Instantly recognizable for her cute overbite, raucous voice, and broad Bronx accent, Penny Marshall successfully made the transition from popular comic actress to a respected director and producer of popular mainstream feature films. A New York native (born Carole Penny Marsciarelli), Marshall is the daughter of an industrial filmmaker and a dance instructor. She started dancing herself as a toddler and as a teen competed on The Ted Mack Amateur Hour with a dance troupe comprised of several friends. The group also appeared on The Jackie Gleason Show. By the time she was a young adult and had graduated with degrees in math and psychology from the University of New Mexico, her older brother, Garry Marshall, had established himself as a successful television writer. It was Garry who provided Marshall with her first film role in his feature film debut effort as a screenwriter and producer in How Sweet It Is (1968).
When her brother began creating and producing situation comedies, he made sure Marshall had parts in his shows, the first of which was My Friend Tony and the second was The Odd Couple, where she had a recurring role. Marshall also guest starred on other comedies, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but her big break didn't come until her brother cast her and her friend Cindy Williams as Laverne and Shirley in an episode of his popular series Happy Days. Her portrayal of a wiseacre working-class broad and Williams' take on the more innocent Shirley gained an instant fan base and so Garry Marshall was inspired to build a sitcom around the characters. Laverne and Shirley debuted in 1978 and ran through 1983. During this period, Marshall was married to actor-turned-director Rob Reiner. She divorced him in the early '80s. At that time, it was apparent that her acting career was on a dead-end street and Marshall decided to try out directing. Beginning with television movies and series such as The Tracey Ullman Show, Marshall learned to direct. She made her feature film directorial debut with the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Jumpin' Jack Flash (1986) which had originally been slated for director Howard Zieff. Returning her brother's favors, she gave him a part in the film and also created a part for her daughter, Tracy Reiner (the offspring from Marshall's first marriage to Michael Henry). The film was a critical and box-office dud, but this did not deter Marshall from trying again.