UH-OH. A NAUGHTY WORD. PENNY Johnson shoots a stern look at her husband and then at her daughter. “Close your ears,” she says. Twelve-year-old Danyel obeys. Johnson—who plays Beverly, the ever-suffering assistant to Garry Shandling on HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show—leans across the breakfast table, meeting her mate Gralin Jerald in the airspace above the bagels, and whispers, “This week they have me saying, ‘I’m gonna kick somebody’s ass, I swear.’ ” They lock eyes in a moment of silence. Then Johnson gives Danyel a nod to tell her she can take her hands off her ears. The glance she gives a visitor to her four-bedroom home in L.A. says something else altogether: Hey, buster, wipe that smirk off your face—please. She wants the world to understand that she isn’t Beverly. “My pastor,” she says with a smile, “watches the show.”
For the pastor, then—as well as for fans of HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show—a clarification: For the past three years, Johnson, 35, wife, mother and Oasis Christian Church-going actress, has impersonated—but never even minutely resembled (well, maybe minutely)—Beverly, the savvy, super-efficient assistant to an insecure, ego-maniacal talk show host played by Garry Shandling.
Through his three divorces, angst-ridden affairs and nervous breakdown, there has been nothing that Beverly would not do for her boss: schedule his appointments; field (and fend off) his phone calls; pick up his dry cleaning, his yogurt and his hemorrhoid cream; and now and then, when he can’t find a hipper, more beautiful, more glamorous partner, do him the favor of having sex with him.
Naturally, Johnson draws a firmer line with Shandling: There is simply no way she will get his yogurt. Okay—or do the sex thing. Or, for that matter, say the f word on-camera. “We’ll occasionally tease her by putting more dirty words in the script than we’ll ever use,” says Shandling with a laugh. “She blushes like a little girl.”
An act, lest Garry be fooled, that Johnson has been perfecting since she was a little girl in east Baltimore and carried around a dramatically appealing doll called Little Miss No-Name (big eyes; tear painted on plastic cheek). “I’d sit outside when everyone was asleep,” says Johnson, “and make myself cry so I could be just like her.”
And so a star was born. Not before her adolescence, though, would the world take notice. Until then, there were five siblings to fight with and parental expectations to live up to. “All our children were taught to be busy and constructive,” says Johnson’s father, Norman, who owns a heating and refrigeration company and several Baltimore convenience stores. (He was divorced from Johnson’s mother, Alice, a medical assistant, in 1980.) “They all worked in my stores doing things like making and selling artificial flowers on holidays and selling produce off the back of our truck.”
What Johnson proved best at hawking, though, was her talent. At 13, she enrolled in a local theater group; at 16, she was working summers in a theatrical circus troupe; and at 17, she applied—and was accepted—to study drama at New York City’s Juilliard School. A month before graduating in 1982, Johnson landed her first big gig, the starring role in a 1983 PBS-BBC miniseries, The File on Jill Hatch. Subsequent roles as the love interest of Keenen Ivory Wayans in the short-lived 1983 drama For Love and Honor, and a cable series, The Paper Chase: The Second Year, convinced her to move to L.A.—despite “the cardboard people out there,” she says. As always, she found grounding in a nondenominational church—and one Sunday afternoon after service she ended up getting swept away. “I saw this man checking me out,” says Johnson of the first time she saw Jerald. “I asked him if he wanted to exchange numbers, and he ran to his car to get his card.”
A year and a half later, the two were married. Jerald, 44, a music producer and Johnson’s manager, soon got used to his wife’s frantic pace: working full-time on The Paper Chase, teaching acting at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (a job she still holds) and hitting every audition that came her way. In 1992, when she tried out for Beverly, she had been rejected for three other sitcom roles that week. Tired and cranky, she hadn’t even bothered to read the script.
“The phone in the audition room rang, and Garry asked me to answer it,” she recalls. “It was for him and I said he wasn’t available right now.” She chatted for a few minutes, then hung up, completely unaware that that was her audition. She asked Shandling if he wanted to go over their lines. No, he said, and sent her, baffled and bummed, on her way. The moment she left the room, he recalls, “I said, ‘She’s it.’ ”
He has no regrets. “She is solid, grounded and real,” he recalls. And, like Beverly, willing to go the extra mile for her boss. “I’m not someone who is going to let him film a scene with a booger hanging from his nose,” says Johnson. Uh-oh. The b word. Danyel, close your ears!
KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles