Actress-director-producer Penny Marshall

The show business powerhouse reflects on her life and career, as described in her humorous memoir, My Mother Was Nuts.

The hit sitcom Laverne & Shirley not only made Penny Marshall a household name, it also launched her career behind the camera. She's directed several features, including Awakenings, a best picture Oscar nominee, and episodes of the TV series United States of Tara, and is the first female director with two films that grossed over $100 million (Big and A League of Their Own). Her producer credits include Cinderella Man and Bewitched. The Bronx, NY native got her start in the family business performing in a movie that her brother wrote and produced. Marshall makes her mark as an author with her humorous memoir, My Mother Was Nuts.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Penny Marshall back to this program. The famed actor, director and producer has penned a funny and poignant memoir about her life and career. He book is called – love this title – “My Mother was Nuts: A Memoir by Penny Marshall.”

But before we get to the book, let’s take a look back at just a small sampling of some of her brilliant work.

[Montage of clips from various Penny Marshall shows and movies]

Tavis: You looked at that episode, one of the episodes of “Laverne and Shirley,” the bowling ball episode, and you knew that was the second episode. How did you recall that, and it was the second episode?

Penny Marshall: Yeah. I have a strange – I have a strange memory. I remember every piece of film I shot, because I drive editors crazy. I said, “No, no, before they did the clacker -” of course we used film then – he did a thing we could use, Tom or somebody. Before they hit the clacker, they were filming him, but they have to slate.

So I said “No,” I said, “You didn’t shoot the green team.” “I did shoot the green team.” So I know what I shot, I have a fairly – I don’t know what I did – I traveled yesterday, but I don’t remember what I ate or anything about last week. It was a little hectic.

But I remember back in my childhood, I remember professionally, and I remember what I shot. I have that kind of a strange memory.

Tavis: Yeah, I don’t know how you recalled that that was episode number two. But that’s funny, though.

Marshall: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: Speaking of your childhood, let’s go back. “My Mother was Nuts.” Why that as a title, which is hilarious to me?

Marshall: Well, how was – what about your mom?

Tavis: My – well, if I call my mom nuts on national TV right now I’m going to get in trouble. (Laughter)

Marshall: But (unintelligible).

Tavis: Hi, Mom.

Marshall: I – it’s not – he’s not. But everyone feels their mother’s slightly nuts. My mother was pretty nuts, but she was also a character.

Tavis: Right.

Marshall: And we all got our – my brother, Garry, who, as I told you, said hello.

Tavis: Yeah.

Marshall: We all got our sense of humor from her once we learned what the word “sarcasm” meant, because otherwise she she’d just (makes noise).

Tavis: Yeah.

Marshall: She taught dancing school in the basement of our building in the Bronx, near the incinerator and the bike, where you put your bike and sleds. And one of the things in New York, two students who took lessons, oh, another guy who lived in my building and the first guy I French-kissed were at the book thing.

Tavis: Oh, your book signing?

Marshall: Yeah.

Tavis: They came back?

Marshall: They came to the Strand store in New York.

Tavis: How was that?

Marshall: It was nice to see people I knew.

Tavis: Yeah? Like a reunion.

Marshall: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. You mentioned your mom, your mom taught dancing. As I read the text, you didn’t really like the dancing thing, though.

Marshall: No, I didn’t.

Tavis: You didn’t like dancing.

Marshall: No, when I was a little (unintelligible) but she compared me to 360 other kids, and as I got older I liked boys, and I was a tomboy.

Tavis: Yeah.

Marshall: So I’d rather hang out with the guys and do a sport than play tap-dancing. But that was her thing.

Tavis: Yeah. When did you know – and I want to – you can’t talk about you and this part of your life without talking about Garry, your brother. But when did you know that you were going to go the show business route?

Marshall: I didn’t really think about it much. I went to New Mexico, to college, Go Lobos, beat the Aggies. (Laughter) But I did a little theater there because it was for the people who stayed up at night. I’m more of a night person. So I had gotten married, had a kid, so I wasn’t going back to the Bronx with my parents, who didn’t like each other at all.

