Wednesday, October 03, 2012

When Penny met Pepi

Two showbiz memoirs, one with broad appeal, the other strictly for me.

Joseph Schildkraut was a famous stage actor in Europe who had considerable success in Hollywood, including a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in The Life of Emile Zola.  He also played Otto Frank on Broadway and on film in The Diary of Anne Frank.  His father, Rudolph Schildkraut was an even bigger star in Europe and later a marquee name in the Yiddish theater here in the States.  Josephs' memoir, My Father and I, published in 1959, tells both their stories.  

Rudolphs' was a rags to riches story.  From nothing, he went on to become one of the most acclaimed actors of his time.  He was also a serial womanizer, an egomaniac and lived well beyond his means despite earning vast sums of money.  Put simply, the guy was nuts.

His son, Joseph, studied to be a musician but the lure of the stage drew him into the family business despite his fathers' protests.  Not surprisingly, Joseph had some difficulty getting out from his father's shadow but ultimately succeeded on his own, including work for D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.  An Oscar ain't bad either. 

For a memoir from 1959, Joseph is quite forthright about his own skirt-chasing (though juicy details were omitted) and he is unapologetic about these as well as his failed marriages. 

Perhaps best of all, I was able to glean some important genealogical information from the book that will aid my own research into my family tree.  You see, while not a household name to most, Joseph was an important name in our house because he was my mother's cousin.  She referred to him by his family nickname, Pepi, and always had fond memories of him.  My parents remembered going to see Anne Frank on Broadway and Pepi taking my father's hand and running it over his bald head which he had shaved to make him appear older.  In fact, Pepi's honest portrayal and physical resemblance to Otto Frank led the the two men to become friends in their remaining years. 

Quite different in tone, My Mother Was Nuts is a funny, fast, and often surprising read.

So often, humor is born of pain and that can certainly be said of Marshall.  Her parents' marriage was unhappy at best and her mother made it clear that Penny's birth was neither planned nor wanted.  In fact, the frankness of Mrs. Marshall is alarming and uncomfortable, making it all the more remarkable that Penny didn't end up a basket case.  Instead, she simply stuck her head down and plowed forward.  

Having grown up in her mother's dance studio, she wasn't a shy kid.  She was likable, fun-loving and boy crazy.  While it was never her dream to be on TV, things have a way of happening for Penny Marshall and she was unknowingly wise to take chances since so many of them panned out so well. Laverne & Shirley was a huge success as were films she directed like Big, Awakenings, and A League of Their Own.  In fact, she was the first woman director to have two films gross over $100 million each.  

Unlike the Schildkraut memoir, My Mother Was Nuts contains lots of juicy stuff--drug trips with Carrie Fisher (no surprise there), benders with Belushi and Aykroyd, her marriage to Rob Reiner (whose success with All In The Family was eclipsed by his wifes' when Laverne & Shirley knocked Reiner's show from the top spot and became the number one comedy in America), her relationship with Art Garfunkel and others.  It is a memoir that is really charming, moving, and unexpected.  

Finally, below is the book trailer for My Mother Was Nuts, which is the funniest I've seen in ages.  


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