Actor Cindy Williams, the optimistic Shirley of ‘Laverne & Shirley,’ dies at 75
Cindy Williams, who played sweet, wide-eyed Shirley Feeney on the “Happy Days” spinoff “Laverne & Shirley,” has died. She was 75.
Williams died in Los Angeles on Wednesday after a brief illness, her children, Zak and Emily Hudson, said in a statement obtained by The Times.
“The passing of our kind, hilarious mother, Cindy Williams, has brought us insurmountable sadness that could never truly be expressed,” the statement said. “Knowing and loving her has been our joy and privilege. She was one of a kind, beautiful, generous and possessed a brilliant sense of humor and a glittering spirit that everyone loved.”
Williams was the optimistic foil to Penny Marshall’s wise-cracking Laverne DeFazio on the iconic sitcom, which starred two 1950s roommates working on the assembly line at Milwaukee’s Shotz Brewery.
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“When you can find those characters with attitudes who are in sync, they are funny and charming to watch. You see aspects of yourself in the characters’ attitudes,” Williams told The Times in 1993. “Usually in sitcoms, the characters you play are close to you. They are beats within yourself that you really play well.”
Though she might have appeared an expert at pratfalls when the show debuted in 1976, Williams was a novice to the sitcom genre. Before that, she trained in theater in high school and at Los Angeles Community College, then honed her skills when she was accepted by the Actors Studio West alongside Sally Field and Robert De Niro.
The Golden Globe-nominated actress appeared in George Cukor’s “Travels With My Aunt” and starred in George Lucas’ 1973 nostalgic coming-of-age comedy “American Graffiti” and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film “The Conversation.” She also auditioned for Lucas’ “Star Wars” but lost the part of Princess Leia to Carrie Fisher.
It was a fateful meeting with producer Garry Marshall and Fred Roos that put her on the path to skipping down the street chanting “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated” in “Laverne & Shirley’s” opening sequence.
Marshall, Williams recalled in her memoir, “Shirley, I Jest!,” turned to Roos and said, “I like her. She’s like a pudgy Barbara Harris,” the Tony-winning Broadway comic. They brought her on to their newly formed company, Compass Management; then, on her first audition, she booked the part of student Rhoda Zagor on James L. Brooks’ popular high-school comedy “Room 222,” one of the first shows featuring Black actors in lead roles.
Williams then became friends with Garry Marshall’s younger sister, Penny Marshall, whom she met through mutual friends. The two were out-of-work actresses when they were hired by Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope company to write a prospective TV spoof for the Bicentennial.
“They got a lot of comedy writers or people who wanted to be comedy writers,” Williams told The Times in 1995. “They wanted two women. We would be assigned a certain aspect of the history of America and write a spoof on that particular aspect of American history.”
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Penny Marshall had been making minor inroads in Hollywood for several years before the iconic Laverne and Shirley characters debuted as Richie and Fonzie’s double dates on an episode of “Happy Days” in 1975.
They had been writing together for a few months when Garry Marshall called to ask if they would like to guest on his ABC series “Happy Days,” reuniting Williams with her “American Graffiti” co-star Ron Howard.
“Penny said yes and I said yes and we went and did it. The rest is kind of history,” she told The Times.
The women became household names after 1975, when their characters — two girls from the other side of the tracks — appeared on Marshall’s sitcom for a double date with Richie (Howard) and Fonzie (Henry Winkler).
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Co-created by Garry Marshall, Lowell Ganz and Mark Rothman, the spinoff followed the escapades of the blue-collar gals. It launched on ABC in January 1976 and soared to the top of the ratings, becoming the No. 1-rated show for the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons.
Williams learned the genre on the job: The show’s broad physical comedy was reminiscent of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz’s high jinks on “I Love Lucy.” Although the sitcom aired until 1983, Williams, who directed one episode, stayed on it only through 1982, when its final season began.
Garry Marshall told The Times in 2012 that “it was a tough show,” the opposite of the carefree set of “Happy Days,” due to the headstrong actresses.
Amid some tension between the stars and her own pregnancy, Williams left the series before giving birth to her daughter, Emily, with then-husband Bill Hudson. (She married Hudson in 1982, they had two children and divorced in 2000.)
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“When it came time for me to sign my contract for that season, they had me working on my due date to have my baby,” Williams told the “Today” show in 2015. “And I said, ‘You know, I can’t sign this.’ And it went back and forth and back and forth, and it just never got worked out.”
After she left, Williams sued Paramount TV and producer Garry Marshall for $20 million, claiming that they “welshed” on a promise to accommodate her pregnancy and still pay her $75,000 per episode plus a piece of the profits.
