From Getting Laughs as Laverne to Calling the Shots, Penny Marshall Looks Back

The actress/director writes candidly of a life at the center of showbiz.

By Scott Huver
|  Wednesday, Oct 3, 2012  |  Updated 4:36 PM CDT
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Penny Marshall (R) and Cindy Williams from "Laverne and Shirley"

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In her absorbing and constantly name-dropping (in a good way) memoir "My Mother Was Nuts," Penny Marshall’s unique and lengthy position at the epicenter of show business comes into very sharp focus.

Her older brother, writer/director Garry Marshall opened doors, but she had to walk through them, working steadily in film, TV and commercials until landing her breakthrough role as Laverne De Fazio in the beloved 1970s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.” She was married to Rob Reiner, another sitcom star with directorial ambitions before she went on to become one of Hollywood’s most bankable female directors with films like “Big,” Awakenings,” “A League of Their Own,” “The Preacher’s Wife” and “Riding In Cars With Boys.” Her inner circle of friends has included Carrie Fisher, John Belushi and Lorne Michaels, among many and she counts Art Garfunkel among her former beaus. Marshall made Tom Hanks a movie star and gave Mark Wahlberg his first acting role; and as an avid basketball fan there isn’t an NBA Hall of Famer who wouldn’t do her a favor.

But that’s just the tip of a the iceberg of Marshall’s colorful life and career – in her book she caps off more inside-showbiz tales than Laverne has capped beer bottles.

Was there anything hard about digging into the whole spectrum of your life?

There's a lot of spectrums! But no, when I did the reading of the book, for the recording of the book on tape, I got more emotional, like when my mom died – poor Lorne [Michaels] when I spread her ashes from his office. [Laughs] When I had to sing the song I got emotional. When I read the poem that my brother wrote, “9/11,” I got more emotional. So in the reading of it, yes. In the writing of it, once in a while – but not really.

In the book it didn't seem that you really had some deep, burning ambition to be a big star. But with some persistence everything eventually seemed to line up for you very neatly.

I seem to have been in the right place at the right time, knew the right people – and my brother was invaluable.

Let's talk about your early years in Hollywood, when things began to happen for you?

When we hit on 'Laverne & Shirley,' we were so busy we didn't even know. I don't read a lot of those magazines, I didn't understand numbers and stuff, but I know that not like now with all the millions of channels, there were only three! We didn't know right away: [when we appeared in the 1976] Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, that was where we first saw the popularity of the show with the people. Still, even after the show: with cops, firemen, people like that – we’re big with blue collar…I'm going to go to Milwaukee [to promote the book] because my friend said, 'Why don't you come here? They think you're from here anyway.' And he's correct.

Once you realized how huge the show had become, was it more exciting or scary to get the huge reaction from the audience?

It was cool, but it's like we didn't get nominated for Emmys. David Lander, who played Squiggy, always said, 'Only the public likes us.' In the industry we were lower class. We never got nominated for Emmys, so it wasn’t like it went to our heads that we were these superstars. We just had ratings.

Are there fun or poignant moments you’ve had recently thanks to the “Laverne & Shirley” legacy?

Cindy [Williams] just called me. She's doing rehearsals for some play and she says, 'I need to tap dance. Can you show me some steps?' I said, 'You can't come up tonight, but tomorrow night I'm free. Come up and I'll show you how to do some steps.' Because any of the dances we did on 'Laverne & Shirley' usually came from my mother's dancing school.

It sounded heartbreaking, the way that show ended [Williams left abruptly during the start of the final season due to creative conflicts and her pregnancy].

Yeah, that was rather sad. It was anti-climactic, but I was glad she was happy and was having a baby. All that, I was happy with.

Toward the end of the series you discovered you had a talent for directing. What was your feeling about that once you realized you were really good at it?

Well, I didn't know I was good! The first one [‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’] sort of went by and then Jim Brooks gave me the second one, which is 'Big,’ that everyone in the world had turned down, and every actor turned down because there were two movies like it. And in fact it was the last one out and it did so well, it was amazing.

Would you talk about having those enduring relationships in Hollywood?

Well, I think it's very important. Life is more important than show business. So, I think it's important to keep your friends, the people that you're really good friends with and that have been with you, by your side through thick and thin – That's life. I don't care whether you're in show business or just regular life. Aren't your friends important to you? So that counts. You spend more of your life NOT on a soundstage than you do on it.

You had some health issues – a cancer scare – that you had to take care of. Can report everything is good and you're healthy?

Yes, knock wood. I dodged a major bullet. I go [for a checkup] once a year, and I'm fine. But the rags still write that I'm dying, which makes it a little difficult to get some work sometimes.

What do you want to do creatively next? Do you want to get back behind the camera – or maybe back in front of the camera?

I have to lose a few more pounds before in front! But I don't mind [directing] television because it's faster, and the movies that they pay you for [today], I don't do those kinds of movies. The independents have something with a story, perhaps, but most of the big ones – the vampires, the horror, the car crashes and the people in metal suits – I don't do. I don't have an interest in doing them.

The pendulum in Hollywood may swing back your way soon.
 
I hope so, because people are older and they want a story. But the studios are still aiming for that 18-to-twenty-whatever-it-is. Even in 'Big' they said, 'We want it for 18 to whatever.' I don't know what that means. I don't know how to gear myself there. I'm just making a movie. I know that in a high concept movie you must play it for honesty – and real. You can't do tongue-in-cheek, or else it doesn't work. It was played for honesty. It wasn't, 'Let's be goofy.' And look, I come from 'Laverne & Shirley' – I know from goofy!

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