Actress Marilu Henner dishes on growing up in Chicago with the nuns next door, ‘Taxi,’ and that amazing memory of hers

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By Gerry Strauss, ReMIND Magazine

She’s knocked our socks off onstage, stolen our hearts on screens of all sizes and taught us how to live happier, healthier lives with her own radio show. From her iconic role on the award-winning TV show Taxi to her more recent appearances on The Celebrity Apprentice, Dancing With the Stars and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, Henner has been making us laugh, cry, think and grow for a long time. With her well-documented autobiographical memory abilities (she is one of only a few people in the world who can recall virtually every detail of her day-to-day life), catching up with her was an exceptional pleasure.

Marilu Henner’s life as a kid growing up in Chicago could be material for a new family sitcom. Here she tells us how she got into show business.

Marilu Henner: My family owned a dancing school in Chicago. It was actually a three-car garage — a fake garage in our backyard. I don’t even think you could get three cars in it. There were six kids in the family, and my parents started the dancing school when I was little. As soon as you were 14 in my family, you got to start teaching dancing and making some extra money. We had 200 students between the ages of 2 and 80, including the nuns from the Catholic school next door, who came over for stretch classes. We had dance recitals and parties, and everybody in the neighborhood knew us. We thought of ourselves as the Kennedys of Logan Square, and we were sort of the center of the neighborhood. Not only did my mother own a dancing school, she also ran a beauty shop out of our kitchen where, like, 25 women from the neighborhood would come over and get their hair done. The nuns would get their hair cut, or she usually went over to the convent to do that. The kitchen was set up like a hair salon. Upstairs, my mother’s younger brother lived with 10 cats, two dogs, two birds, a skunk, 150 fish and his boyfriend, Charles. He taught art at the Catholic grammar school next door, and after school, he had art classes going on while the dancing school and the beauty shop were going on. He also would do astrology readings for people. He was kind of the neighborhood astrologist, and he ran a cat hospital on our roof.

Who are some women who have made a positive impact on your career and life?

Well, certainly my mother and my oldest sister. My sister was the queen of all Catholic high schools. I mean, literally the queen of all Catholic high schools. She was beautiful and intelligent and very talented, and she was 10 grades ahead of me, nine and a half years older. But she was always the lead in her school plays, and I was the little kid following her with the script. So, she was a tremendous influence on my early life because I knew I wanted to be an actress because of my big sister, JoAnn. She was my idol.

When you were first cast for Taxi, did you think it had the potential to be a great show?

Well, actually, my memory has taken over everything in my career, but Taxi… for sure. Taxi, I’ve been so proud of it. Well, first of all, I have an interesting back story with Taxi, because I had a contract with CBS. They paid me every month to stay away from the other networks while they found a pilot for me. I was traveling. I was in Rio de Janeiro with John Travolta. I was kind of dating him on and off for years, and we were in Rio, and I just arrived, and they said, “We have a pilot for you. … It’s called The Paper Chase.” There was no FedEx then, and no fax or anything, so I said, “Well, can I do it not as part of my contract since I can’t even read the script? Can I do it as a guest star?” They said, “OK.” I was hoping they would say no so that I wouldn’t have to come home. But I got on a plane within 36 hours and flew back to L.A., and did the part as a guest-starring part. And then I honored my CBS contract by doing a pilot called Leonard with Leonard Frey. And then I was freelance, so they had me audition for Taxi. I was 25 at the time. Taxi wanted … a 33-year-old Italian New Yorker with a daughter who was kind of based on an unmarried woman, or Goodbye Girl. Sort of a sassy preteen or early teen, and I was way too young to have that kind of daughter. But the casting director liked me, so he kept bringing me back. … In the meantime, Paper Chase was picked up and my character tested really high, so they offered me a contract. So then Taxi thought, “Uh-oh, do we keep her as Elaine? Do we rewrite Elaine?” But then they said, “We like her so much we’re going to keep her, and we’ll just give her two little kids instead of one teen daughter.” I knew kind of how special it was to be the only female in this male ensemble. The characters were so rich. Danny (DeVito) was so special, and when he came out of that cage the very first show … “Reiger, Reiger, Reiger, Reiger!” … you knew a star was born.

About that memory

Henner has been very public over the years about her superior autobiographical memory. We asked her if having that level of recall makes it challenging to enjoy experiences as they come. “No,” Henner says. “If anything, it makes it easier to live in the moment because you’re absorbing every detail of everything that happened. My memory is such a part of me, I can’t imagine not having it, but it’s never been anything but a tremendous blessing and a gift. As a child, I thought that way, and didn’t realize for a long time that other people didn’t have it. But it’s made me make better decisions. It’s part of every single thing that I do every single day, so I’m constantly using it and using it to evaluate anything that I’m in the middle of.”

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