RESTRICTED: Good Times, No Regrets
“You know you’re in for an interesting childhood when your parents choose for one of your godparents a nun, and for the other a department store Window dresser who lived upstairs with 10 cats, 150 fish, a statue of the Madonna and a longtime roommate named Charles.” That, at least, is the view of Marilu Henner in her free-spirited autobiography, By All Means Keep On Moving (Pocket Books), published this week. The book, written with Jim Jerome, is Henner’s uninhibited account of life in a frisky, affectionate Polish-Greek Catholic family; of a professional career that began on the stage and flourished on two Top 10 sitcoms, Taxi and Evening Shade, and of her lusty relations with the men in her life—among them John Travolta, Tony Danza and Judd Hirsch. Henner also discusses her difficult first marriage to actor Frederic Forrest, which came to an end after two tumultuous years marked, she says, by his alcoholic binges and jealous rages. Henner, 42, who lives in L.A. with her second husband, Robert Lieberman, 47, a producer-director, and their newborn son, Nicholas, grew up in Chicago—the third of six children—with her eye on a showbiz career. Her father, Joe, a car dealer, and her mother, Loretta, a dance instructor, encouraged the Personality Kid, as they called her, who started singing at 2½, acted in grade school plays, danced in a teen bra commercial and, at 18, mixed those talents as the gum-smacking Marty in a local theater production of Grease. At 20, in 1972, she dropped out of the University of Chicago to tour with the show’s national company, where she met another fledgling performer, 18-year-old John Travolta. In the following excerpt, Henner chronicles the eventful decade that began on the road in Grease and ended with a triumphant ride in Taxi—with a few romantic side trips along the way.
AS THE TWO YOUNGEST CAST members, Johnny and I were the kids and everyone else the grown-ups. It was spooky how intense and powerful the spark between us was. It was like rediscovering a long-lost sibling. Before the first day of rehearsal was over, we were buddies.
One thing that allowed us to get so close so fast was that we had none of the romantic issues to hang us up. While I was unattached, Johnny had a lovely girlfriend, Denise Wurms, [whom he had grown up with in New Jersey]. Though I sensed that things were becoming iffy in their relationship because of the separation, they were very much involved in each other’s lives.
By February 1973, two months into the tour, Johnny and I were such close friends we could pick up and fly off somewhere at a moment’s notice. We always booked single adjoining rooms. At 2 a.m., he’d knock on my door and say, “Can’t sleep, let’s go out and do something.”
The amazing thing is there was, at this point, no sexual energy. We weren’t like some priest and nun. We took naps lying on the bed next to each other. We had all-night conversations about sex. I’d never known anyone I could talk to until sunrise without a break. Romance was not an issue at this point. I was a confidante.
But by early July it was clear that Johnny and Denise were on the outs. Still, Johnny and I were best friends. It was a classic When Harry Met Sally…situation. I had no conflict, the status quo worked perfectly for both of us. Except for one small detail: Johnny didn’t see it that way.
After the second weekend of July, we went to Disneyland and had a blast. We had already made plans to go to San Francisco on one of our getaways the next weekend and low-road it at the Travelodge. As far as I figured, it would be like all the other trips we’d taken as best friends. Just because it was over with Denise didn’t mean anything had changed for me.
But somewhere between Fantasy-land and Adventureland, Johnny stopped and hit me with a question. “You know, Henner,” he said, “when we go up north this weekend, what do you think about it?”
He shifted his weight nervously. “How about we get together.” I instantly thought, Us? Are you kidding me?
Then I thought about it some more and a voice-over in my head said: Why not?
For romantic settings, you can’t do any better than San Francisco, and so our night together was absolutely incredible—tender, passionate and natural. Our slide into intimacy didn’t have a dramatic movie-score-montage feel to it. But it was anything but disappointing. It was more like: “Oh, we’re going to sleep over like we used to, but now we get to play doctor, too.”
After another trip two weeks later, I felt we had definitely blossomed to genuine couplehood. Johnny and I were never ones to miss our cue for passion. One hot rendezvous spot was a tiny first-aid room backstage at the Shubert Theater in Los Angeles. It was just down the hall from where the musicians entered the orchestra pit. That was all we needed for the 15 or 20 minutes between the first and second acts. We did this more than a dozen times that summer and somehow never got caught.