So I didn’t know my brother that well. He left. My brother and sister were much older. They were planned. I was not planned for. I was called the mistake, amongst other things. So I went and said “Let me go meet my brother.” He was doing well. He was writing for Dick Van Dyke and Joey Bishop and every show, so why not to meet him?

He’s a great guy. I wouldn’t have a career without him. He told me go have lunch with this person; go take acting classes from this person. I said, “Mommy wants me to change my name.” He said, “Why?” “Because she doesn’t want me to embarrass the family.” (Laughter) He said, “Don’t listen to her, she’s nuts.” He called her nuts too.

Tavis: Speaking of changing your name, I want to go back to two stories about your childhood again. I heard the comment, of course you talk about it in the book, I heard about your parents, who didn’t really like each other.

Marshall: Hated.

Tavis: We’ll come back to that. But I did not realize, all the years I followed your work, I did not know your name was Carole.

Marshall: Yes. I was – but you saw my birth announcement, which is (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah, I saw – yeah, you and Obama’s, I’ve seen both now.

Marshall: Okay.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. (Laughter)

Marshall: I met Obama.

Tavis: In Milwaukee.

Marshall: In Milwaukee.

Tavis: Yeah.

Marshall: Very nice man.

Tavis: Yeah.

Marshall: He chews the gum. I use the patch.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Marshall: That’s what we talked about.

Tavis: He chews the gum, you use the patch. You guys talked about that?

Marshall: Yeah.

Tavis: Okay, okay.

Marshall: Very nice man, and I’m voting for him. I don’t care what your viewers think. But he’s terrific. So anyway –

Tavis: So Carole, yeah.

Marshall: But Carole, “Penny” was written in bigger letters than Carole. I was named after Carole Lombard, but they never told me. They only called me Penny. So they thought I, until kindergarten, sucking my thumb, and I didn’t respond. They’d say, “Carole?” (Makes motions) (Laughter) I didn’t know who they were talking to. No one told me my name was Carole. I don’t know why they did it. Penny.

So every year my mother wrote a note to school, “Call her Penny. She does not respond to the name Carole.”

Tavis: Your mother responded with those notes every year because you were sent home with a note that said, “We think your daughter is a little cuckoo.”

Marshall: Mentally challenged.

Tavis: She doesn’t respond, yeah. Because you didn’t know your name was Carole.

Marshall: Who knew? How would I know? – I’m four, five years old. (Laughter) I could tap dance but I couldn’t read.

Tavis: Yeah. You said a moment ago that you would not have a show business career were it not for Garry. That’s kind, that’s very kind; there may be some truth to that. But obviously, you had some talent for this.

Marshall: Well, he did say “I’m not going to risk my career for yours, but I could open a door. But once you go through, you’ve got to do it on your own.” (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah.

Marshall: But he’s 10 years older than me. He left. I was an only child since I was eight. My brother and sister both were gone, and so I figured I’d meet him. He’s a great guy, and he did help me an awful lot. So I landed on “The Odd Couple” because of Jack Klugman more than my brother, and then “Happy Days” because we weren’t doing, Cindy and I weren’t doing nothing. That became the sendoff of “Laverne and Shirley.”

But he’s in my movies. He was in “Jumping Jack Flash,” he was in “League of Their Own.” I took everyone in my family.

Tavis: Your daughter is in “A League of Our Own.”

Marshall: My daughter was Betty Spaghetti.

Tavis: Right.

Marshall: Who was also in “Apollo 13,” by the way. She was in “Big” and she was in “Jumping Jack Flash.” I took my nieces, my daughter’s middle child. (Unintelligible) we had to go to (unintelligible) the set, so I said if we’re – see, that’s what I keep in my head. So if we’re doing this scene, that means Marla got married and Lori got traded. “Okay, Kathy, get into uniform, get in the scene.”

So we’re in Chicago, so she was supposed to help us find places to stay. Then we moved to Evansville forever, Indiana.

Tavis: Yeah, I grew up in Indiana.

Marshall: Did you? Where?

Tavis: In Kokomo. (Unintelligible)

Marshall: I went through Kenosha and all that because I drove from Milwaukee to Chicago.

