Interview: Marilu Henner Talks of Home for the Holidays

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CHICAGO – One of Chicago’s favorite native daughters is Ms. Marilu Henner, who has had a tremendous show business career on stage (the original cast of “Grease”), TV (the unforgettable “Taxi”) and film (“The Man Who Loved Women”). She is also the author of “Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future” and the accompanying 2013 desk calendar. As a woman of incomparable depth and talent, Henner has distinguished herself in many arenas.

One of the quirkier revelations about Marilu Henner is that she is one of the very few people in the world with “superior autobiographical memory,” the amazing ability to recall any date in her lifetime. She was profiled with others having that ability on the news show “60 Minutes” in 2010, and released “Total Memory Makeover” in 2012 as a result of teaching practical applications regarding her gift.

Marilu Henner
Marilu Henner in Chicago, June of 2012
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

Born Mary Lucy Denise Pudlowski in the middle-class Chicago neighborhood of Logan Square, Henner got her early performance bug through her mother’s home dance studio. Breaking out in a big way as a teenager in the early 1970s as part of the first cast of the original Chicago version of “Grease,” Henner left Chicago soon thereafter to pursue parts on Broadway and TV – best remembered for her role on the sitcom “Taxi” (1978-83) as Elaine Nardo. After that show, she has had numerous roles in film and TV, including four years on the Burt Reynolds TV show “Evening Shade.” She continues to work frequently, appearing in two 2012 holiday TV films, “Holiday High School Reunion” (Lifetime) and “Hitched for the Holidays” (Hallmark Channel). She has also recently completed her second run on “Celebrity Apprentice,” to premiere in Spring 2013.

Marilu Henner spoke to via phone from Los Angeles, and she talked fondly of her “sweet home Chicago” and her varied successes as actor, author, teacher and memory advocate. It was first reported that you were one of the few people in the world with ‘superior autobiographical memory’ on the TV show ’60 Minutes,’ two years before the publication of your new book ‘Total Memory Makeover,’ and the 2013 Desk Calendar companion to the book. How can ordinary people like myself benefit from the memory tips you give in your book?

Marilu Henner: I think the main thing is that most people think that memory is just knowing people’s names or the periodic table. Every single person always says to me ‘I have a terrible memory,’ and I’ve been teaching memory classes for years at, memory online classes since the year 2000.

I’ve always been fascinated by memory because I’ve always known I have an unusual one. What I have found in my research and in dealing with people is that everyone remembers something especially well. Everyone has a primary memory track on which they have embedded their memories. Anything from sports to travel to clothes to relationships to school to even hairdos, anything. Everyone remembers something especially well. So when dealing with memory, the most important thing to do is to play to your strengths. How does that interact with our biological selves?

Henner: Everyone has a dominant sense, in the five senses of touch, taste, sight, smell and hearing. When you cross connect those two things, your primary memory track and your dominant sense, you can bring up memories that you didn’t know you had deep inside of you. I really do believe that everything you’ve ever been through is on your emotional hard drive, and it’s making you behave in certain ways, whether or not you’re conscious of it. So why not bring those things forward, and use them to empower yourself to make better choices. What was the difference between how people reacted to your memory before they knew you had superior autobiographical memory?

Henner: It’s funny, because before I used to say things, and people would sarcastically say to me, ‘oh I’m sure that’s how it went.’ They thought I was making stuff up, because it was too specific. Now, they go ‘oh, she’s got this thing.’ Now it’s okay I’m Ms. Know-It-All, because now they realize that I do know it. [laughs] In that realm, you are a consultant for the CBS-TV series ‘Unforgettable,’ about a female detective with superior autobiographical memory. What do you want to make sure the producers got right about that memory condition?

Henner: I think the main thing is not to make it a freaky thing, but to make it more like an unusual gift. And not to make it look photographic, because it isn’t photographic memory. People always tell me that I have a photographic memory, but I tell them it’s not a visual thing, it’s firing on all senses. It’s not what you see visually, it’s also a very strong visceral experience.

One of the questions I get asked all the time is, ‘how was this an advantage when you were memorizing scripts?’ For me as an actor, it’s not just a question of looking at lines on a printed page, it has more to do with what the character is going through that reminds me of something in my life. As an actor, I’m constantly associating what I’m doing in a character with what you have been through. Much like the classic Chicago newspaperman Mike Royko, you’ve also taken on the role of columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, mostly about eating right. How do you think food interacts with our organic selves, including the effect on the brain?