I couldn’t help but put a hearts-and-flowers haze on things. Johnny’s thinking was more like: “Hey, we’re still buddies, only now we have sex.” In the aftermath of San Francisco, we were obviously not expressing real needs and wants—beyond, of course, first aid at the Shubert.
What I needed was lots of intimacy and affection. Meanwhile, Johnny was busy with auditions and meetings. My feelings were too intense for the kind of relationship we could have at that time. The show was scheduled to go to Chicago, and me with it, while Johnny was looking for a career move that would keep him in L.A. When we were together, he was like, “Oh, God, I love you, love your body, love sleeping with you.” But he was also going: “I have to worry about my career.” With L.A. feeling like home to him and like the road to me, he slammed on the brakes.
Despite professional commitments that often kept them apart, Henner and Travolta rekindled their affair more than once during the next decade. In 1978, they were seeing each other again, but by then Travolta was a TV superstar thanks to his role as the swaggering Vinnie Barbarino on Welcome Back, Kotter, and he was about to open in the film version of Grease opposite Olivia Newton-John. Henner, whose mother had died in May after a prolonged, painful illness from circulatory problems brought on by arthritis, had just returned to Los Angeles to start rehearsals for a new ensemble series called Taxi.
I had no idea how much getting Taxi would change my life. But I felt a healthy cleansing would be to visit my family and the neighborhood with a sense of beginning rather than with the sense of finality and doom that had hung over us all through the vigil at my mother’s bedside.
Johnny’s Chicago film premiere in Grease was the perfect excuse. Going home was a great idea. When Johnny showed up at our house, my entire neighborhood went out of control. The old “meaniacs,” the nasty people who hurled scalding water on us if we played under their windows, now sucked up to us big-time. They followed us wherever we turned, their pens and paper poised for autographs. The German couple that lived next door was suddenly speaking English. So this is what it’s like to be famous, I thought. And maybe, with Taxi, my time had come.
I psyched myself up for my new TV life as Elaine Nardo. After a restful July Fourth weekend with Johnny at Lake Tahoe, I showed up for my first read-throughs. In those first weeks before shooting, I felt an instant comfort on the set. I loved these guys, and soon felt I belonged.
From Day One, the cast had a lusty, affectionate spirit that made me feel I had come home. Tony Danza would walk in, back me against a wall or throw me down on a table and grope me all over, as someone would yell out, “Is Tony in yet?”
One thing I knew for sure: There was no way Elaine Nardo and Tony Banta could ever have had anything close to what Tony and I got going three weeks into the first season. We threw ourselves into a wild, vigorously sexy affair.
While I had been drifting into Johnny’s sphere, perhaps out of habit and comfort, I knew I’d never go through that last door with him. Besides, given his global superstardom, our relationship was more commitment-proof than ever. Johnny was a media phenomenon; his life had gotten unquestionably more complicated.
Enter Tony. Tony was all over the place with girls, but he was technically free. He was totally lovable, with this intense, “neighborhood” street edge, that gorgeous body with a little tuft of hair on the small of his back, and his great sense of humor.
If I knew Tony and I were crazy about each other, I also knew there was no way he was destined to be my life’s partner. We agreed that whatever it was, however it went, it would end as soon as the first episode aired on Sept. 12. Tony and I went out for dinner one night, and then went out the next night, went back to his house and just kind of cleared off the kitchen table. It was right out of The Postman Always Rings Twice. I stayed that night, and we were off and running.
Tony was about as wild as they got, and I had the rug burns to show for it. Hallways, airplanes—you name it, we did it. We often went for 15-rounders. We just zeroed in on each other’s sexuality in a big, cheek-biting kind of way.
There was no hiding what was going on. After taping the third episode, we all went out for dinner at Joe Allen’s. It was a wild night. I walked over to Danny DeVito and sat on his lap with my arms around him. I knew he had figured it out about Tony and me—and would have something to say about it.
“YOU TWO!” he said, with a devilish, Louie DePalma grin. “You couldn’t even wait three weeks!”
Danny got that right. And we were just getting started.
Not long after the debut episode of Taxi, TV Guide sent a reporter for an “on-the-set” article. At the end of the week, I asked the reporter what the guys had told him about me. He said, “You did get one marriage proposal passed along to me from one of them.”
