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- April 28, 1980
- Vol. 13
- No. 17
It's Thumbs Up—Sort Of
Penny Marshall Copes with Life Without Rob (Meathead) Reiner
Like Farrah, Cheryl and Lindsay—whose stardom overshadowed their husbands and eventually pushed them out of their lives—Penny achieved astonishing TV success as Laverne DeFazio at the expense of her nine-year marriage. Rob Reiner, no longer Archie Bunker's "Meathead" son-in-law, moved out last August. "We faced all the cliché things," Penny explains. "We could check all the boxes in the stress test. His success, my success, buying a house, building a house. There were never any fights or arguments, but we didn't seem to be connecting," she continues. "We just asked each other, 'Is this it? Are we happy? I don't think so.' So we decided to try a separation."
What made it tougher was that this was also the season of Laverne & Shirley's decline. ABC's itchy-fingered rescheduling made her show, as Penny cracks, "the gypsy of the network" and contributed to its plummeting from No. 1 in 1976 to the Bottom 10 last February. When Penny and co-star Cindy Williams complained, ABC promised to move the show back to its former Tuesday slot if the ratings were still "crummy. So we kept sending messages, 'Is this crummy enough?' " moans Penny. "It hasn't been a great year."
For Penny, Laverne is not only like family—it is family. Her father, Tony, is one of the producers; her sister Ronny is casting director, and her brother Garry is executive producer and creator of the show (not to mention of Happy Days and Mork and Mindy). Given Reiner's lineage—he's son of comedian-director Carl Reiner—the marital split had all the reverberations of the end of the Hollywood Hapsburgs. But, says Penny, "The families are still working together." Indeed, Penny recently passed up a chance to direct a TV pilot to fly to Boston to help Rob break in a Broadway-bound comedy, The Roast, directed by Carl and written by Garry. When the principals gathered for lunch at Paramount recently, reports Penny, "I'd come up and kiss everyone hello, and I could hear the buzz go up in the commissary."
The couple has not yet filed for divorce. "I'm not in any rush," says Penny. "We'll divorce around each other's schedules. It seems only right. We got married around each other's schedules." When they wed nine years ago, his vow was to "always be your best friend." "I'll try not to make you nervous," was how she plighted her troth. Now she says sadly, "I just didn't hold up my part."
The problem was at least partly the frenetic schedules both endured on weekly series. "Work is the big excuse," says Penny. "You start taking things for granted, you don't work on the relationship." Then there were the "two years of hell," living squeezed into a guest cottage on their property while a second story was built onto their Encino house. "We were living on top of each other at the height of our success," says Penny. One year after moving into the big house, Rob moved out. It was, she jokes wryly, "Nice house. Bye."
Even now Penny avoids her own living room "because I don't know who lives there. After so many years with someone, you're used to a presence in the house. There's still that empty half of the bed. Now I have this huge house and I don't know what I'm doing here. Should I make it more 'me' or do I move?" In either case, she has the support of her 15-year-old daughter, Tracy, by her two-and-a-half-year first marriage to Michael Henry, now director of the Special Olympics in New Mexico. Tracy, a would-be dancer like her grandmother, now uses Rob's beloved tennis court as a rink for her roller-disco parties and, says Penny, is "holding together great. It's almost like we're roommates now." (Other boarders: two cats and three dogs.)
With a little help from her legions of friends—Penny is one of the best-liked actresses in Hollywood—she reentered the party whirl if only to get over her initial loneliness. "It was real hard to be around friends who were couples," she confesses. "I would feel jealous of people who cared about each other." She plunged into partying, and Cindy Williams once cracked, "I didn't have enough oxygen to keep up with her." Says Penny, "I thought it was better than sitting home waiting for Mr. Right to call.
"I'm not into falling in love—everyone says it takes a year for that," continues Penny. "Right now I'm a little gun-shy." But she does date. She sees Broadway actor David (Bent) Dukes, who met Rob first when he guested as Edith's rapist on a famous episode of All in the Family and now squires Penny to dinner or friends' apartments when she's in New York. "She has great generosity of spirit," testifies Dukes. "Besides, she is the only person I know who drinks Pepsi with her milk." (Marshall's unorthodox quaff is a favorite both on camera and off.) Penny recently went public with Art Garfunkel, whom she met through Carrie (Star Wars) Fisher, and invited him to L.A. for a guest bit on Laverne & Shirley. Now, she teases, she and Carrie want to do Guys and Dolls with Garfunkel and Paul Simon. "We're auditioning them—separately," she says.
In a more serious moment, Penny asks out loud, "Is this the single life? It stinks." Still, she says, "I can function. Just don't leave me alone at twilight—that's the loneliest time." (One solution is leasing out her guest house "because I like having a male on the premises, especially at night." Actor Tim Matheson, who played the ladies' man Otter in Animal House, replaced Richard Dreyfuss as the tenant.)
Lately, too, Penny has been depending on get-togethers with "hard-core friends, the kind you can cry with." Director Steven Spielberg (recovering from his own romantic difficulties with Amy Irving) calls Penny "the center of the wheel. We orbit around her life—her happiness, her problems, our problems," he says. "If Penny could wring out all the tears cried on her shoulder, she'd flood Encino." In a revealing aside, Penny observes, "That's the problem. I'm tired of being understanding. I want to be weak and helpless."
One compensation is that after four years on the show Penny has come into her own professionally. "She never brings her problems on the set," says David L. Landers, who plays Squiggy. "The only thing that upsets me about her insecurities is that she's wrong. She's the Willie Stargell of the cast. She's Pops—and Moms. Whatever jealousy and tension exist are laughed about more than taken seriously." Indeed, the two leading ladies have banished competition. "We're attached at the hip," chuckles Cindy.
Most important, Penny has made her tentative first steps into directing. At Landers' urging, she directed two episodes of the show (as well as the pilot for Working Stiffs, the failed series of John Belushi's brother Jim). "We were bracing for a major nervous breakdown," kids Michael McKean, who plays Lenny, but, adds Landers, "Penny is the best director I've ever worked for." She called Spielberg for pointers. ("First take the lens cap off," he told her.) She enjoyed it. "You don't have to worry about how you look," she noted, revealing something that has troubled her, and besides, it's "something to fall back on."
In an effort to make the fallback unnecessary, the show's writers toyed with the plan of having Laverne and Shirley move to New York next fall for their fifth and probably last season. Instead, the girls will now be allowed to grow up into the 1960s. "Do you realize we're all in our 30s and doing this?" asks Cindy. And Penny admits to a hankering to play "someone a little older than Laverne, more settled, who doesn't fall down as much." As for trading up to feature films, she is an uncredited walk-on in Spielberg's flop 1941 ("She watched me mess it up," he kids) but has no further plans until "everything is right." She is also considering appearing in a one-act play written by pal Israel Horovitz. "If I get too much time to think, I'll find a way to frighten myself out of it," she says.
Meanwhile, the lady who went to Europe for the first time last spring has been jetting between Barbados, Boston, New York and Los Angeles. She will soon head for Cannes for a TV festival and thence to the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back (the Star Wars sequel) with Carrie Fisher in London.
Penny's insecurities have not totally disappeared. She continues once-a-week therapy, and at times she has second thoughts about her split: "I wonder, 'Why exchange an imperfect husband, whose failings I can deal with, for an imperfect stranger?' " But, adds Penny, "If I can get through this year, I can get through anything. I'm still functioning under all this pressure. I'm more confident than I've ever been—I guess."
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