07/20/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
LONG BEFORE SHE BEGAN TOSSING OUT one-liners, Rosie O'Donnell
was pitching balls, catching flies and hitting home runs. Back home in Commack, N.Y., where girls weren't allowed to play Little League, young Rosie would practice with the boys before and after the games. "I was always the first girl picked for the neighborhood teams," recalls the comedian as she munches on a bagel at Art's Deli in Studio City, Calif., near Hollywood. "I got picked ahead of my three brothers, which I think still affects them."
With such panache at the plate, slugger O'Donnell, 30, was a natural to play dance-hall bouncer turned wisecracking third basewoman Doris Murphy in director Penny Marshall's hit comedy A League of Their Own, inspired by the all-woman baseball league that existed during and shortly after World War II. "When I read the script, I thought, 'If I don't get this part, I'll quit show business,' " says O'Donnell, who for four years has been the host of the VH-1 cable-channel comedy show, Stand-Up Spotlight. "If there's one thing I can do better than Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, it's play baseball."
She can also throw comic curve-balls. "The part was originally for a hot, sexy girl, but I liked Rosie so much we changed the story to suit her," says Marshall. "She can make anything funny."
That may be because O'Donnell has been doing stand-up almost from the moment she learned to stand up. The middle of five kids in a tight-knit Irish Catholic family, "Rosie was always telling jokes and doing imitations," says her sister Maureen Crimmins, 29, a New Jersey housewife. Equal parts tomboy, cutup and dreamer, O'Donnell early on memorized the lyrics to her mother's South Pacific album. (O'Donnell's favorite song was "I hippy Talk.") "She was into musical theater," says Rosie of her mother, for whom she was named, "and really nurtured that part of my life."
Tragically, her mother died from pancreatic and liver cancer when Rosie was 10. "It was the denial buffet," says O'Donnell. "For a long time I didn't believe it. Patty Hearst had just been kidnapped, so I came up with a fantasy that that was what had happened to my mom too, and nobody was telling us."
Eventually, O'Donnell found strength in her pain. "Rosie is the one I always call when I have a tough day." says Maureen. "She has always protected me." The loss had a profound impact on O'Donnell's career as well. "I remember thinking that she died in her 30s and I had to succeed before that age so that if I died, I would have left something tangible," she says.
On a self-imposed fast track, O'Donnell wrote her first jokes at 16, and at 18 began performing them at local comedy spots. After a turn at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, and another at Boston University in 1981, she started touring clubs across the country. "My whole life I've been on the road. Which is why I loved Evansville, Ind., where we made League" she says. "There was a movie theater, a mall and a McDonald's. That's all I need to be happy."
There was also Madonna
. Bonded by their pasts—both were raised in Catholic families and suffered the early deaths of their mothers—the two became best buddies on the set. Sometimes, to amuse the 5,000 extras between takes, O'Donnell would belt out "Like a Virgin," and the Material Girl "would come running out of the dugout and tackle me." The friendship continued after filming, though nowadays they're more likely to tackle a shopping mall. "She doesn't like the way I dress," says O'Donnell with a sheepish grin. "She says I'm a Gap-outlet reject—and it's true. I'm a nerd. What can I say?"
The friendship has spawned talks of a female buddy movie sometime in the future. For now, though, Rosie, who is currently filming Sleepless in Seattle with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, keeps busy turning out jokes and learning to play the piano she just bought for her two-bedroom house in Studio City. As for romance, a suddenly bashful Rosie says she is "single, dating and available." But if the thought of love flusters her, Rosie's rising star leaves her unfazed. "People from high school come up and say, 'Do you remember me?' " she says. "And I'm like, 'Do you think I've been in a coma? That I've forgotten the first 20 years of my life?'
"The other day Madonna
said to me that people talk about how fame changes you but never about how it changes people around you. I don't feel any different than before."
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles