Standing on the tar-paper roof of a building in Manhattan’s garment district, Rosie O’Donnell lifts her organza-encased arms to the breeze and worries that if she sweats too much her borrowed-from-Saks glamour gear will be too skanky to return. When the photographer’s assistant is satisfied that the lamé backdrop has achieved adequate poof, however, O’Donnell eagerly cocks a shoulder, pouts her lips, and strikes a kitschy pose.
There’s no voguing in her first movie, the smash hit A League of Their Own, but as Doris Murphy, a dance hall bouncer-turned-third basewoman for an all-female baseball team, the scene-stealing O’Donnell, 30, definitely makes an entrance. Playing the wiseass best friend to Madonna’s ”All-the-way Mae” Mordabito — and being Madonna’s latest offscreen pal — has suddenly put O’Donnell leagues away from her days in the early ’80s as an itinerant club comic. ”You fly to some city you don’t know and some stranger picks you up,” she recalls. ”You drive to this condo in the middle of nowhere. There’s mildew on the shower curtain and a lock on the phone because the comic who was there last week ran up the bill. And it’s what I did for years.”
O’Donnell stumbled into stand-up while still in high school and took it up full-time after dropping out of Boston University’s acting program (”They told me, ‘The part of Rhoda Morgenstern has already been cast”’). A 1984 Star Search appearance eventually led to work as a VJ on VH-1 and host of that channel’s Stand-Up Spotlight show. But despite a VH-1 following and her stint on this spring’s Fox sitcom Stand By Your Man (”It got canceled,” she says, ”because the Richard Simmons Deal-A-Meal program got higher ratings”), the Rosie recognition factor was still relatively low until League burst on the scene July 1.
That changed everything. O’Donnell realized as soon as she saw the League script that she was destined to be Doris. Actresses had to pass a baseball tryout as part of their auditions, but O’Donnell knew that would be no problem: ”I played with my brothers and in Little League.” The real pressure came after she was cast, when director Penny Marshall (Big, Awakenings) told her Madonna might join the team. ”’If she likes you and she likes me, she’ll do the movie,”’ O’Donnell recalls Marshall saying. ”’Be funny.”’
O’Donnell was, but then she has always been a team player, having grown up the eldest girl and the middle child of five in Commack, Long Island. Her dad designed cameras for spy satellites (”He was very depressed when the Berlin Wall came down”). But the standard-issue middle-class childhood ended when her mother, Roseann, died of cancer. ”Most mothers just don’t die when you’re 10 years old,” O’Donnell says. ”I was the mother at that young age.”
That’s part of her bond with Madonna. ”When I saw Truth or Dare, I thought, I understand what this is about,” O’Donnell says. ”I know what it’s like to go to your mother’s grave and see your own name. I knew that if I met her we would be friends.”
Single and ”searching for somebody who will complement me,” O’Donnell lives in suburban Studio City, Calif. And though her movie career has taken off — she’s now shooting Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle, a romantic comedy starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan — she’s still more the irreverent stand-up than the diplomatic Hollywood player. Her publicist warned her during interviews for League that ”you can’t tell those people the truth,” but on a recent Arsenio appearance with Madonna, O’Donnell did a Laverne-on-ludes impersonation of director Marshall’s singular on-set style. Afterward Marshall called to give her a little more direction. ”’Ro-sie, you wuh fu-nny,”’ O’Donnell mimics. ”’But you looked so fat. You gotta lose weight befoh you do No-ra’s mo-vie.”’ She hoots good-naturedly. ”You can print that. You can put quotes around it.” How’s that for truth or dare?