The Reel Breakdown

Adams on Reel Women: $100 million director Penny Marshall meets President Obama, shoots Dennis Rodman, and had “Big” plans for Robert De Niro

The Reel Breakdown

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Photo: JB Lacroix/WireImage

Penny Marshall has a chip on her shoulder. If you believe her memoir, "My Mother Was Nuts," just out from New Harvest, not only was her mother crazy but she wasn't fond of Penny, the tomboy, the guy-chaser, the wild one. But that competitive sense of being an underdog under her own roof, plus the powerful industry ally she had in older brother Garry Marshall, paved the way for Marshall's Hollywood career. She first became a TV star in "Laverne & Shirley," and then one of the few American females to not only direct mainstream movies but to have multiple $100 million-plus hits in "Big" (1998) and "A League of Their Own" (1991), with the Oscar-nominated "Awakenings" (1990) sandwiched in the middle. Like her screen persona, Marshall, who got on the phone with me last week, is abrasive and endearing, caustic and vulnerable, a New Yorker who knows her limitations (remember, her mother was nuts), who loves sports and is in a league of her own as one of the few female directors who have cracked the $100 million club.

Thelma Adams: When people talk about how "Big" made $100 million, Penny, you seem to have a stock answer that downplays the achievement.

Penny Marshall: I didn't get the money.

TA: No, but you got clout.

PM: I was happy it did well. Then I got a deal so I could develop "A League of Their Own." I did "Awakenings" because my mother had Alzheimer's. I thought she'd forget that she didn't like me.

TA: Did she?

PM: No.

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TA: It's been years since you've helmed a Hollywood movie. The last one was "Riding in Cars With Boys" in 2001. You've directed some series TV like "The United States of Tara" and "According to Jim," and the TV movie "Women Without Men," but why no features?

PM: The studio movies they do today I don't want to do: horror, car crashes, and vampires. Ech! Tell me a story. "League," "Awakenings," and "Riding in Cars with Boys" -- they're based on true stories.

TA: Then why not go independent, Penny?

PM: I don't want to work for nothing. And, also, life happened since 2001. After 9/11, I stayed in New York and attended every possible fireman and police benefit to show the city was still safe. In 2009 I got sick and took a break.

TA: In some of the recent interviews with you that I've read, like the one in "USA Today," the interviewer seems judgmental about your past drug use.

PM: In the 70s and the 80s, you did drugs while you were not working. I didn't go to rehab. I was very careful with myself. My bad thing was smoking. I was a thumb-sucker. When I pulled my thumb out at 11, I put a cigarette in. I smoked my first cigarette on the Parkway across from the school.

TA: Your mother must not have approved. From your memoir, I learned that you were pretty good at hiding things from her. It seems like reacting against your mother partially defined who you are, although you seem to have inherited your love of entertaining from her. Why did your mother teach dance?

PM: Because she didn't like my father. At 17, she wanted to be a dancer but she didn't because if you did, they called you a hussy. So, at 17, she had her own school in Pelham, New York. Then my parents moved to the Bronx. Then I came along, which was not an expected thing. I was not as, my mother liked to tell me -- thanks for sharing -- planned. But she loved dance and she thought everyone should have the experience of entertaining. And that activity saved her from an unhappy marriage. Since my brother, Garry, and my sister were older and out of the house, I got the brunt of my parents' dislike for each other. As I got older, I was a tomboy and I liked guys. I wanted to hang out with the guys. Not to be there in the cellar, dancing.

TA: So, what would you have been in life without maternal intervention?

PM: I wanted to be an Olympic runner. But my mother said, don't be better than them. They won't like you.

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TA: Your love of sports and nuts seems to come together in your current project, a documentary about Dennis Rodman.

PM: I met Dennis when he was a [Chicago] Bull. Now, they keep booking him at bars. He tours with NBA Legends to Indonesia, China, or South America. He works out some of the alcohol. He retired at 51. He looked pretty good. I've filmed him three times but I need to shoot more when I'm back in L.A.

TA: You seem to be traveling a lot.

PM: I was just in Milwaukee, where I met the president.

TA: What did you talk about?

PM: I asked him, 'What are you doing about the smoking?"

TA: And?

PM: He said he's chewing the gum. I said I do the patches and the electric cigarette.

TA: So, no big discussions on the economy or the Middle East, huh? What's next?

PM: Basketball season: The Lakers and the Clippers. They entertain me. It's like ballet sometimes.

TA: Tell me a Hollywood story. What about casting "Big" -- and wanting Robert De Niro for the role that Tom Hanks made famous?

PM: There were two other similar movies being cast at the same time I was developing "Big": "Like Father, Like Son" and "Vice Versa." We looked at Tom, Kevin Costner, and Dennis Quaid. Sean Penn auditioned, but he was too young. Then I decided to go a totally different way. I figured I'd call Bobby. He said he wanted to do a commercial film.

TA: What happened?

PM: They wouldn't pay him his asking price. He gave the project credibility. He does behavior very well. They wouldn't pay him what Chevy Chase was getting paid. Then Tom decided he would do it. And Bob said, 'Penny, it's you and me out there. I'll be angry. I don't want to do that to you or to me.' That's why. I had no choice -- and Bobby was a good choice. I knew him. He was polite, self-effacing, and he could sleep anywhere. That's why I cast him in "Awakenings." I owed him.

TA: "Big" time. And you were right: De Niro could do comedy. Nuts, right?

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