Tavis: I am struck now, Penny, by how dedicated you and Garry have been to each other and to your broader family of children and nieces and nephews, the story you just told now. I’m struck by how family-oriented you all have been with you growing up in a house where your parents didn’t like each other.

Marshall: Maybe they liked each other when my brother and sister were born, when they lived in Pelham or someplace, but when they moved to the Bronx, because my grandfather had a kidney thing or something, they couldn’t afford it, so they moved to the Bronx.

Then I came along, the mistake, the bad seed. They didn’t expect nor wanted, and so my brother, before he left, even though I was too young to remember it so well, took my sister and me aside and said, “They’re not going to help us out.” By this time they didn’t like each other, my parents. They’ve passed, so I’m allowed to say what I want, and they’re my parents.

All the kids in the neighborhood loved my mother, by the way, I just didn’t. I respected certain things about her, but. So he said, “So we’re going to have to stick together, because they’re not going to help us.” So years later, it turns out that my brother did stick to his word.

Tavis: How do you grow up in any way well-adjusted if you have that kind of tension – my word, not yours – in your relationship with your mother?

Marshall: Who says I grew –

Tavis: I got it. (Laughter) Who says you’re well-adjusted. Okay.

Marshall: Who says I’m normal?

Tavis: Well, I say you’re relatively normal, yeah.

Marshall: Oh, I went to the doctor, and –

Tavis: Yeah, but that bond, there’s no bond in the world – you have a daughter, so you know this. There’s no bond in the world like the bond between a mother and her daughter, and when that thing is ruptured, it can cause all kind of –

Marshall: Any time I was nice to my father, she made fun of me, because she didn’t like him at all. But she was funny, and if you weren’t in her line of fire you could laugh.

Tavis: Right.

Marshall: When she’s putting someone else down. But you just – watch that coming at you. But it’s hard. She didn’t tell me about a lot of things. She just made fun of things. But she did feel it was important that everyone had the chance to entertain, have that opportunity.

As long as they fed us, we went to Army camps, veterans’ hospitals, insane asylums, anyplace, as long as they fed us. Because we practiced on the subway station. We were precision tap dancers like the Rockettes, so if one person got sick, we had to change the whole thing.

So that was my mother’s thing. She was a little nutty, kooky, you know? Not many mothers rehearsing on the subway platform, but I guess not many people did. But everyone else, my mother meant so much to them because it gave them an experience they didn’t have. I do feel it’s important to entertain people. I try to.

Tavis: Yeah, obviously. It may very well be, as I was going through this, it may very well be that that was her – beyond the obvious, which is life, her greatest gift to you may have been introducing you to show business so early on.

Marshall: But I didn’t consider it show business.

Tavis: Right.

Marshall: It was my mother’s thing. She had this strange little quirk that she loved, because it kept her sane from my father. So she wouldn’t have to ask him for money – it’s a whole thing. My blind grandmother, there’s a whole thing here going on.

But she did – well, I didn’t count that, I didn’t put it on my resume. I danced for 104 years, (laughter) but I can. Cindy was in New York with them and she’s doing a play, nonsense something, but she wanted to come up because she needed to know some tap steps. I said, “Come up to the apartment, I’m free tonight.” But that tornado thunderstorm hit New York so she was too afraid to come out.

Tavis: But you would have shown her a few steps?

Marshall: Oh, yeah. I had to teach everyone on “Laverne and Shirley” how to tap.

Tavis: Yeah.

Marshall: My number from my mother’s dancing school, hula babies, anything simple, of course, I could do.

Tavis: When Garry was here for his book, your brother, he talked about the relationship between you and Cindy on “Laverne and Shirley.” You talk about it in your book. Topline for me that relationship from your perspective. I heard Garry’s point of view on it, but –

Marshall: Well, Garry said we cursed a lot and drove the writers crazy, so he didn’t want to take his kids around us. I know that, he showed me the chapter.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Marshall: I do talk like a truck driver sometimes, or I curse. What can I say? I curse at inadequacy and certain things, and we wanted it to be better, that’s all. So we did yell at some writers, but we had a good time. It was anticlimactic when it ended, because Cindy’s husband, she got married, was very happy. She was having a baby and all that.

