Before partnering with Penny Marshall on the ABC comedy, she had pivotal turns on the big screen in 'American Graffiti' and 'The Conversation.'
Cindy Williams, the energetic actress who appeared in a pair of Oscar best picture nominees before starring as the idealistic Shirley Feeney on the beloved ABC sitcom 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 released Monday.
“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.”
After popping up as a pot-smoking hippie in the Maggie Smith-starring Travels With My Aunt (1972), one of the last films directed by George Cukor, Williams took her first big turn in the spotlight when she portrayed Laurie, the girlfriend of Ron Howard’s Steve Bolander, in American Graffiti (1973), directed by George Lucas.
The box office smash was nominated for best picture, as was her follow-up movie, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), where she played a woman in danger, or so it seemed. (On Oscar night, American Graffiti and The Conversation lost out to The Sting and The Godfather: Part II, respectively.)
In 1975, Williams and Penny Marshall were writing partners working for $30 a week on a bicentennial spoof for Coppola’s Zoetrope company when Garry Marshall hired them for an episode of ABC’s Happy Days.
Portraying “fast girls” — Penny thought that meant hookers — recruited by Fonzie (Henry Winkler) for a double date with Richie Cunningham (Howard), the pair displayed an immediate onscreen chemistry.
“We sort of had telepathy,” Williams said in a 2013 interview for the TV Academy Foundation website The Interviews. “If we walk into a room together and if there’s something unique in the room, we’ll see it at the same time and have the same comment about it. We were always just like that.”
Garry Marshall then pitched a comedy that starred the duo to ABC entertainment chief Fred Silverman. “There are no shows about blue-collar girls on the air,” he recalled in 2000. “He said, ‘It’s on! What’s its name?’ ‘I said, Laverne & Shirley.’ ‘Good, I love it!'”
Set in the 1950s like Happy Days, the Paramount Television spinoff started out with the struggling Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Wilhelmina Feeney, pals from high school, sharing a basement apartment in Milwaukee and working as bottle cappers for the Schotz brewery.
Laverne & Shirley debuted No. 1 in the ratings on Jan. 26, 1976, and, in its post-Happy Days spot at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, went on to become the highest-rated series for the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons. (Read the tributes.)
The series lasted eight seasons but wrapped in May 1983 without Williams.
At the end of the seventh season, Williams, married to actor-musician Bill Hudson (who earlier was married to Goldie Hawn), became pregnant with her first child, Emily. “I thought I was going to come back and they’d hide [my baby bump] behind benches, couches, pillows, and that wasn’t it,” she said in 2015 on the Today show.
“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. 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. Right after that, [shows] would build nurseries on sets.”
In 1982, she sued Paramount for $20 million, seeking to get paid for the episodes she would miss because she was pregnant. After a settlement, she was written out of the series, and Laverne went at it alone, without her best friend, for the final 20 episodes.
The older of two daughters, Cynthia Jane Williams was born in Van Nuys on Aug. 22, 1947. Her mother, Frances, was a waitress; her father, Beachard (known as Bill), worked at an electronics manufacturing company.
She and her family lived in the Dallas area for about nine years — she and her mom had fled there because her dad was an alcoholic — before they returned to California and bought a house in the San Fernando Valley when Williams was nearly 11.
Williams acted in plays at Birmingham High School and was voted “funniest female” before graduating in 1965. (Sally Field, who was nine months older, was a classmate before leaving to star on ABC’s Gidget.) She then majored in theater at Los Angeles City College and was best friends with another future actress, Lynne Marie Stewart (Bobbie in American Graffiti and Miss Yvonne on Pee-wee’s Playhouse).
To make ends meet, Williams worked as a waitress at the International House of Pancakes and the famed Whisky a Go Go nightclub, where she served drinks to Jim Morrison, Duke Ellington and Joe Cocker.
Garry Marshall and Fred Roos, who were launching a management company, agreed to represent her — Marshall called her a “pudgy Barbara Harris” after their first meeting — and she also signed with the Paul Kohner Agency, which got her a part on the ABC series Room 222 in 1969.
Next, Williams did lots of commercials, appeared on Barefoot in the Park, My World and Welcome to It and Nanny and the Professor and was a regular on the Gene Kelly-hosted The Funny Side. She also appeared in films including Jack Nicholson’s Drive, He Said (1971) and Beware! The Blob (1972), directed by Larry Hagman; her character was eaten by the monster in a Glendale drainpipe in that one.
Then came the low-budget American Graffiti, where Roos was in charge of casting. She almost didn’t take the part of head cheerleader Laurie after really wanting to portray the free-spirited Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark got that role), only agreeing to sign on after taking a call from Coppola, a producer on the movie.
“I said, ‘This is not going to be fun, I’m going to cry during this whole 28-night shoot,’ and I did,” she said. “But after two weeks, George Lucas took [the whole cast] into the editing bay, and he showed us a 20-minute assemblage of the film with music. I remember [castmate] Harrison Ford standing next to me and saying, ‘This is [bleeping] great.'”
Williams was nominated for a BAFTA award for best supporting actress for American Graffiti but lost out to Ingrid Bergman of Murder on the Orient Express.
