Penny Marshall Looks Back On Life — And The Movies — In Memoir 'My Mother Was Nuts'

Penny Marshall Memoir

In her new memoir My Mother Was Nuts, actress-comedienne-filmmaker Penny Marshall writes of her remarkable life: Growing up the youngest of three in The Bronx, she had a daughter followed brother Garry into showbiz, got famous as one-half of Laverne & Shirley, got married twice, got divorced twice, opened her home to friends like John Belushi, Carrie Fisher, Steven Spielberg, and Robert De Niro, and became the first female director to break the $100 million mark with 1988's Big, also notching films like Awakenings, A League Of Their Own, Renaissance Man, and The Preacher's Wife along the way.

Ringing Movieline to discuss her baldly honest, often hilarious memoir — which also reveals darker times, recreational drug use, an abortion, an on-set miscarriage — Marshall explained why she set out to write her life story to begin with: "You want to set the record straight on certain things, because there are so many rumors."

Among them: Her dramatic backstage relationship with Laverne & Shirley co-star Cindy Williams and her recent lung cancer and brain tumor diagnosis. "The rags still say 'She’s dying,'" she laughed, emphasizing that her health has improved and she's ready for the next project. "But I dodged a major bullet."

You’ve really lived such a fantastic life.
I’ve really been very lucky and fortunate. And I appreciate that! There comes a time when you give back, you know, so I do a lot of that stuff when I can.

Why was now the right time to write your memoirs?
Well, my brother just finished his second book, and so I figured well, since the rags have me dying every couple of months… [Laughs] That’s not helping me get work! Someone suggested it, and my friend Carrie Fisher’s a writer, so I went, well, I’ll try it.

Did you take to it naturally?
No. I did a lot of stream of consciousness, but I talked into a tape recorder — and it’s hard to understand me, I understand that. I do go off on tangents sometime. But I talked into a tape recorder then had it transcribed.

I have a terrible memory when it comes to recalling my childhood, but you have such vivid memories of your experience growing up in The Bronx, in what seemed like a very special neighborhood that turned out so many talented people.
It was a very working class neighborhood. Everyone worked; my mother was the only woman who worked. Mostly the dads worked, but my mother was a tap dancing teacher. It was a very colorful neighborhood, and it had a good work ethic for some reason — or maybe everyone wanted to get out of there! One or the other.

There was so much of a sense of community, of family, throughout your life — family related by blood, a familial network of friends. It feels so special and rare, the group of people you surrounded yourself with.
Well there’s more to life than show business, you know? Family and friends are part of your life, and sometimes life takes a priority over a job, or a business. And so those that you remain friends with, I think it’s important to fulfill your life. I don’t think just doing a movie fulfills your entire life — it’s important to have people around you that you like, you enjoy, you can do things with.

Looking at your career, it’s so interesting to see how directing kind of just fell into your lap. You had such success in front of the camera, and all of a sudden comes a directing career. And you first learned from Spielberg, of all people!
Well he was always encouraging. He’d come over to the house and see me doing jigsaw puzzles, which I had an addiction to, and he’d say, “That’s editing.” And then he’d see me talk to all these neurotic guys. He’d say [whispering] “That’s directing.” You have to hold their hand, and tell them what to do. I never said I wanted to direct; I had done a couple of Laverne & Shirley’s but everyone did. Cindy [Williams] did! Michael McKean! The script girl! Anyone around! Who wants to direct this week?

You bore witness to so many changes in the industry, on both sides of the camera, over your career. The way television works now compared to how it was made back in the Laverne & Shirley days… there was so much more freedom and looseness then.
Well remember, there were only three channels! Now there are so many channels and so many reality shows that I don’t really watch, because they’re cheap. I don’t mind if there’s a game or a contest; I don’t mind American Idol. I don’t mind The Amazing Race. There’s a contest involved! But just people blabbing and fighting with each other… although Mob Wives did get me. They made me laugh.

But that’s what they do. There are 20 people sitting watching monitors. Why don’t you watch the actors, they’re there! I watch the actors. I use a monitor to fill out a screen, but I’m watching the actor — and I have a strange memory. I’m in a wedding scene, I say “That lady was up here, she can’t be back there.” I have this strange memory, I remember what we shot. Before we hit the clacker, the slate, he said something — we could use it. But times have changed. The economy stinks, the whole world’s gone mad, so it’s a little difficult as far as it was simpler back then. I mean, the writers worked their butts off but any actors, you always wanted better, you know? And I don’t know what they do now. They all watch a monitor.

You’re pretty honest about the role that nepotism played in your career, getting you in the door through your brother Garry. But you also talk about the idea of “giving someone a life” — paying it forward, giving someone new an opportunity to do with what they can. Do you feel like that sentiment still exists in Hollywood today?
No. [Laughs] Everyone needs a life right now! But I think it’s important to give back, to give someone a life. I help take care of this kid, Germain, who’s in a wheelchair. He calls me Mommy Penny, because his mother was not so good. She moved while he was in the hospital because she wouldn’t take care of him. But he’s going to college. He got an apartment. I got him an air conditioner.

May I ask how your health is these days?
My health is fine, not good. I dodged a big bullet, even though the rags still say “She’s dying” and they have the wrong thing wrong with me. But I dodged a major bullet. And I’m the only one who gained 60 lbs. and got hard nails from it!

You’re fortified!
A strange constitution, I have. Maybe because I went through everything. [Laughs]

You really have. And you’re so open in your book about them all: Marriages, divorces, abortion, miscarriage, illness. Yet your spirit seems to be so buoyant throughout.
Whenever anything terrible happens, I stay very calm. I’m a Libra, what can I tell ya? [Laughs] It has to balance out. But if someone’s going crazy, I’m very calm. Or if I’m sick, I’m calm. Nothing hurt me [when first diagnosed with cancer]. I had no idea what they were talking about. So I ordered White Castle.

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