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” ‘You were a miscarriage, but you were stubborn and held on.’ ” It was a backhanded compliment from Penny Marshall’s mother, yet it captures the perseverance that propelled her from playing outdoors in the Bronx to becoming a champion of physical comedy and the first female to direct a film grossing over $100 million — Big in 1988.
But before ever shouting “Action!” and stumbling into America’s living rooms in her brother Garry Marshall’s TV shows The Odd Couple and Laverne & Shirley, Penny spent her days loathing every step at the Marjorie Marshall Dance School, where her mother, who was the dance school director, believed everyone should have a shot at the spotlight — ” ‘even the fat girls,’ she said.” And despite broken marriages, a cancer diagnosis and an overbite that “could open a Coke bottle,” Marshall did it. As she portrays her life in her new memoir, My Mother Was Nuts, released last week, it seems that the famous lines from the Laverne & Shirley opening apply to her as well: Give her any chance, she’ll take it. Give her any rule, she’ll break it.
Marshall’s book reads like a stream of consciousness, and there’s a reason why: She simply free-associated into a tape recorder and had someone transcribe it.
As Marshall tells The Hollywood Reporter: “My first bit [on Happy Days] was a secretary; I was paid to do that. Now I have someone else to type something up! There was no research — it’s my mind, it’s my childhood. I have a good memory of what happened. I don’t know what I did yesterday so much, but I know what I did as a kid and I know what I did in school. That I have a good memory of.”
Marshall referred only to a childhood diary, a baby book and conversations with her brother and sister to refresh her memory. However, she didn’t have trouble remembering her mother’s harsh one-liners, which she quotes throughout the book.
“Those words are implanted in your soul, unfortunately. It’s just the way it was. You had to learn at a certain age what sarcasm is, you know? When she says it about somebody else, you laughed, but when it was you, you didn’t laugh so much. I mean, you can’t — at this age, you don’t hold grudges. They did what they did to survive, and we did very well.”
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Last Friday, Marshall casually proctored her own Q&A session at the Strand Bookstore in New York City. On the third floor of the independent bookstore, Marshall sat in a brown leather club chair, surrounded by the Strand’s rare books collection and about a hundred friends and fans.
“I think what shocked them more was Awakenings,” she answered when asked by a fan about her proudest work. Marshall directed Robert De Niro and Robin Williams in the 1990 film about a doctor who revives a ward of comatose patients. “They didn’t expect that from me; they expected comedies. My mother had Alzheimer’s, so I always wanted to hear and talk through it and all of that, and I think people who are sick should be treated like human beings.”
Also among the attendees were a handful of childhood friends from the Bronx, including two former classmates from her mother’s dancing school — “I probably have home movies of you dancing on grass!” – as well as a former beau. “Lenny Cohen — I kissed you!” she shouted across the room. “You’re in the book – go buy it!”
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In the book’s first chapters, Marshall brings readers into her childhood home, where her mother and father endured an estranged marriage long after her sister went off to college and her brother moved to Los Angeles to write for television.
“I think everyone’s mother is slightly nuts,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “But she lived at that dancing school, and it saved her life. It gave her something to do that she loved when she had a bad marriage — and I got the brunt of that. But they never got divorced. Back in that day, divorce was unpopular. Now, they get married for 27 minutes!”
The award-winning actress, director and producer also walks through each of her past romantic relationships, including her marriage to Rob Reiner and her adventures with Art Garfunkel.
“It’s still sad that Rob and I didn’t work it out, but he’s happily married with three kids — my grandson went to school with his kids, two of his boys. And Artie Garfunkel came to the book party with his wife,” she explained. “I stay in things a long time to make sure it’s over. It’s not, ‘Okay, we had a fight.’ No, I wait ’til way past ‘It’s over’ to make sure it’s just not a mood or something going on. It wasn’t like we were fighting, it’s just, things are going a different way, you know? I don’t like confrontation much; I’m not a big arguer.”
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At last Friday’s Q&A, fans asked Marshall about her opinion on everything, from her political involvement — “I’m not like Rob, I’m not pedantic. I vote, and I care” – to her thoughts about reality television.
“”First of all, the ones that have a challenge, the ones that have a game — whether it’s Amazing Race or Survivor or American Idol — those kinds of things where it’s a contest, I don’t mind them. But some of these people — I don’t know who they are, and why are you watching them? And then their daughters are coming on the show!”
Nevertheless, Marshall confessed she does like VH1 reality shows Mob Wives and Big Ang, but continued, “I think it puts actors out of work, writers out of work, directors out of work — and the economy sucks! Come on, let’s get real, folks!”
As for scripted TV, she likes Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory, but had this to say about CBS’ 2 Broke Girls, which stars Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs.
“2 Broke Girls is supposed to be like Laverne & Shirley – well, I don’t think it is. Broke, yes, but that’s about it in my opinion.”
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Marshall also pondered how children spend their time in the digital age.
“I stayed outside as much as possible, We all played together, and then hang out on the Parkway. It’s not like we had video games, you know?” she said. “Now, with all this media stuff, electronics — which I don’t know how to work too well by the way, I wouldn’t know how to take a picture with my cell phone — it’s a different age. And I feel kids don’t know how to relate to each other; it’s all on phones or emails or texting or whatever it is. Facebook-ing. We played a lot. You needed a Spalding, a bat, chalk, and you could play a lot of games. It didn’t matter what age you were or what sex.”
Marshall is currently working on some documentary projects and thumbing through a pile of scripts. But looking back on her career — “My brother, thankfully, to a lot of it” — she has appreciated her time outside of the spotlight. (Her most recent onscreen role was an appearance in a Portlandia episode that aired in February, and the last time she directed was in 2011, for an episode of United States of Tara. Her last big screen project was directing Drew Barrymore in 2001’s Riding in Cars With Boys.)
“It’s not like you get bad — my brother always says it’s just somebody else’s turn. So I believe in that theory. Whatever age you are, you’re never ready to deal with it all because it’s overwhelming.”
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However, when asked whose career she is most proud to help launch, she responded without hesitation.
“Mark Wahlberg. I gave him his first acting job [in 1994’s Renaissance Man], and he could improvise, which I liked people who could make things up. He’s become a mini mogul with a whole empire! He works like crazy, and he’s a good guy. He’s said I changed his life, so I got him out of the ‘funky bunch’ — whatever they were. I call them the ‘funky bunch.’ “
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