She Did It Her Way, Yes, Her Way

The first thing you noticed about Laverne DeFazio was her initial. Half of the blue-collar duo on ABC’s “Laverne & Shirley,” she wore it on her sweaters, on her bathrobe, even on her work uniform at the Shotz Brewery. A loop up, a swoop down, and a kick outward, that stylized “L” announced that whatever circumstance Laverne might end up in, she couldn’t help but be herself.

The next thing you noticed was her voice, which Penny Marshall, who died Monday at age 75, gifted her. It was, reviewers always noted, nasal and boisterous, but it could also be wheedling, teasing, sarcastic or playful. Marshall played a whole repertoire on that brass instrument.

“Laverne & Shirley” was a spinoff of “Happy Days,” that 1970s trove of 1950s nostalgia. But though it was set in the same time period, it felt more of its current moment than its parent show. It focused not on Ike-era teens but a pair of young single women, living in a basement apartment, holding down factory jobs and, as the theme song said, “doing it our way.” (The opening credits scene of the pair standing on the bottling line, staring dreamily into space, remains one of the most poetic images in sitcomdom.)

The series began in 1976, quickly becoming a top-10 hit, then leapfrogging past “Happy Days” to take the No. 1 spot in the Nielsen ratings two seasons in a row. Part of its appeal was the same mix of nostalgia, slapstick and wacky characters, but it added a feisty, pop-feminist rebelliousness from the get-go: two best friends, dancing down a sidewalk, singing nonsense (“Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”), sufficient on their own.

The first episode established Shirley (Cindy Williams) as the optimist of the duo, quoting the song “High Hopes” and insisting that better times were just around the corner. Laverne was always game and up for an adventure, but she also had a more tart attitude and a guarded sense of realism — she was the one who’d remind her starry-eyed roomie that “an ant can’t move a rubber-tree plant.”

If the show set up Laverne as the “tough” half of the partnership — pushy, blunt, with a raunchier sense of humor — there was always the sense that she had her reasons. She was wary of letdowns and heartbreak, and her scrappiness was her first line of defense.

Marshall communicated all of that brilliantly. She was terrific at the big physical moments the show demanded: A scene of her and Williams trying to extricate themselves from being hung on coat hooks, their feet windmilling in the air, is up there with any Lucille Ball set-piece.

But she also let Laverne reveal the parts of herself that she tried to guard. In the show’s opening episode, she lets Shirley talk her into going to a high-society dinner, a scheme Laverne predicts will fail. It does. Though the two put up a good front — Laverne introduces herself airily as “Laverne DeFazio, of the Milwaukee DeFazios” — they’re out of their element, the gowns they rented turn out to be stolen and they leave the party humiliated.

After a blowup back at home, Laverne makes up with Shirley, who coaxes her into singing along with her about that little old ant. “Cause he’s got — what, Laverne?” Shirley asks. A tiny, shy smile creeps across Laverne’s face: “High hopes,” she murmurs.

It’s a great establishing scene, laying out the differences and similarities between the two characters, while making the statement that, despite the episode’s scheme to meet “a gentleman” at the fancy estate, what they really need is each other.

The show continually struck that balance between sarcasm and sweetness, and crucial to that was Marshall’s ability, in one character, to show how the two came from the same place. Penny Marshall would go on to do far more in her career, but she made her mark as Laverne DeFazio, of the Milwaukee DeFazios, one L of a woman.

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