The Early Life and Career of "Laverne & Shirley" Icon Penny Marshall

Herbie J Pilato
Photo bythe Classic TV Preservation Society


Actress/director Penny Marshall died of complications from diabetes in 2018. But she became a household name in classic TV sitcoms like The Odd Couple and Laverne & Shirley, and later with directing legendary feature films such as Big (1988), Awakenings (1990), and A League of Their Own (1992).

Her Early Life and Career

Growing up in the Bronx, New York, Penny Marshall had several friends in school. As she once told author Peggy Herz for the book, TV's Fabulous Faces, "I was always joking around. The guys I liked didn't necessarily like me on a dating basis, but we were friends. I was not an attractive child - and I was a tomboy on top of it."

Marshall attended college at the University of New Mexico, which is quite a distance from the Bronx. "I wanted to go to Ohio State," she said. "But New Mexico was eager for out-of-state students. My mother wasn't too good at geography. She thought New Mexico was closer to New York than Ohio. She also liked it because it had a new infirmary and a new cafeteria. Those were her main requirements: eat and be well."

Marshall wed football player Mike Henry and dropped out of college during her junior year. At first, she worked as a secretary. Then after her daughter was born, Marshall began to teach dance.

A small theatre group asked her to choreograph a musical. But she said no, and instead agreed to be in the chorus. From there, she ventured into acting, with speaking roles in plays.

In the summer of 1967, she was divorced and moved with her daughter to Los Angeles, where her brother, TV writer Garry Marshall, lived.

In time, Penny was cast as Jack Klugman's secretary Mona on The Odd Couple, which her brother wrote for and produced. After that, she made periodic TV appearances on sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, until her role as Laverne DeFazio on Laverne & Shirley came along in 1976.

From there, she and former writing partner-turned-actress Cindy Williams, who played Shirley Feeney, became superstars. After their iconic sitcom ended, Marshall ventured into directing, and the rest, as they say, is history.

[Note: Unless otherwise indicated, certain facts and information in this article were resourced from various entertainment news and media outlets including,,,,, and]

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

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