My Interview With Penny Marshall

Though most famous (to me, anyway) as the Pepsi-and-milk-swigging half of Laverne & Shirley, Penny Marshall’s new memoir, My Mother Was Nuts, reveals her real life was as crazy as anything that went on in front of the cameras.

The book reads like a Who’s Who of pop culture’s major players in the last half of the last century. There are stories of Calvin Klein tearing up the dance floor at high school parties, hanging out with John Belushi, and smelling pillows for Steven Speilberg.

I’m so grateful CNN asked me to sit down with Ms. Marshall as she opened up about her incredible life:

On her unconventional appeal…

In her pre-fame days, the fact that Marshall didn’t fit the Hollywood stereotype was made abundantly clear to her While co-starring in a Head & Shoulders commercial with an unknown blonde named Farrah Fawcett, Marshall’s on-set stand-in wore a placard that read “Homely Girl” while the stand-in for Fawcett wore one reading “Pretty Girl”. Farrah kindly decided to cross out the word “Homely” and wrote “Plain”. In an episode of Love, American Style Marshall’s script cast her as “Homely Girl at Bar”.

After became a big TV star with her own series, she handled her fame with aplomb, though once at a party she and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’s Louise Lasser cordially congratulated one another on their success, then slipped into the bathroom, giddily jumping up and down squealing, “We’re famous! We’re famous!”

On her marriage to Rob Reiner…

Before either one of them well-known, Penny ended up dating and marrying Rob Reiner, who grew up across the street from Marshall in the Bronx, though they’d never met. “It was a very wide street,” Penny explained. At one point both auditioned for a new sitcom, but while Reiner was cast as Mike Stivic, it was Sally Struthers who ended up playing his wife Gloria on All in the Family.

On the ups and downs of Laverne & Shirley…

Penny’s brother, Garry Marshall, was a successful TV writer and producer when Jack Klugman convinced him to cast his sister as Oscar’s secretary Myrna in Marshall’s new series, The Odd Couple. Later Garry ended up casting Penny and her old pal Cindy Williams in a guest stint on another of his hit series, Happy Days. Penny and Cindy played Laverne and Shirley, two “fast girls” Fonzie recruited for a double date with Richie. Marshall and Williams soon got their own spin-off, as a slightly more wholesome version of duo. The show was an immediate hit, debuting as the number one rated show in the country, which was, according to Marshall, “great for my career, not so great for my marriage.” It happened that the TV show Laverne & Shirley pushed from the top spot was…All in the Family.

Laverne & Shirley’s success turned out to be a mixed bag in more ways than one. The show was funny, but on the set things weren’t always so hilarious. Surrounded by Penny’s kin and cronies, Williams felt outnumbered and overlooked which led to tension behind the scenes. Though an unhappy Williams ended up leaving the show before it ended, Marshall assures us that after two decades of silence they’ve finally patched things up: “I just talked to her last night!”

On Carrie Fisher…

Marshall’s relationship with best friend Carrie Fisher has endured through think and thin. “We always got along great because we didn’t like the same guys or the same drugs,” jokes Marshall.

On directing…

Though she’ll always be Laverne De Fazio to those who grew up on the series’ Lucy-esque shenanigans, Marshall went on to become a successful director. With her second film, Big, starring Tom Hanks, she became the first female director to have a film break the $100 million mark at the box office. Marshall went on to direct several popular films, including the Oscar-nominated Awakenings, where she coped with Robert De Niro’s fear of cockroaches, and Robin Williams’ fear of being out-acted by De Niro.

On A League of Their Own…

Marshall contended with the unique hormonal challenges of a large, mostly female cast. “Unfortunately everyone’s cycle synched up,” reports Marshall, “The mood swings – that poor crew!”

On her mother…

Throughout the book Marshall reiterates that her most salient quality is her desire to have fun, but life didn’t always make it easy. Her mother, as the title suggests, wasn’t exactly June Cleaver. In fact, she told a teenage Penny she’d been unwanted, saying, “You were a miscarriage, but you were stubborn and held on.”

On still coping with 9/11…

Marshall had many friends who were firefighters and as a native New Yorker remains very emotional when it comes to September 11th. “When I was recording for book on tape,” says Marshall, “I couldn’t get through that part – I just kept tearing up.”

On unplanned pregnancies…

Having sex with her college sweetheart to cheer him up after a football squad setback, Marshall became pregnant and embarked on a hasty teenage marriage. (At City Hall they were handed a newlywed’s “Starter Kit” consisting of a bar of soap, toothpaste, and a small box of Tide.) The pair spent much of their honeymoon watching news about Kennedy’s assassination, and things didn’t pick up much after that. Many years later she found herself once again pregnant and unmarried, and though close friend Joe Pesci gallantly offered to step in and act as father, she made the difficult decision to have an abortion. “I didn’t want to be tied to the kid’s (biological) father,” said Marshall, “And that situation was one of my life’s only big regrets.”

In the end…

But through the various heartbreaks and setbacks Penny Marshall knows how to surmount it all. Framed in her bathroom is the Waylon Jennings lyric that speaks to the secret of her success: “I’ve always been crazy, but it’s kept me from going insane.”

<My interview with Ms. Marshall first appeared on as Penny Marshall is in a League of Her Own>


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