My Mother Was Nuts: A Memoir
By Penny Marshall
New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
326 pages, $26

By Jim Bisco
She will always be Laverne with the big L embroidered on her wardrobe and a Bronx whine as thick as salami. But who knew she would also become the first woman to direct a film that made more than $100 million?
Writing in her passive shrug of a voice, Penny Marshall’s memoir is one of a career that was built on no great striving but instead on stepping into fortunate situations. Her mother ran a dance studio and put on shows in the family basement. She was the talent pusher for her children, leading 9-year-old Penny to make her TV debut on “The Jackie Gleason Show” in 1952 as part of a junior troupe kicking in step with the June Taylor Dancers.
After a youthful marriage with child, Marshall went to California where brother Garry first established himself as staff writer on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” He paved the way for her with small parts in his other sitcoms, including her breakthrough role in “The Odd Couple” as Oscar’s whiny secretary Myrna.
Then, again at Garry’s bidding, a guest pairing with Cindy Williams as two loose girls on an episode of his “Happy Days” series led to the development of Laverne and Shirley – a working-class comedy with lots of Lucy-like knockabout. The show became a seven-year success story. Marshall added bits from her Bronx childhood such as Laverne’s milk-and-Pepsi concoction and a nonsense song she used to sing with her friends on the way to school which became the show’s opening (Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!).
Along the way, she tells of her competitive marriage to Rob Reiner and hanging with pals like “Bobby” De Niro,“Ricky” Dreyfuss, John Belushi, Albert Brooks and Carrie Fisher. Add director friends Jim Brooks, Steven Spielberg and, of course, brother Garry who went on to direct features and push her behind the camera.
After a so-so directing debut with a Whoopi Goldberg vehicle, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” she hits pay dirt with “Big” a film she first entices DeNiro to star in as a 12-year-old trapped in a grown-up’s body. Ultimately, Tom Hanks lands the part and the $100 million box-office bonanza begins. The same happened four years later with “A League of Their Own,” the story of a women’s baseball team during World War II.
The behind-the-scenes business of the TV series (the real dish on the Cindy Williams departure) and the films (granting a wish to dying jazz great Dexter Gordon who played a patient in “Awakenings” to play a scene with De Niro) are interesting. The party-hopping, globetrotting, name dropping, drug-taking encounters become tedious and irritating. A serious fling with Art Garfunkel is recounted, complete with awkward encounters with Paul Simon in the midst of their professional breakup.
She recounts a tender experience directing Whitney Houston in “The Preacher’s Wife” and how, not long after, she left filmmaking because no studio seemed interested in the kind of heart-tugging films she liked to make. She ruled out indie filmmaking because of the pay.
Marshall also soberly relates her bout with cancer and the rumor of her death. Again, it’s all said with a nod and a shrug. No big deal. Life happens. That’s Penny Marshall’s unremarkable take on a career spinning in celebrity circles and the breaks that came her way with very little effort. Heck, brother Garry even set the scene for her to write—or dictate—this book.

Jim Bisco was a longtime Buffalo News contributing arts reviewer.