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Penny Marshall's in a league of her own

By Dixie Laite, Special to CNN
updated 4:02 PM EDT, Mon October 1, 2012
Penny Marshall has written about her highs and lows in her new memoir,
Penny Marshall has written about her highs and lows in her new memoir, "My Mother Was Nuts."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Actress-director Penny Marshall has a new memoir out
  • Topics include failed a marriage to Rob Reiner and tensions on the "Laverne & Shirley" set
  • She says mom told her as a teen she was "a miscarriage" who was "stubborn and held on"

(CNN) -- Penny Marshall, most famous as the Pepsi- and milk-swigging half of "Laverne & Shirley," reveals in her new memoir, "My Mother Was Nuts," that her life off-camera has been just as crazy as anything that viewers saw on the screen.

Marshall's book reads like a Who's Who of pop culture's major players in the last half of the 20th century. There are stories of Calvin Klein tearing up the dance floor at high school parties and of Marshall hanging out with John Belushi and smelling pillows for Steven Spielberg.

CNN recently sat down with the actress-director as she opened up about her incredible life:

On her unconventional appeal

In her pre-fame days, Marshall quickly learned she didn't fit the Hollywood stereotype when she co-starred in a Head & Shoulders shampoo commercial with a then-unknown blonde named Farrah Fawcett. Marshall's on-set stand-in wore a placard that read "Homely Girl," while the stand-in for Fawcett had one reading "Pretty Girl." Fawcett kindly decided to cross out the word "Homely" and wrote "Plain" instead. In an episode of "Love, American Style," Marshall was cast as the "Homely Girl at Bar."

After becoming a big TV star with her own series, she handled her fame with aplomb, though once at a party she and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman's" Louise Lasser cordially congratulated one another on their success, then slipped into a nearby bathroom, giddily jumping up and down and squealing, "We're famous! We're famous!"

On her marriage to Rob Reiner

Before either one of them was well-known, Marshall ended up dating and marrying Rob Reiner, who grew up across the street from Marshall in the Bronx, though the pair had never met. "It was a very wide street," Marshall explained. At one point, both auditioned for a new sitcom, but while Reiner was cast as Mike Stivic, Sally Struthers ended up playing his wife, Gloria, on "All in the Family."

On the ups and downs of 'Laverne & Shirley'

The actress' brother, director Garry Marshall, was a successful TV writer and producer when Jack Klugman convinced him to cast his sister as Oscar's secretary, Myrna, in "The Odd Couple." Later her brother ended up casting his sibling and her old pal Cindy Williams in a guest stint on another hit series, "Happy Days." The two played Laverne and Shirley, "fast girls" Fonzie recruited for a double date with Richie Cunningham.

Marshall and Williams soon got their own spinoff as a slightly more wholesome version of that duo. "Laverne & Shirley" was an immediate hit, debuting as the No. 1-rated show, which was, according to Marshall, "great for my career, not so great for my marriage." It happened that the show "Laverne & Shirley" pushed from the top spot was ... "All in the Family."

"Laverne & Shirley's" success turned out to be a mixed bag in more ways than one. While the show was funny, on the set things weren't always so hilarious. Surrounded by Marshall's kin and cronies, Williams felt outnumbered and overlooked, which led to tension behind the scenes. Though an unhappy Williams ended up leaving the show before it ended, Marshall said that after two decades of silence they've finally patched things up: "I just talked to her last night!"

On Carrie Fisher

Marshall's relationship with best friend Carrie Fisher has endured through thick and thin. "We always got along great because we didn't like the same guys or the same drugs," Marshall joked.

On directing

Though she'll always be Laverne De Fazio to those who grew up on her series' "I Love Lucy"-esque shenanigans, Marshall went on to become a successful director. With her second film, "Big," starring Tom Hanks, she became the first female director to have a film break the $100 million mark at the box office. Marshall went on to direct several popular films, including the Oscar-nominated "Awakenings," where she coped with Robert De Niro's fear of cockroaches and Robin Williams' fear of being outacted by De Niro.

On 'A League of Their Own'

Marshall contended with the unique hormonal challenges of a large, mostly female cast. "Unfortunately, everyone's cycle synced up," Marshall recalled. "The mood swings -- that poor crew!"

On her mother

Throughout the book, Marshall reiterates that her most salient quality is her desire to have fun. But life didn't always make it easy. Her mother, as the title suggests, wasn't exactly June Cleaver. In fact, Marshall said that when she was a teenager her mother told her she'd been unwanted, saying, "You were a miscarriage, but you were stubborn and held on."

On 9/11

Marshall had many friends who were firefighters and as a native New Yorker remains very emotional when it comes to September 11. "When I was recording for book on tape," Marshall said, "I couldn't get through that part -- I just kept tearing up."

On unplanned pregnancies

Having sex with her college sweetheart to cheer him up after a football squad setback, Marshall became pregnant and embarked on a hasty teenage marriage. (At City Hall, they were handed a newlywed's "Starter Kit" consisting of a bar of soap, toothpaste and a small box of Tide.) The pair spent much of their honeymoon watching news about John F. Kennedy's assassination, and things didn't pick up much after that.

Many years later she found herself once again pregnant and unmarried, and though close friend Joe Pesci gallantly offered to step in and act as father, she made the difficult decision to have an abortion. "I didn't want to be tied to the kid's (biological) father," Marshall said. "And that situation was one of my life's only big regrets."

In the end

Through the various heartbreaks and setbacks, Marshall said she knows how to surmount it all. Framed in her bathroom is the Waylon Jennings lyric that speaks to the secret of her success: "I've always been crazy, but it's kept me from going insane."

Early Start: Penny Marshall on 'My Mother was Nuts'

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