedy, such as that practiced by Lucille Ball back in the 1950s, and which had all but disappeared.
They became series regulars, and the following year, they landed their own show, “Laverne and Shirley,” which ran for eight seasons. In 1982 Williams left the show due to her pregnancy. Penny continued the show for another year, but then the run was over. The two actresses were estranged for several years but eventually reconciled.
In 1979, while “L & S” was still going strong, Penny embarked on her second career, that of director. She was a rousing success. Probably, her best efforts were “Big” (1988) starring Tom Hanks, “Awakenings” (1990), for which she received an “Oscar” nomination, and one of my personal favorites, “A League of Their Own” (1992) with Hanks, Geena Davis and a host of other stars. Who can forget the iconic scene in “Big” with Hanks and Robert Loggia dancing on the piano or the famous quote by Hanks in “League,” when he admonished one of his players, “There’s no crying in baseball.” “Big” became the first movie directed by a woman to gross over $100 million.
Despite her success as a director Penny was very modest. In an interview she described herself as a “mumbler.” She explained, “I talk quietly…I’m not adamant that this is my movie.. I’m not demanding. I just say do it again; I’ll know it when I see it.”
Penny was the recipient of many awards and commendations, too numerous to list here. She died on December 17 in LA from complications brought on by diabetes. Testimonials poured in from many of those who knew her and worked with her in her long and illustrious career. For example:
1. Ex-husband, Rob Reiner – “She was born with a funnybone and the instinct of how to use it. I was very lucky to have lived with her and her funnybone. I will miss her.”
2. Broadcaster, Dan Rather – “Mourning the loss of a funny, poignant, and original American voice. Penny Marshall was a pioneer in television and the big screen who understood humor comes in many forms.”
3. Director, Ron Howard – “She was funny and so smart. She made the transition from sitcom star to A List movie director with ease and had a major impact on both mediums. All that and always relaxed, funny and totally unpretentious.”
Rest in peace, Penny. You were a star, you made us laugh, and you will be sorely missed.
Quiz answer: It is named for Jonas Bronck, who established the first settlement in the area in 1639.