Interview: Penny Marshall Tells All in New Memoir, My Mother Was Nuts

Penny Marshall
Penny Marshall

I had an opportunity last week to sit down with a few other journalists at a conference table and interview actress, writer, and film director Penny Marshall (Big, A League of Their Own, Awakenings) about her career and her new memoir called My Mother Was Nuts.

My Mother Was NutsMarshall is just what you’d expect – a funny, no-nonsense person without an ounce of pretense. Her book is no exception. It’s a straight-up look at her childhood, her career, her relationships, her illnesses, and her own weaknesses.

For fans of Laverne & Shirley, Marshall devotes a significant portion of the book to those days, including the falling out she and costar Cindy Williams suffered and the later rekindling of their friendship, which remains strong today. (See my interview with Cindy Williams.)

After the video below are some of my favorite quotes from my time at the table with Penny Marshall.

On her mother, who was a dance teacher:

She gave us all a sense of humor. She was funny when she got past being hurt. But you had to laugh or else you’d kill yourself.

On her movie director brother, Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Valentine’s Day):

We can have a phone conversation without a subject being mentioned. “I don’t know… Yeah, but you know that’s just the way… But still it bothers me… So…” We know what we’re talking about, but someone listening doesn’t know.

On a Head & Shoulders commercial she made with Farrah Fawcett:

Well, if you had two actresses sittin’ there, Farrah’s one and me the other, who would have the dandruff? … But oh, I’m up for the “homely girl at the bar” – great. That’s what sends you to the shrink.

On being on the studio lot during the Laverne & Shirley days:

I had a series, my brother had created three series, Tom [Hanks] was in [amazon_link id=”B000R7I3YG” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Bosom Buddies[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”B002PQ7JR4″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Taxi[/amazon_link] was on the lot, and we’d meet at the commissary every day. I had appeared on most every show….

Back then, if you did commercials, they didn’t want you to do television. If you did television, you couldn’t do movies. Now, everyone’s doing everything. Major stars are doing commercials, which is nothing wrong with, but you weren’t allowed to then….

Most of those people went into directing – Danny [DeVito], Rob [Reiner, her former husband], Anson [Williams], Henry [Winkler], Ron Howard.

Penny Marshall as Laverne in Laverne & Shirley | CBS

On being in front of the camera as opposed to behind the camera:

I have no objectivity on myself, so I don’t have the ego to have to be in front of the camera. Luckily, I didn’t need – in order to direct – to have to be in it, but some people have to be in it in order to get the opportunity to direct. I didn’t even ask to direct. I’ll cut myself out – period, that’s it. I don’t like looking at myself.

On asking for help when she directed her first film:

Honesty helps. You get a long way in life as far as I’m concerned. You tell the truth, ask for help, instead of saying I know what I’m doing. “I don’t know what I’m doing! I’ve never done this, so help me!”

On the challenges of directing different actors:

Some people peak early; some people peak late. So, you’ve got to balance it out. This one’s good on take four, then dead for eight of ‘em. And the other one doesn’t come alive until like take twelve.

On breaking through the glass ceiling as a female director:

Well, I broke it, but I didn’t know I was breaking it. That wasn’t my intention. They asked me to direct. I did not ask to direct. So, it just happened that way. I’m glad it set the doors open for other female directors, but it wasn’t my plan. I don’t have that kind of mind to plan. I’m not that kind of person. They ask me to do somethin’, I’ll try it.

On what she hopes people get from the book:

I hope they enjoy it. I hope they get a laugh, they feel something, and they can identify with it. Everyone’s mother was slightly crazy in my world.

Below is a trailer that Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Portlandia made to help Marshall promote her book. Funny stuff.


5 responses to “Interview: Penny Marshall Tells All in New Memoir, My Mother Was Nuts”

  1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

    Great interview, and I can just “hear” her voice coming through those words. They just seem like the kind of laid-back things she would say.
    It seems like a lot of stars have become successful by things happening to them, rather than fighting tooth and nail to get there. Another is one of my faves, Doris Day, who never really wanted to be an actress. She wanted to be a dancer, but a car accident sidelined that career, so she went into singing and sort of stumbled into acting. 

    1. melanievotaw Avatar

       @Jane Boursaw Yeah, Penny was an excellent dancer because she studied in her mother’s studio all her life, but I got the feeling she might not have pursued acting had her brother not pushed her. It’s interesting that she’s had such an illustrious career without being a driven person.

    2. melanievotaw Avatar

       @Jane Boursaw What do you think of Fred Armisen’s book trailer for her? I think it’s a hoot (and pretty much a spot-on impression).

      1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

         @melanievotaw Oh my god, I laughed out loud. I guess we know who’ll play her in the biopic. Hmmm… who should play Cindy? I vote Mike Myers. 

        1. melanievotaw Avatar

           @Jane Boursaw I could see Mike playing Cindy. An all drag film version of Laverne & Shirley – the later years.

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