Back in 1991 I was standing with two friends outside the Cooper Inn watching a helicopter flying overhead. There was a surreal feeling to the situation because we knew a potentially big-time movie was being filmed here. I joked that perhaps it was filming a panoramic view of the village and we would appear in the opening of the movie (it wasn’t and we didn’t). Whatever was happening, it was exciting to have a production company in Cooperstown.
The movie in question turned out to be “A League of Their Own,” a fictional tribute to the women’s professional baseball league that was organized during World War II. The film was a true original, dealing with a subject that hadn’t been dealt with before. With a cast that included Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell, and a hit theme song (“This Used to be My Playground”), the movie became an all-time sports classic.
The director of the movie was Penny Marshall. Marshall is best known for appearing as Laverne DeFazio in the hit comedy series, “Laverne & Shirley,” from 1975-83. That show was inspired by her appearance on “Happy Days” with her co-star, Cindy Williams. For those of us old of enough to remember, Marshall first burst onto the scene as Jack Klugman’s ditzy secretary in “The Odd Couple” in the early ‘70s.
The thing is that Marshall’s comedic characters, her distinctive Bronx accent, and her public persona (also kind of goofy) made her the last person you would expect to be a successful director of comedies or dramas. I saw her profiled on some show back in the ‘70s (Barbara Walters, perhaps?) with her equally ditzy-sounding then-husband, Rob Reiner, from “All in the Family.” It turns out they both ended up becoming highly acclaimed directors.
Marshall captures all the significant moments in her life in her recently released memoir, “My Mother Was Nuts.” The title was taken from a line in the first chapter and seems appropriate because her mom certainly qualified as figuratively “nuts.” Marshall and her two siblings had a relatively “normal” upbringing in the Bronx despite the fact their parents weren’t particularly in love with each other.
There were many surprises once Marshall left home to attend college. She ended up at the University of New Mexico because she wanted to get as far from her parents as humanly possible. It was there that she had her only child (daughter Tracy) during a short-lived marriage to another UNM student. It was during a 10-year cast reunion at the Hall of Fame in 2002 that I learned that Marshall had a daughter and she played the part of Betty “Spaghetti” in “A League of Their Own.”
After the failed marriage and not finishing college, Marshall moved to Los Angeles because she wasn’t about to return home. Her brother Gerry (already a successful comedy writer in Hollywood) offered the possibility of breaking into show business. Bit acting parts eventually led to her breakthrough role as Myrna in “The Odd Couple,” and her career took off once the role of Laverne opened up.
What is most staggering about her life is the number of celebrities she says were close friends. It’s like a Who’s Who of Hollywood. One thing Marshall confirms is that the drug scene in LA was as bad as advertised. From what she says it’s hard to believe anyone outside of Steven Spielberg led a clean life.
She was close friends with John Belushi, and his demise was not the least bit surprising.
Not all of life in Hollywood was downbeat. Marshall provides us with some wonderful adventures with many celebrities, including Paul Simon, Carrie Fisher and Tom Hanks, and discusses her romances with Rob Reiner and Art Garfunkel. She has funny stories about growing up in the Bronx, her TV shows, and all the movies she’s directed. How many people know she got her start with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and directed such successful box office hits such as “Big” and “Awakenings?”
Not everyone will find Marshall a role model. She smokes too much (and suffers the consequences) and definitely isn’t a “choir girl.” But she is brutally honest and that makes her memoir a refreshing read.
Life isn’t all candy and nuts.
Fans of Penny Marshall will undoubtedly enjoy her many stories about “Laverne & Shirley.” For those who loved “A League of Their Own,” there is plenty of background information as well. The only thing missing is a lot about Cooperstown and that is a shame. It’s almost as disappointing as not seeing my friends and me in the opening credits.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at email@example.com.