“The lawsuit is settled, and everything is copacetic,” Williams told The Times in 1985.
Williams and Penny Marshall, who died in 2018, also reconciled after the show went off the air. Appearing in a cast reunion on “Entertainment Tonight” in 2015, Williams spoke highly of her TV comrades.
“It’s like an Italian family at a dinner table on Sunday and somebody doesn’t pass the celery properly,” Williams said. “There’s always going to be arguments.”
Happiness “was everyone’s goal” on the show, she said, and such was the case for herself and her co-star: “I go to Penny’s house, I get in bed with her and we watch TV. She’s like my sister.”
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The show still resonated for decades as the cast frequently reunited. In 2013, Williams and Marshall notably appeared on the Nickelodeon series “Sam and Cat,” a modern-day “Laverne & Shirley” that starred Jennette McCurdy and pop star Ariana Grande in the title roles. The appearances marked the first time the duo had worked together on a scripted series in more than 30 years.
“I went to see ‘Wayne’s World’ and suddenly they’re doing a parody of ‘Laverne & Shirley’!” Williams said in an archival interview with the Television Academy. “I called Penny to tell her. She asks, ‘How was it?’ And I said, ‘You will be simultaneously honored and humiliated.’ And that was the spirit that those two characters really embodied. That’s what I love about them.”
When the unpleasantness surrounding her departure had been laid to rest and after a 2½-year absence from prime-time television, Williams returned to ABC for a short-lived fish-out-of-water pilot, “Joanna” — her first work for television since she left “Laverne & Shirley.”
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It was co-produced by Hudson and Gary Nardino for Paramount after the settlement, which gave the TV studio first dibs on a pilot for Williams.
She then starred in a slew of ill-fated pilots and a handful of TV movies, including the pilot for “Steel Magnolias” and the series “Getting By,” and appeared on Broadway in “The Drowsy Chaperone” in 2007. She was also a successful movie producer, serving as an associate producer of the 1991 hit comedy “Father of the Bride” with Steve Martin.
Williams was born on Aug. 22, 1947, in Van Nuys, Calif., and was a self-proclaimed “Valley Girl.” Her father, Beachard “Bill” Williams, hailed from Texas and Louisiana, with Welsh, French and Cherokee origins, and was an affable man until he started drinking. That drove Williams and her mother, Frances, an Italian American, to move in with her grandmother in Texas. Her parents reconciled a year after they moved and had two more kids, Carol and Jimmy.
While her parents and grandmother worked, at age 4, Williams became “an underage home health aide” to a woman who rented a bedroom from her grandmother. And when her family bought a television set in 1951, Williams watched everything — even cigarette commercials — which she would “mimic, memorize and reenact,” according to her memoir.
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The family moved back to Van Nuys when she was 10 and Williams began putting on shows in their garage that would attract the neighborhood kids. She then put on a whole talent show at the First Methodist Church in Reseda.
“I was a pretty funny kid,” she told The Times in 1993. “I could see the humor in things.”
Still, she suffered from anxiety as a little girl, bit her nails and was “painfully shy.” Ironically, she was punished in school for not being able to keep quiet and put in a corner with a dunce cap on her head.
“As much as I wanted to socialize and be a leader, a part of me resisted. Still, there was another ever-present part of me that longed to express the fantastic things I was imagining, share the fun of my shadow world — loudly and with exuberance,” Williams wrote in “Shirley, I Jest!”
In high school, she caught the eye of the drama teacher by performing Bob Newhart’s “The Driving Instructor” routine for the school talent show. She then enrolled in a play production course, which she took alongside Sally Field. She briefly dreamed of being an ER nurse but continued on the acting route by enrolling in L.A. City College’s theater arts program, where she befriended Lynne Stewart, who would play Miss Yvonne on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”
Williams, like Shirley, started out working-class. She held odd jobs at a law firm, a bank, IHOP and the Whisky a Go Go to pay for her college books. She was invited to join the Actors Studio after sharing a friend’s three-minute audition, which she regarded as one of the greatest honors in her life.
“I come from such a normal background,” she told The Times. “I’ve had bizarre times in my life. I was a hippie in the ’60s. But basically I’m real normal. I like to go around the house at bedtime and turn off all the lights. Sometimes I even take the hangers back to the dry cleaners so they can use them again.”
Williams’ children continued Monday in their statement: “We have always been, and will remain, SO proud of her for many things...her lifelong mission to rescue animals, her prolific artistry, her faith, and most of all, her ability to make the world laugh! May that laughter continue in everyone, because she would want that. Thank you for loving our Mom, she loved you too.”
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