My Mother Was Nuts Book Excerpt: How Robert De Niro, Not Tom Hanks, Almost Starred In Penny Marshall's Big

Penny Marshall Memoir

Actress and funny lady Penny Marshall made her name in television (Laverne & Shirley) before making an unexpected leap into directing with 1986's Jumpin' Jack Flash. But it was her sophomore feature, a fantasy about a boy transformed into a 30-year-old by a wish, that launched a career behind the camera — and made her the first woman director to gross $100 million. But as Marshall tells it in her wry, vivid memoir My Mother Was Nuts, everyone in Hollywood had passed on Big, Tom Hanks included — until, that is, an unlikely actor threw his hat into the ring: Robert De Niro.

Marshall recalls the struggle to cast Big's leading man — and the names who went out for the part, from Sean Penn to Gary Busey to John Travolta ("at the time he was box office poison"), in Movieline's exclusive excerpt from My Mother Was Nuts.

In the release (in stores today) the 69-year-old Marshall writes her life story, from her childhood growing up in the Bronx alongside sister Ronny and brother Garry, to her introduction to Hollywood and famous friends, colleagues, and lovers including John Belushi, Carrie Fisher, Rob Reiner, Art Garfunkel, Joe Pesci, Steven Spielberg, and many of the brightest talents of New Hollywood, to her successful second career directing films like Big, Awakenings, and A League Of Their Own.

Stay tuned for Movieline's exclusive interview with Marshall.


Jim Brooks and I both had offices on the Fox lot and one day while I was in post-production on Jumpin’ Jack Flash he came into my office and put a script on my desk. “This is your next movie,” he said.

It was Big.

What he didn’t tell me was that everyone in the world had turned it down. From Chuck Shyer to Steven Spielberg. Because I didn’t read the trades or follow the business, I had no idea. Nor did I know there were three similar movies in the works: Like Father, Like Son; Vice Versa; and an Italian version.

But Jim was a mentor and friend. He knew that I had liked directing and making things up. He also knew that I wanted to do it again. I was grateful for his help because I probably wouldn’t have known how to look for a project on my own. Luckily I didn’t have to.

I read the draft and liked the story. Twelve-year-old Josh Baskin can’t get the girl he likes; she’s interested in an older boy who can drive. He wishes he were bigger and wakes up the next morning as a thirty-year-old. He gets a job at FAO Schwarz, rises up the corporate ladder, and becomes the object of affection of a beautiful executive. It was a theme that everyone could identify with: When I’m big I’m gonna . . .

To make the high concept work, I wanted it to be real and believable. The biggest challenge would be casting the lead. I went straight to the three big box-office stars at the time: Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner, and Dennis Quaid. All of them passed. Everyone passed.

I tried a different approach. I looked for the kid who would be Josh’s best friend, and I picked Jared Rushton. He had the most spunk of those I saw. He worked well as I brought in actors, including Sean Penn, who was terrific but too young, and Andy Garcia, who was also great, though one of the studio executives said, “We don’t want to spend eighteen million on a kid who grows up to be Puerto Rican.”

That was how they talked.

“He’s Cuban,” I said.

I also read Gary Busey, who had the energy of a child, but I didn’t think he could pull off playing an adult. John Travolta was dying to do it, but at the time he was box office poison and the studio didn’t want him. I started to get worried. Despite not having a lead actor, we were in pre-production in New York. I met with Robert Greenhut, one of our executive producers. This was our first film together. He was a slick line producer who had come up through the ranks and done all of Woody Allen’s films. He had excellent ideas, and he turned into an ally and confidant when I decided to take my search for a lead actor in a different direction.

I went to Robert De Niro. Bobby — or Bobby D. as I called him — was in the middle of making The Untouchables, playing Al Capone. Although I knew he didn’t ordinarily read other material when he was in the middle of a project, I called him anyway. That’s where I’m not at all shy or hesitant. I will call anyone. What’s the worst they can say?
“Bobby, there’s a script,” I said. “I want you to read it, see if you like it.”

I got him the material and called him back.

“Did you read it?”


“What do you think?

“I like it.”

It turned out that he wanted to make a commercial film. He had done all of Marty Scorsese’s movies, but hadn’t broken out in a film the whole family could watch. I told Jim and Scott Rudin, who was running production at the studio, that De Niro was interested. They were surprised and somewhat intrigued. They were also skeptical. Besides having a hard time envisioning him in the role, they’d heard stories about him. They told me to get him to commit. The way they said it was like a challenge.

I called Bobby.

“What do I tell them when they ask me?” I asked. “Do you want to do it or not? I’ve got to give them an answer.”

“Yeah, tell them I’ll do it,” he said.

I hung up.

I had Bobby.

I told Jim and Scott, and I guess word spread. The next day I flew to Los Angeles to go to an event celebrating Paramount’s seventy-fifth anniversary and posed for a photo with everyone who ever worked at the studio. Word had spread about Bobby D. and a handful of actors who had turned me down, including Kevin Costner, now asked about Big. Bobby had given me validity.

As work began on the script, Bobby told me to look at his movies and tell him what I wanted and didn’t want. What I wanted was the energy he had in Mean Streets in the scene when he was first in the bar and coming out around the car. That’s exactly what I got when he came to my house one day. I got him on tape with Jared. They skateboarded, shot baskets, and rode bicycles in my driveway. Bobby doesn’t give you much until the cameras are on. Jared yelled, “Come on, De Niro. Move it!”

It was exciting. I didn’t know exactly where the process was leading, in terms of the script, but it was moving in a good direction. I would have paid to see Bobby dance on piano keys.

Barry didn’t want Bobby, though. I said, “Counter me.” He said, “How about Warren Beatty?” To me, Warren was the same as De Niro, but different. He had already done something similar in Heaven Can Wait. But the two of us had dinner in New York and then we went up to my apartment. I asked if he would listen to me if I directed him. In the nicest way, he said no.

Well, that was thrilling. Why bother?

At least Warren was being honest. That’s all I ever ask. Just tell me the truth. I’ll deal with it. But I can’t deal unless I know the truth.

Bobby was taken aback when I told him the studio had wanted me to meet with Warren. It’s never easy to hear that you aren’t someone’s top choice, even at his level. But that was only a small part of what became an even bigger problem. An article came out in the papers about how much money Chevy Chase, John Candy, and other people were paid for movies, and all were getting a hell of a lot more than Fox was going to pay Bobby.

To be blunt, they were going to pay him shit and they weren’t budging.

They just didn’t want him. Jim Brooks suggested I give Bobby my salary. I offered. Bobby didn’t want it.

“We’re working together,” he said. “You and me, you know? I’ll take Jim’s.”

However, he had second thoughts and called the next day. Apologetic, he explained he couldn’t do the movie anymore.

He’d be too angry. I understood. But now I was back to square one. Sort of.

Excerpted from “My Mother Was Nuts” by Penny Marshall.
©2012 by Penny Marshall.
To be published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest September 2012.
All Rights Reserved.

My Mother Was Nuts is available today in stores and on Amazon.

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  • LickyDisco says:

    I read the article's engaging, funny, witty, just like Penny Marshall herself. But you know what's banging around in my head so hard that I can't wrap my brain around it? Laverne, my Schatz Brewery heroine, is 69. Love a duck, I'm old.

  • bpvalentine says:

    This is amazing, Maybe I will buy the book just for the section on BIG.

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