Girls On Wheels: Penny Marshall and Carrie Fisher Forever


Penny Marshall and I were the bridesmaids in Carrie Fisher’s wedding to Paul Simon. This was 1983 and there was a select group of friends invited to go along on their honeymoon up the Nile. We were watched over by a silent Egyptian crew who cooked for us, steered the boat, cleaned the cabins, and catered to our whims. We were the pop-rock pharaohs, starring Paul Simon and his best man, Lorne Michaels, Carrie Fisher as the princess bride, Penny Marshall and me and Susan Forristal, Lorne’s beloved. The rest of the wedding party was featured in supporting roles as court jesters. We had our own full-time tour guide, a long-suffering and long-winded Egyptologist named Ibrahim, who knew everything about everywhere. He would reveal these things to us from temple to temple in excellent British-English. Poor Ibrahim was subject to continuing comedic interruptions. Penny would break into song whenever he brought up the great pharaoh, Akhenaton: “Akh-en-aton, tweet, tweedle-ee-dee; Ak-hen-aton, tweet. Go Ak-hen-aton, ‘cause we’re really gonna rock tonight!

We were told that daytime heat would vary from 100 to 120 degrees. Wedding party ladies-in-waiting were warned not to flounce around in next to nothing. Some of the women on the streets of Cairo were dressed in modern clothes, but the women we saw in Luxor, our launching point, were draped in heavy black chadors with head covering. The men flapped around in pastel cotton galabias, so thin you could almost see through them.

Bright and early, day one, after a breakfast of beans spiced with cumin seeds at the Grand Hotel Luxor, Penny and I decided to rent bikes while everyone else slept in. By 8 a.m., with heat hovering at 108, we hatched an insane scheme to walk our bikes to the river, catch a ferry, and pedal across the blistering plain past the gigantic Colossi of Memnon. These are the matching statues of Amenhotep III, both faces erased by time. The monuments that inspired Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Kings of Kings.

The bike rental boy checked Penny and me out with friendly appreciation. We had turned out for this escapade through the sands of time in California sauna-style of short shorts and T-shirts.

We wandered to the landing just as the ferry docked. Hundreds of people got off and were swarming up the gangplank with chickens and goats. Hundreds more waited to swarm on to make the return trip. Penny and I were swept along in sticky clumps, shuffling up the ramp, smushed toward the lower decks.

The ferry grumbled off. As we tried to keep from treading others’ feet with our bike wheels, a low murmur lifted up from the women. It was that sound Arab women make with their tongues called ululation. This high-pitched minor-key tenor mimics the onrushing of flocks, birdlike but mechanical, as if car alarms are going off in the distance. The sound is so forbidding in its urgency, and in this case, screeching in proximity, that Penny whispers, “Is it us?”

Throughout the length of our trip, not a soul recognized Paul Simon or his lovely bride, but head coverings swiveled all over Egypt when Laverne tooled by.

The sounding clatter began converging into one discernible word. A word we, of all people, recognized. The women were broadcasting the news: “Laverne!” Over and over. “Laverne, Laverne, Laverne!” In tribute? Or warning? Penny had just completed the eighth and final year of shooting her show before we left Los Angeles. The series had gone into worldwide syndication after year five. America’s gift to the peoples of many nations: Laverne and Shirley, I Love Lucy, Gilligan’s Island. Throughout the length of our trip, not a soul recognized Paul Simon or his lovely bride, but heads swiveled all over Egypt when Laverne tooled by.

When we got home to Hollywood, Penny was trying to pull together the script for a feature she planned to direct titled Big. There was a group of us, four or five regulars that hung out at Penny’s vast house in the hills, plus mystery guests that often turned up. She called our coven Girls on Wheels due to the number of Conestogas that would circle inside the gated drive. Back then, everybody smoked and everybody but Penny guzzled pinot grigio. One night Penny recounted how she got to L.A to begin with. It all started from her freshman year in college. First time she ever did it, slam bam, thank you ma’am. She did not find her condition amusing. She quit school, married the inseminating professor and had the baby. It wasn’t long before they divorced and there she was: not a clue of what to do, how to support herself and the child—so now what?