Marilu Henner and the cast of ‘Taxi’
Photo credit: Paramount Home Entertainment

Henner: First of all, what is good for your body is good for your brain. I grew up with the typical Chicago, Midwestern, American sad diet. I was overweight, I weighed 174 pounds at one time, and I ate a lot of meat, dairy, sugar and chemicals, plus two gallons of Tab [diet cola] a day. When my father died of a heart attack at 52 years old, and my mother died of rheumatoid arthritis a few years later, I thought it wasn’t about my weight anymore, it’s about my health. So I ended up changing everything I could about myself, and the more research I did, – including relating and cross connecting the information – the more I started to change myself from the inside out.

To me, the one thing we have control over is our food. You can’t control the air you breath or even the water you drink, as much as you can control what you put in your mouth. To me, we are stuffing our faces but starving our bodies. Most people are eating foods that are low in nutrients, so the body just says more, more, more, is there a vitamin in here anywhere? As has been said, we’re digging our graves with a fork. If you improve the quality of your food, the quantity takes care of itself. So when I changed the quality of my food, everything changed in my life. I’ve been talking about food for a very long time, I love seeing things that I was talking about thirty years ago now coming into sharp focus for people. So this healthy lifestyle was directly related to your parent’s passings at relatively young ages?

Henner: For me, it became a personal mission, and as a result I found health, and in that I found myself. You grew up in the Logan Square neighborhood in Chicago. When you walk around that neighborhood today, what emotional response, based on your memories, is the prevailing feeling?

Henner: Have you ever seen the film ‘Two for the Road’ with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn? It’s a film that goes from one moment in time to another in different stages of their characters’ relationships. For example, they’re driving down a country road and another car passes, and it’s their younger selves in that other car. That’s how I feel when I come to Chicago, because it’s being back in a first person perspective as a child, teenager and college student – I left here when I was twenty years old.

I came back five years ago, for the 100th anniversary of my parish church and school. It was amazing to go back there, and it was the last time I saw my house before it was torn down. I felt nostalgic and emotional about that. The neighborhood itself looks so much better than it did years ago, and it feels as viable as when I was a kid. Any specific landmarks of the neighborhood come back to you?

Henner: Walking to the ‘Eagle’ [the Illinois Centennial Column, central to the neighborhood] was a significant rite of passage. You were allowed to do that when you were ten years old. It was so crazy, that first time. Your family stayed in that Chicago neighborhood during the significant flight of families to the suburbs during the 1960s. What was behind that loyalty, despite the changing demographics of the time?

Henner: I think because we had a dancing school, and we had backstage passes to Catholicism. [laughs] My Mom took the nuns bra shopping, my father drove them around on the weekends, so we were connected to the Catholic Church in the neighborhood, we had our own enclave. I don’t want to say anything bad about the people who did move out, but that was so not my Mom. Plus we were so involved with our neighborhood, and loved to pile into the car, go downtown and do things. Okay, I’m going to test your memory on a stage play premiere that you participated in that has a historic connotation in theater history. What date was the opening night of the iconic musical ‘Grease’ in its original Chicago incarnation at the Kingston Mines nightclub, and what was the last production note given before the cast took the stage for the first time?

Henner: ‘Grease’ opened February 5th, 1971. The last production note the director gave, I can’t put that in print. [laughs] Let’s just say it was about ‘messing’ with the audience. I was only 18 years old when I did that play. It took my mother a while to come and see it, because she didn’t like swearing on stage, and I said ‘f**k you’ several times during the play. It was funny, because I was so not a greaser in high school, I was a goody-two-shoes from an all-girls Catholic high school, but I wasn’t a cheerleader, because my mother thought that being a cheerleader would ruin your female organs.