She’s a great girl, but I didn’t particularly like her husband, okay? There, I said it. And then ultimately years later she didn’t either. (Laughter) But I liked my husband. I still talk to Rob. I’m not a jerk; I didn’t (unintelligible) for 10 years because they’re an idiot. He’s a very talented guy. So I had to call him.

“Okay, here’s two pictures of us. Do you remember who took the wedding pictures?” He said, “I don’t know, it was 1971. I don’t remember.” But he said, “Did you tell them the story about this? Did you tell them the story about that?” So I tried to, but sometimes in the editing they like to list all the Carl Reiner’s friends as guests at our wedding. They mention (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah. Is there a secret to ending a Hollywood relationship like yours and Robs and remaining friends thereafter, where you can call him for questions when you’re writing your book?

Marshall: Well (unintelligible) tell him, tell his wife and family.

Tavis: Yeah, there’s something in the book, yeah, exactly.

Marshall: But I stay in a relationship way past when it’s over, to make sure.

Tavis: (Laughter)

Marshall: I want to make sure.

Tavis: To make sure it’s over.

Marshall: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

Marshall: Then (sounds like) Rick Dreyfus got too upset so we stayed together six more months. It wasn’t like Rob and I were arguing with each other. He was just going through his thing and I was still working, so there’s not any animosity, I wouldn’t say.

I don’t like confrontation. I don’t like that stuff. I may stay there way past time, but he quit “All in the Family,” so he would say, “Where are you going?” “Work, at this job, this little show, remember?” (Laughter) So, but we didn’t fight, really.

Tavis: What gave you the nerve to think that you could move beyond acting to become a great director?

Marshall: I didn’t ask to do that. They asked me. I never – knock – is this wood?

Tavis: That’s wood, that’s wood, yeah.

Marshall: Knocking wood that I’m healthy, but I’m knocking wood – I didn’t knock on anyone’s door. They called me and asked me if I wanted to direct. I said, “Not really.” I don’t know one camera. We did multicamera in front of an audience. But that I knew, and we didn’t have video hookups either. A camera, you got it, B you got it, C you got it? Okay, we’re moving.

But I (unintelligible) with multicameras and movies. But my brother said it’s a strange business, they pay you to learn. So I gave it a shot, and then someone handed me another script and another one. Then “A League of Their Own” I wanted to do.

“Awakenings” I read, and because my mother had Alzheimer’s, I wondered if she could hear and that, and to treat people like human beings who were in the hospital. We’re all going to get older and sick, come on.

I just did it because people asked.

Tavis: So what –

Marshall: I did it because they asked me, and someone said, “Why don’t you do that?” My brother did too, so I said “Okay, I’ll try that.” (Laughter) I’m not an enthusiastic person.

Tavis: So what do you make of the fact that to your point you’ve been asked to do these things, talking about movies now, directing, and the result is some pretty classic work?

Marshall: Some of it has been, some of it’s put out at the wrong time or not so classic. But look, I did the first Black Christmas movie.

Tavis: I saw that.

Marshall: They wouldn’t sell it as a family movie. I think we talked about that one time.

Tavis: What do you make of that all these years later?

Marshall: Well, they tried to sell a love story between Whitney and Denzel. It was a family movie and they put it out on Christmas day. It should have been earlier. I’m not in charge of that part. I’m not in charge of certain things in this.

Tavis: But do you, to your point, though, do you feel sabotaged, though, Penny, when you put your blood, your sweat, your tears, your soul, your spirit into a project and the studio drops the ball on it? Do you feel sabotaged in that way?

Marshall: Well, you feel – when “Renaissance Man” came out they said, “We’re giving you ‘The Fugitive’s’ spot.” Now what did “The Fugitive” have to do with “Renaissance Man?” It should have been when kids are in school, English teachers were the (unintelligible). It started Mark Wahlberg, it was his first job.

