Cindy Williams, who played Shirley opposite Penny Marshall’s Laverne on the popular 1970s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley,” has died, her family said Monday.
Williams died in Los Angeles at age 75 on Jan. 25 after a brief illness, her children, Zak and Emily Hudson, said in a statement released through family spokeswoman Liza Cranis.
“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 also starred in director George Lucas’ 1973 film “American Graffiti” — a role for which she received a BAFTA Best Supporting Actress nomination — and director Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” from 1974.
But she was by far best known for the ratings hit “Laverne & Shirley,” the “Happy Days” spinoff that ran on ABC from 1976 to 1983 that, in its prime, was among the most popular shows on TV.
Penny Marshall (left) and Cindy Williams starred in the “Happy Days” spinoff “Laverne & Shirley.”©ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection
Betty Garrett, Eddie Mekka, Penny Marshall, and Cindy Williams appear in an episode of “Laverne & Shirley.”Courtesy Everett Collection
Golden Globe-nominated Williams played the straitlaced Shirley to Marshall’s more libertine Laverne on the show, which depicted roommates who were blue-collar workers at a Milwaukee bottling factory in the 1950s and ’60s.
“We sort of had telepathy,” Williams said of working with Marshall in a 2013 interview for the TV Academy Foundation. “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.”
Creator Garry Marshall — Penny’s brother, who died in 2016 — discovered a niche that he was ready to explore.
“There are no shows about blue-collar girls on the air,” he said in a 2000 interview with the Television Academy. He recalled how sold the concept to then-ABC honcho Fred Silverman.
“He said, ‘It’s on! What’s its name?’” Marshall recalled. “I said, ‘Laverne & Shirley.’ ‘Good, I love it!’”
Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams “Happy Days” star Ron Howard in a scene from the 1973 film classic “American Graffiti.”Courtesy Everett Collection
Williams and Penny Marshall, who died in 2018 at age 75, were reportedly heavily involved in the show’s quality, even doing some rewrites themselves.
“We had a litmus test, which was if the script made Penny and me laugh out loud. That’s what we were going for … to make the studio audience laugh out loud, then we figured it would translate to the audience at home,” Williams said once in a TVParty.com interview. “So, if it made us laugh out loud at rehearsal, then we knew it was good to go. When it didn’t, we would re-write it, or try and put things in that made it funny. Once we got the show on its feet and started moving around, we would add things, add lines, and ad lib. The whole cast would.”
She also marveled at what the show got away with humor-wise, as its censor was a born-again Christian, according to California-born Williams.
“Great guy, but he just wouldn’t let us say things, so it made the show even better, because it made us have to invent words and phrases around those limitations,” she said in a 2021 interview. “We couldn’t just refer to certain words for our saucy humor. We had to resort to what I would call risqué church camp humor.
“We would substitute the word [sex] for ‘vodeo doe,’” she added, referring to the show’s popular made-up phrase for carnal doings. “We always thought that our born-again Christian sensor made ‘Laverne & Shirley’ funnier, because it involved clean humor, which everybody really enjoys whether they know it or not.”
“Laverne & Shirley” was known almost as much for its opening theme as the show itself. Williams’ and Penny’s chant of “schlemiel, schlimazel” as they skipped together became a cultural phenomenon and oft-invoked piece of nostalgia.
Cindy Williams appears at a 2019 nostalgia convention in Anaheim, California.Getty Images
Over her career, Williams appeared in numerous well-known television series and made-for-TV films, including “Lois & Clark: The Adventures of Superman,” “Touched By an Angel,” “7th Heaven,” “CHiPs,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Police Story,” “Cannon,” “Love, American Style,” “Room 222” and “Hawaii Five-0.”
She reportedly even auditioned to play Princess Leia in George Lucas’ 1977 sci-fi classic “Star Wars,” but the part went to Carrie Fisher.
“It can all be accomplished, but you have to always stay yourself. You have to keep your sense of humor,” she said of her career’s highs and lows in the TV Party interview. “If you get knocked down, you have to get right back up and just keep going.”
Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall pose for a “Laverne & Shirley” reunion movie in 1995.©ABC/Courtesy Everett Collection
Williams became pregnant and subsequently only appeared in a couple of episodes during the final season of “Laverne & Shirley.” In 1982, she wound up suing Paramount for $20 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter, in order to get paid for the full season. She settled for an undisclosed amount and Penny Marshall was left to star solo until the show’s end.
According to her official website, she also hit the boards and toured with stage productions including “Grease,” “Deathtrap” (featuring Elliot Gould) and “Steel Magnolias.” She made her Broadway debut in 2007 in the musical “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which won five Tony Awards.
Williams was married to Bill Hudson of the famed Hudson Brothers from 1982 until their 2000 divorce.
With Post wire services.