“Who, Tony?” I shrugged. “Probably Tony.” He and I had recently ended our wonderful, three-month affair.
“Uh-uh. I have a marriage proposal for you from Judd.”
I was stunned. “Judd doesn’t even talk to me. What, are you kidding?”
I hadn’t been able to warm up to Judd, though I had a crush on him because of that tormented Jewish intellectual edge that I love. But Judd was serious, he was a grown-up, the father of a growing son. Judd just seemed out of range.
Until now. The next day I went up to him and said, “I accept.”
He gave me that furrowed Judd glower. “Accept what?”
“I accept your marriage proposal.” He looked away, embarrassed.
“You never notice how I look at you?” he asked. Hardly. I was intimidated by Judd’s prowess, his intensity and his rather volatile personality.
From then on I was extremely aware of how Judd looked at me, and I found myself becoming more attracted to him. As we spent time talking, driving around together, going for drinks—without anyone else knowing—I saw a softer side.
In early November, he came over to play tennis and go to dinner. Afterward he went upstairs to get his stuff [and stayed]. It just seemed like the most natural thing in the world for us to do. One night we met our producer Jim Brooks for dinner. “Well,” he said to us, “you’ve either doomed the show or improved it.”
The more pressing question was whether or not Judd’s intensity would doom or improve our affair. Judd was always on the edge, seemingly capable of blowing his stack at any time. He could have scary knock-down-drag-out fights, and I had the distinct impression he didn’t break up with women well.
I was beginning to understand how Judd could trigger such powerful emotions in his adoring women and transform them into terrorists. Judd was one of the wildest, most passionate lovers I ever had. He had an unbelievable sexual drive and stamina. And he was a selfless lover who didn’t make you do all the work. He definitely showed up and stayed for the whole picnic, and I couldn’t help but love that about him.
But I began to feel a bit scared by Judd’s temper. There was a room where we used to hang out on the set, and Judd practically destroyed it one night because something was upsetting him. At the end of 1978 we went to a New Year’s Eve party in New York City. As soon as we walked in, some woman saw him and started smacking him and screaming. New York and L.A. seemed wired with the psychic land mines of Judd’s former love interests.
I didn’t see myself biting off the pin and hurling a grenade into his car. I did see myself falling madly in love with him. But it also occurred to me that there was a real potential for getting hurt. As the first season’s shooting wrapped in January 1979, I figured it would be best for both of us—and the show—to cool off and pull back. Happily I got no argument from Judd and we were able to move on to a wonderfully caring friendship afterward.
Going back for the second season of Taxi was fantastic. I knew the routine; the cast and staff were like family to me, and there were no more intra-cast love affairs to complicate things. The set had a wild, high-energy atmosphere, much like the one I had grown up in.
Tony and Judd bonded by sparring; Tony and I channeled our hormones into rolling around together or working out together at the studio gym. Danny was a doll, and, for my money, the cast member with the most sex appeal. He reeked of it. He’s got that spark. Danny and I loved to give each other lewd, lip-smacking looks, as he’d playfully growl, “Ooooh, Henner, you know, if I wasn’t with Rhea [Perlman, Danny’s sweetheart, who later became Danny’s wife]….” Elaine was supposed to hate Louie, who gave her the creeps. But I found him so adorable that everything he did made me lose it.
Then there was Latka. No one added more of an edge of insanity to the set chemistry than Andy Kaufman. Andy was very hard to get to know and, once in character as Latka, there was no breaking Andy out of it: He stayed Latka. Once he developed a humongous boil on the back of his neck that was the size of a tennis ball. It was so disgusting you couldn’t stop looking at it. He announced to the audience during our Friday taping that they could touch it for a dollar. Pay a dollar, touch Andy’s boil. Most of the audience lined up. There was no middle ground with him.
With such a rich chemistry within the ensemble, doing the show was the most creatively pleasurable time of my professional life. When the final season shooting schedule wrapped in February 1984, our wild and wonderful Taxi ride was finally over. The wrap party became a festive, wistful celebration of all we had shared and accomplished, not only as an ensemble but as dear friends. It had been a breakthrough time in our lives; now it was time to say good-bye and move on to the next phase.