I’m good with talent. I can spot talent. But you feel – what can you do? That’s not your end of the business, and I don’t know that end of the business. Like I don’t know certain aspects of the book business.

Tavis: There’s a funny story you tell about – speaking of Whitney and Denzel, the funny story you tell about the two of them at the first table read.

Marshall: Because Whitney had been there and Denzel was hung up in Canada doing “John Q” or something, so he was late. So she had rehearsed a little bit and Denzel got a little jealous that everyone else was getting some laughs and he wasn’t. (Laughter) So then – and he didn’t show up the first day.

Look, just tell me the truth, that’s all I ask. Tell me the truth, I’ll handle it. I could switch things around. You need to blow it out, I’m fine. I understand that. Just came off a movie. So, but apologize to your fellow actors who are waiting, and we’ll just change the schedule around, which that can be done.

So he apologized and he’s fine, and he’s charming and he could sell anything, but.

Tavis: Has it been your experience that these A-list stars are easier to work with or more difficult to work with than you thought?

Marshall: Well, I always mix TV and movie actors, because I could talk a shorthand with the TV actors – corn, (makes motion) and he knows what I’m talking about. (Unintelligible) These are signals we had, Tommy. But I always mix them. They don’t need “What’s my motivation.” You’ve just got to show them a prop.

So I’m big with behavior, but no, I didn’t find anyone more difficult. Look, I had how many girls in a period piece in 120 degrees in Evansville, Indiana, and now I did a book because A, they keep saying I’m going, which I’m not, and (laughter) –

Tavis: Your health is perfect now?

Marshall: Yes.

Tavis: Yeah?

Marshall: Clean bill of health.

Tavis: Clean bill of health? Good. Let me close by asking – I could talk to you for hours. Let me close, though, by asking what you make of the fact that you have been so successful in this business as a woman? I don’t want to put too much on that, but it’s hard to ignore that.

Marshall: Well, A, I didn’t ask for much. I knew the right people; I was in the right place at the right time. They seemed to like me. I’ve been very, very lucky. I have a great brother. I’ve just got to thank everyone who’s been nice to me. I’m reliable, I’m where I’m supposed to be when I’m supposed to be, I work my (blank) off. Ooh, what channel are we on?

Tavis: PBS.

Marshall: Oh, we could say that. (Laughter) Can’t you?

Tavis: Or we’ll cut it out, either way.

Marshall: Okay, you’ll bleep me. (Laughter) But I’m going to work as hard as I can. I’m not going to walk away from anything. Then to other things, say priorities, whether it’s your kids, your grandkids. This kid I helped take care of (unintelligible) in New York, in a wheelchair, great kid.

Tavis: So here’s the exit question. Since we all know you and love you here in L.A. as a fan of our basketball teams, you’ve got your bling on tonight.

Marshall: I got my Laker bling.

Tavis: You got your Laker bling.

Marshall: Let’s hope for Clipper bling.

Tavis: So give me a top line on the Clippers this season, top line on the Lakers this season.

Marshall: They start practice Friday. I know the Clippers start practice Friday. I’m glad we got Steven Nash, I love Steven Nash. Dwight Howard, I was in actually a scene in my brother’s movie “Valentine’s Day,” but we were cut out.

Tavis: “Valentine’s Day,” mm-hmm.

Marshall: Dwight and I. (Laughter) We’re on, I guess, the DVD version, outtakes, and Steven I love, and the Clippers look – if they’re – if Chauncey wasn’t hurt last year –

Tavis: They had a shot, yeah. I think both teams are going to be pretty good this year.

Marshall: Yeah, both teams, and it won’t be a lockout season. I was exhausted last year. Every night there’s a – I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.

Tavis: Yeah.

Marshall: To exhausting.

Tavis: Well, I’ll see you at the games.

Marshall: See you at the game.

Tavis: See you at the games.

Marshall: Please buy the book so I can make a dollar.

Tavis: (Laughter) The new book from Penny Marshall is called “My Mother was Nuts: A Memoir.” It’s a great read, and I think you’ll enjoy it. Penny, good to have you on.

Marshall: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: Thank you. My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: September 28, 2012 at 1:35 pm