Penny Marshall didn’t have to endure years of struggle and sacrifice to break into show business. Her older brother Garry was the co-creator of the hit show “Happy Days.“ When a 1975 episode called for a wise-cracking working class gal named Laverne, he cast his wise-cracking working class sister. When she clicked with the show’s audience, he starred her in a spin off, “Laverne & Shirley,” which became the number-one-rated show in the country
“No one tells you how to be famous,” Marshall observes in “My Mother Was Nuts,” her new memoir. “And it confuses the shit out of you when it happens.”
But she loved it.
When, at a party, she met Louise Lasser, who was also starring in a hit TV show, “we slipped into the bathroom,” Marshall writes, “and jumped up and down, screaming “We’re famous! We’re famous!”
It’s just this kind of quirky, unpretentious, upbeat behavior that has always made Marshall so much fun to watch, and makes her new memoir such a good read.
Although Marshall kvetches about her mother’s utter failure as a nurturing parent (she told her daughter, for instance, that her buck teeth “could open a Coke bottle”) she did raise Marshall to be happy in the spotlight. Her mother ran a popular Bronx dance studio, and Marshall made her debut as a dancer at age four. She danced with the school’s “Junior Rockettes” throughout her childhood -- at charity events, churches, department stores, prisons and on TV (including “The Jackie Gleason Show”) Marshall’s mother, according to her daughter, “believed every child should know what it feels like to entertain.”
If nepotism got Marshall into America’s living rooms, her talent kept her there. In the seven years that Laverne & Shirley ran, she was nominated for three Golden Globes. When she turned to directing, she was the first woman to direct a film, “Big,” that grossed over $100 million. (She also directed “A League of Their Own” and “The Preacher’s Wife.”) At sixty-eight, while she spends more time courtside at the Lakers than on a soundstage, she continues to work, recently appearing in an episode of “Portlandia.”
Marshall, as a celebrity, has led a charmed life. For example, when she arrived at airport security a few years ago and was unable to find her ID, the guy in charge took one look at her and said, “She’s Laverne. Let her to through.”
But fame never went to her head. Part of Marshall’s enduring appeal is that she’s so down-to-earth. Being a plain woman in a profession full of knock-outs, she says, kept her humble. (In a Head and Shoulders commercial she shot early in her career, she was cast as the “homely girl“ to Farrah Fawcett‘s “pretty girl“) As did knowing that she couldn’t count on her mother for emotional support. More important, she continues to live by the code she internalized growing up working class in the Bronx. “Try hard, play by the rules, help your friends, don’t get too crazy, and have fun.”
And Marshall has had plenty of fun, with some very cool people. Carrie Fisher is her best friend. She was married Rob Reiner, hung out with John Belushi and motorcycled across Europe with Art Garfunkel. Randy Newman is a good pal, as is Stephen Spielberg. Shaquille O’Neal and Salman Rushdie both came to her birthday party. Much of this book is sharing stories about the (often-drug fueled) good times she enjoyed with these folks.
But there were tough times too. As a pregnant teen, she married a man she had little in common with, and she wasn’t much of a mother, at first, to her own young daughter. (She describes one of their breakfasts as “a Fudgsicle for her and smokes for me.“) She had a late-in-life abortion, which she came to regret. (Both her therapist and Carrie Fisher came with her when she had the procedure.)
And, three years ago, she was diagnosed with both lung cancer and a brain tumor. (She’s currently in remission.)
But if you learn anything about Marshall from this book, it’s that she doesn’t wallow. (Or hold a grudge: she made sure the mother who gave her so little was well cared for when she developed dementia.) She’s a girl who wants to have fun. Although she levels with the reader about her flaws and regrets, she’d rather focus on what works than dwell on what doesn’t.
More than anything, that’s probably the key to her continued success.
I’m a sucker for a good celebrity bio. Although I love my life, I’m never going to get to drop acid with Carrie Fisher or hang out with Tom Hanks. If I invite Spielberg to my next birthday party, he probably won’t show up. And “Paul and Artie” will never throw an impromptu concert in MY living room. But I can enjoy these things by reliving them with Marshall.
Penny Marshall was raised by her “nutty” mother to be, above all else, entertaining. With this new memoir, she is.
(This essay first appeared on www.womenvoicesforchange.org.)