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Penny Marshall on Her New Memoir, My Mother Was Nuts, and How She Influenced Women in Comedy

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Fri, Sep 21, 2012 at 9:00 AM

click to enlarge MARSHALL FAMILY COLLECTION
  • Marshall Family Collection
With today's 24-hour news cycle, it isn't uncommon for the Hollywood elite to take to social media or a friendly tabloid to debunk rumors about their personal lives and well-beings. Penny Marshall took it one step more: She wrote a tell-all book.

"My brother just finished his second book, so I thought well, they keep writing that I'm dying [and] this will keep me busy and so I did it," Marshall, who turns 70 in October, said in an interview from New York, where she was doing press events. ("Why do I call you from New York when I live in L.A.? I could have called you from L.A. I come back Sunday.")

The actress, producer and director (and youngest sister of writer-director-producer Garry Marshall) is best known for appearing in sitcoms Laverne & Shirley and The Odd Couple and directing beloved films like Big and A League of Their Own. She also, as she puts it, "dodged a bullet" by surviving a battle with brain tumor and lung cancer.

But setting the record straight about her health is a small portion of her new memoir, My Mother Was Nuts. Released September 20, the book is Marshall's frank accounts of her life and career. No one is safe, including herself.

It chronicles her Bronx childhood (and yeah, her dance teacher mother seemed nuts), her falling out and eventual reunion with Laverne & Shirley co-star Cindy Williams (how would you feel about sharing top billing on a show co-created by the other star's brother?), her marriage to Rob Reiner and her thoughts on her films and the actors involved with them (she directed Drew Barrymore and Brittany Murphy in Riding in Cars with Boys. Guess which one was more difficult.).

Marshall is also honest about her own past, including the drug use and partying, her shotgun wedding and parenting skills (or sometimes lack thereof), her love life and her decision to have an abortion.

We chatted with Marshall about her book, her career and the changing world of the film industry.

You were a dancer at your mother's studio when you were growing up, but you didn't have much ambition to become an actress. Why did you decide to make the commitment?

I'd done some theater in Albuquerque [where she went to college and where her daughter, Tracy was born] and those were the people who stayed up at night. And when I got divorced, I wasn't going back to my parents, who hated each other. So I went to see my brother, who I didn't know because he was so much older. I knew he was doing well and I had visited him once in California. To all New Yorkers, California is just a state. It's not cities.

Those were the people who stayed up at night -- those who did theater. Didn't know you had to get up so early for on camera stuff. But for multi-camera stuff -- Odd Couple, Laverne & Shirley -- you don't have to get up. Not so funny at seven in the morning. I'm sorry.

How has the TV industry changed since you first got involved?

There's 80,000 more channels. There were three and then Fox came along.

There are reality shows because they're cheap. I don't mind if there's a contest -- Amazing Race, things like that, American Idol. I'll watch it if there's a contest going on. I must say I like Mob Wives. They're from Staten Island, what can I say?

We [also] don't know what the seasons are. It used to be pilot season and then a hiatus and now it switches around. This one goes through the summer and the other one to come it's confusing. For me, I just don't follow it that closely, but I always think it's time to do something and it's the wrong time.

Television is seeing a strong push for female-driven comedies like New Girl, Whitney and Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23. Do you think you had an influence in that?

It used to be Mary Tyler Moore was a lead, Murphy Brown was a lead. Women were always the leads, but they played the straight person most of the time. It used to be women always held the center of the show and then it got to be all medical and lawyer shows. In comedy, it's half and half now.

Do you have any advice for people trying to break into the industry now?

Do whatever you can that doesn't compromise your morals. There are people making movies with their cell phones and loading them into their computers. I don't know how to do that personally, but a friend of mine did one in Africa. Look at the news, it's all cell phone footage.

If they want to act, you better go to an acting class because it's the only practice you get. You can't act in your mirror in the bathroom. You've got to do it with somebody. Even if it's scenes you'll never play, at least get the experience. You memorize doing things, then you'll be more comfortable in auditions.

Do you have any directing projects in the works?

I do. One will have to go HBO because black doesn't sell overseas. It's about the Negro [baseball] leagues. There's another one about Guatemala prostitutes who form a soccer team.

I like sports. They get to run around instead of sitting around talking too much. I don't like talking heads so much. I like behavior.

You recently appeared in an episode of Portlandia. Do you think you'll ever return to acting full time again?

Yeah, I just gotta lose a few more pounds.

Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook. Follow Whitney Friedlander at @loislane79.

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