I did ‘Grease’ during my freshman year of college at the University of Chicago, so I was going from these incredible lectures in the Quad and then getting into my little car to drive to the north side of Chicago. At the stage, I teased my hair, put razors blades into it, ripped my stockings and walked down the aisles, stepping on people’s hands. The original Chicago version of ‘Grease’ was so much tougher than the Broadway show. In fact, I was asked to come and audition in New York for the Broadway version, but I’d just started at the University of Chicago, my father had passed away the year before and we were re-identifying ourselves as a family. But mainly I thought the show wouldn’t be a hit because it was such a Chicago show. When I first saw it, and the Pink Ladies had pastels instead of black leather jackets, I knew it was a completely different show.

Marilu Henner, Burt Reynolds
Marilu Henner and Burt Reynolds in ‘The Man Who Loved Women’
Photo credit: Columbia Pictures What was the biggest cultural shock, as a midwestern girl, when you first went to Los Angeles or New York, and how did it affect how you approach the business?

Henner: What is interesting about coming from the Midwest, is that you’re in the middle. When I was studying macrobiotics, I thought that Chicago was the ‘brown rice’ of the country, it goes with everything. Los Angeles and New York City are such extremes, that in Chicago you’re exposed to a little of each. People from New York will put the L.A. people down as too ‘woo-woo,’ and people from L.A. will characterize New Yorkers as too angry or crowded, and the people from Chicago just say, ‘what’s the phone number?’ [laughs] When you’re from Chicago, nothing sounds too weird, we’re open to it, let’s try that. ‘Man on the Moon,’ the Andy Kaufman biography film starring Jim Carrey, is doing another run around HBO. What was behind the decision to have you all recreate ‘Taxi,’ but not trying to make anybody look younger or of the time. Was that part of the surrealism the film was trying to emote?

Henner: What do you mean, I think everyone was trying to look younger. [laughs] I was happy because I was so much thinner when Danny [DeVito] called, and I still had some of the clothes. I don’t think the way we did it was a conscious on-set decision. It was an interesting movie, because there was a surrealism in it because Danny wasn’t playing himself, and that was odd.

I feel one of the best parts about Andy is that he seemed so normal when you hung out with him. He was so sweet and so normal and I felt like the movie showed no down time for Andy’s character. You never saw normal Andy, he seemed off-kilter all the time and that wasn’t true. I was surprised when I saw the film because it never captured Andy’s sweetness. He was very sweet. What is at the roots of Tony Danza’s clash with Andy Kaufman on the set of ‘Taxi,’ and how does a famous ensemble cast like that one get along as people started getting more famous?

Henner: This cast still gets along. I talked to Danny last week, I talk to Tony every week, Judd [Hirsch] and I email, I just saw Chris Lloyd. Tony and I were with Jeff [Conaway] when he passed away. Tony didn’t clash with Andy any more than Jeff did – it was Jeff and Andy that actually got into it more. In any kind of family, one member seems wackier than the other, and Andy had his own schedule. He was provocative, he fancied himself a ‘song-and-dance man,’ so we were always talking about dancing, singing and Broadway. You had a prominent role in one of Blake Edwards late career films, ‘The Man Who Loved Women.’ What particular piece of advice did that legendary director give you during the film, and how did it help your performance?

Henner: Blake Edwards was one of my favorite directors. He loved ad libbing, 90 percent of the script between Burt Reynolds and myself was all ad-libbed. We came up with so many things, and had an instant chemistry. The moment I met Burt – Monday, March 7th, 1983 – we hit the ground running, it was so great. We just had such a blast. Roger Ebert said the opening scene in the movie between Burt and I was the best seduction scene of that era. Finally, since you practice using your autobiographical memories to inform your present circumstances, what do you want to say to the rest of us regarding that practice?

Henner: It’s crazy not to use your own life, it’s the greatest resource we have. With all the memory work that I’ve done with people, and all the classes and seminars I’ve taught all over the country, I’m always saying that people make the same mistakes over and over again. There is an old Albert Einstein quote in my book – ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.’ To me, that’s not insanity, that’s just bad memory. We tend not to make the same mistakes again if we can start remembering what we did, and start recognizing the red flags and explore it. The best way to use your life is to really develop, explore and embrace your autobiographical memories.

“Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future” by Marilu Henner, and the companion “Total Memory Makeover” 2013 Calendar, is available wherever books are sold. “Hitched for the Holidays,” featuring Marilu Henner, has a reprise showing on the Hallmark Channel, December 25th, 2012, at 9pm ET/8pm Central. See local listings for channel location. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2012 Patrick McDonald,

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