Her older brother Gary Marshall had gone out west and worked his way into show business. Her older sister Ronny had followed the brother and gotten a job where he worked. So the little sister and her little girl lit out for L.A. and she scored a secretarial position. One day the brother gave her a walk-on on one of his shows. This led to a speaking part, and then—the great leap forward: her brother put her in a show of her own. She married again, this time to a fellow who starred in another show. Rob Reiner in All In The Family. Their two shows played tag, his and hers trading places for a couple of years, numbers one and two in the ratings. Who gets to be on top tonight, honey?

The funniest couple in Hollywood ran around with the fastest minds in showbiz. Up all night, everywhere at once. Hosting Saturday Night Live, New York and L.A., people always hitting on the both of them. Fame: that’s what happens when the gettin’ gets good. Having the world on a string caused the inevitable yo-yo effect: what goes up tends to blow back out. It all came down to the California 50-50 community property split. Too bad, so sad. The End.

She became the first female director to hit an opening weekend out of the park, topping $100 million. A benchmark the good ole boy network had insisted was impossible for “a girl” to pull off.

TV money, though, as everybody knows is the fastest and best. Penny took the little girl and bought them the sprawling compound in the hills, a house as big as the Burbank airport. Plenty of space for the most interesting comics and writers and visiting Brits that were constantly crashing downstairs. She was generous with all her friends, making sure everybody got work when she had it. She started out directing some of her own shows and then decided to try her hand at directing a feature. She became the first female director to hit an opening weekend out of the park, topping $100 million. A benchmark the good ole boy network had insisted was impossible for “a girl” to pull off. Critics belittled her work as feel-good, warm and fuzzy. She specialized in stories where nobody ever really gets hurt, and nobody ever really grows up.

Sometimes when girls on wheels convened we’d have our visitor from outer space. She would beam down in a flurry of feathers and glitter to Penny’s bedroom or what we called the Bullet Room and hunker on the rug with her head in her purse. She’d arrive with an opening line that made sense or didn’t, and then drop to the floor. There seemed to be comfort inside that purse and when rifling through it, you could see her calm down. Carrie Fisher had made beaucoup dollars on the merchandising of her persona in her most famous role. One time she pulled a bottle of shampoo out of the purse that was made to look just like her and boomed, “Watch this! I can screw my own head off.” Which was more than metaphorical and/but also not a sexual allusion.

Usually, there was a running dialogue that scrolled underneath the rummaging of the purse. Not necessarily having to do with the object of the search if there actually was one. Assuming a position with flat feet, buckled knees and bum hung low was how she went about it. “Don’t think I don’t know how this looks,” she’d intone, “and moreover, don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinking.”

Penny was always providing the eye-rolls or drum rolls for Carrie’s nonsequiturs. If Carrie discoursed on the literal symbolism of the purse she could be off on a ramble about money problems, hers or her mother’s, or others’. “The purse, you know,” she’d drone basso without looking up, “can be a symbol for what Mom called the honeypot. I call it Pol Pot in reference to my first husband.”

The back page of Vanity Fair features the Marcel Proust questionnaire. A similar set of questions is posed to a chosen celebrity. He or she must answer as short and sweet as possible. The producer/writer/director Jim Brooks was an old friend of those who spent time at Penny’s. James L. Brooks, that’s how you see him listed in credits. So one month, Jim Brooks was the Vanity Fair celebrity in question.

They asked him: Who do you admire the most? Jim Brooks replied: “Anyone who says they’re going to get out of L.A. and actually does it.” For the celestial best friends Carrie Fisher and Penny Marshall, the only sweet and sour answer to that question, and I know you’ll understand what I’m trying to say, was feet first.

Carol Caldwell of Nashville, Atlanta, Charleston, NY, and LA wrote for Rolling Stone, Esquire, New Times, Elle, Playboy, etc. until she sold her soul to Tinseltown. Screenplays, anyone?

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