On the Gene Hackman-starring The Conversation, she was “surrounded by the best of the best,” she said. “Francis Coppola loves actors. He would say to the cinematographer, you let your actors walk through the scene and you watch them and [then you’ll] know where to put the camera. That’s why he gets these performances out of people.”
She auditioned for Princess Leia on Star Wars (1977) but knew deep down that Lucas wanted a younger actress, and Carrie Fisher was hired.
Williams first met the Bronx-born Penny Marshall on a double date years earlier during a Liza Minnelli performance at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel. They went backstage and met Minnelli and the opening act, Little Richard, who “blessed” them and said something good was going to happen to them.
Williams said Marshall had to convince her to take the Laverne & Shirley gig after she had decided to move to Oregon.
The comedy, filmed before an audience of 450 people on Stage 20 on the Paramount lot, was known for fearless physical comedy not seen since the days of I Love Lucy.
“Lucy was a physical comedienne, and she would be all over the stage, so Desi Arnaz, being the genius he was, put all of their cameras on these dollies,” Williams noted in a 2021 interview.
“So [on Laverne & Shirley] there are three cameras, you’ve got the stage, as though you are watching a play, and you have the cameras moving with us on dollies. Usually, [sitcom] cameras are set in place and stagnant, but our cameras were like Lucille Ball’s cameras.”
She and Marshall never used stunt doubles, and she said the Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures once named them honorary stuntmen and gave them buckles.
Williams credited Laverne & Shirley’s success to the fact that “we made sure the joke was always on us, we never made fun of anyone else. We also wanted to keep the wolf nipping at our heels, like how are we going to pay the rent, how are we going to pay the electric bill. So we kept it grounded in that. We also made sure it was extremely funny to us.”
Despite its popularity, the sitcom never won an Emmy, receiving just one nom, for costume design.
Williams, who enjoyed the company of the stuffed animal she named Boo-Boo Kitty after her mom’s cat, said her favorite episodes were 1977’s “Guinea Pigs” and the 1980 two-parter “Murder on the Moose Jaw Express.”
Something she and Marshall were not fond of — having the characters move to Burbank at the start of season six (1980-81). “We begged Garry not to do it,” she said.
In the season-eight opener, “The Mummy’s Bride,” Shirley reveals that she is marrying an Army medic named Walter Meeney. That will make her Feeney Meeney, and Lenny (Michael McKean) jokes, “What’s she gonna call her kids, Miny and Moe?”
Because he’s going to be shipped overseas, their wedding has to take place in a recovery room at a V.A. hospital in a couple of days. The groom, however, has a rash over 98 percent of his body, so he’s wrapped head to toe in bandages and can’t say a word during the ceremony (he blinks his “I do”).
On the next episode, Williams’ last, Shirley announces she’s pregnant. On the next one, Laverne finds a note from Shirley saying her husband has been transferred and she’s left to be with him.
After a couple years away following the birth of her daughter, Williams starred as the mother of Dweezil Zappa and Moon Unit Zappa’s characters on the 1990 CBS comedy Normal Life and as another mom on the 1993-94 ABC-NBC sitcom Getting By.
She returned in 1979 for More American Graffiti, with Laurie and Steve now married, and took part in a game of drunken strip poker with Rodney Dangerfield in Meet Wally Sparks (1997).
Her film résumé also included Roger Corman’s Gassss (1970), The Killing Kind (1973), Mr. Ricco (1975), The First Nudie Musical (1976), Big Man on Campus (1989), Bingo (1991) and Stealing Roses (2012).
She also served as a co-producer on the Steve Martin-starring Father of the Bride (1991) and its 1995 sequel.
A member of The Actors Studio West, Williams appeared on Broadway as Mrs. Tottendale in 2007 in The Drowsy Chaperone, starred in national tours of Grease (as Miss Lynch) and Deathtrap, and had a three-year stint in Menopause: The Musical in Las Vegas.
Her memoir, Shirley, I Jest!: A Storied Life, was published in 2015. Seven years later, she toured the country in the one-woman show Me, Myself & Shirley, where she shared memories of her career.
Williams can be seen on the Amazon Prime shortform musical series Sami, which premieres in April and is produced by Bruce Kimmel.
“I’ve known her since we began at LACC in 1965, have loved her from the moment I laid eyes on her, and have had so many incredible adventures with her. We were as close as close can be, from then until now. And I’ve been watching her constantly as we’ve been editing the series we just did and wrapped only two months ago,” Kimmel said in a statement.
“I’m so grateful to have had her be such an important part of my life for close to 60 years. I will miss her like crazy, but I’m just so happy we got to work together one final time, and I can’t wait for the show to air — she was funny, charming and brilliant right up to the end. I’ve never known anyone like her.”
She and Hudson divorced in 2000. Survivors also include her goddaughter Amanda, daughter of actor Ed Begley Jr.
Asked in her TV Academy Foundation interview to reveal her proudest accomplishment, she replied: “It’s being able to deliver a line and hear 450 people laugh out loud. I can remember just being so happy doing that.”