Cindy Williams, one half of TV series Laverne & Shirley, has died at the age of 75

Cindy Williams, who played sweet, wide-eyed Shirley Feeney in Happy Days spinoff Laverne & Shirley, has died. She was 75.

Williams died in Los Angeles on Wednesday after a short illness, her children Zak and Emily Hudson said in a statement released to the Associated Press on Monday through a family spokeswoman.

“The death of our kind, hilarious mother, Cindy Williams, has brought us an overwhelming sadness that could never truly be expressed,” the statement read. “Knowing and loving her has been our joy and privilege. She was unique, beautiful, generous and possessed a brilliant sense of humor and sparkling spirit that everyone loved.”

Williams was the upbeat counterpart of Penny Marshall’s hilarious Laverne DeFazio on the iconic sitcom, which starred two roommates from the 1950s who worked the assembly line at Milwaukee’s Shotz Brewery.

“When you find these characters with synchronous attitudes, they are fun and charming to look at. You see aspects of yourself in the characters’ attitudes,” Williams told The Times in 1993. “Usually on sitcoms, the characters you play are close to you. They are beats within you that you play really well.”

Though she may have appeared as an expert on Pratfalls when the show debuted in 1976, Williams was a newcomer to the sitcom genre. Prior to that, she received a theater education from high school and Los Angeles Community College, honing her skills when she was accepted into Actors Studio West alongside Sally Field and Robert De Niro.

The Golden Globe-nominated actress appeared in George Cukor’s Travels With My Aunt, starred in George Lucas’ nostalgic coming-of-age comedy American Graffiti in 1973 and in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation. She also auditioned for Lucas’ Star Wars, but lost the role of Princess Leia to Carrie Fisher.

It was a fateful meeting with producer Garry Marshall and Fred Roos that set them on the path to skipping down the street and shouting “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated” in the opening sequence of “Laverne & Shirley”.

Two women in 1950s clothing stand next to a beer bottle production line.

Penny Marshall, left, and Cindy Williams in the opening title segment of “Laverne & Shirley.”

(ABC photo archive via Getty Images)

Marshall, Williams recalled in her memoir, “Shirley, I Jest!” turned to Roos, saying, “I like her. She’s like a chubby Barbara Harris,” the Tony-winning Broadway comic. They took her to their newly formed company, Compass Management; then, in her first audition, she booked the role of high school student Rhoda Zagor in James L. Brooks’ popular high school comedy Room 222, one of the first shows to feature black actors.

Williams then became friends with Garry Marshall’s younger sister, Penny Marshall, whom they met through mutual friends. The two were unemployed actresses when they were hired by Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope company to write a potential TV parody for the bicentenary.

“You have a lot of comedy writers or people who wanted to be comedy writers,” Williams told The Times in 1995. “They wanted two wives. We would be assigned a particular aspect of American history and we would write a parody of that particular aspect of American history.”

They had been writing together for a few months when Garry Marshall called to ask if they would like to star on his ABC series Happy Days and Williams with her American Graffiti co-star Ron Howard to reunite.

“Penny said yes and I said yes and we went and did it. The rest is history,” she told the Times.

The women became household names after 1975, when their characters – two girls from across the tracks – appeared on Marshall’s sitcom for a double date with Richie (Howard) and Fonzie (Henry Winkler).

Co-created by Garry Marshall, Lowell Ganz and Mark Rothman, the spin-off followed the antics of working class women. It premiered on ABC in January 1976 and rose to the top of the ratings chart, becoming the No. 1 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 exuberance in “I Love Lucy.” Although the sitcom aired until 1983, Williams, who directed one episode, only stayed on until 1982, when the 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 wayward actresses.

Amid some tension between the stars and her own pregnancy, Williams left the series before giving birth to daughter Emily with then-husband Bill Hudson. (She married Hudson in 1982, they had two children, and divorced in 2000.)

“When it came time for me to sign my contract for this season, they made me work my due date to have my baby,” Williams told the Today show in 2015. “And I said, ‘You know, I can’t ‘sign that.’ And it went back and forth and back and forth and it just never worked out.”

After she left, Williams sued Paramount TV and producer Garry Marshall for $20 million, claiming they “fulfilled a promise” to honor her pregnancy and still give her $75,000 an episode plus a portion of the profits to count.

“The lawsuit is settled and everything is Kopacian,” Williams told the Times in 1985.

A black and white photograph of two young adults, a man with his arms wrapped around a girl's waist, leaning against a car.

Ron Howard and Cindy Williams played high school sweethearts in the 1973 film American Graffiti. They got back together on Happy Days.

(Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Williams and Penny Marshall, who died in 2018, also reconciled after the show went off the air. Williams appeared in a cast reunion on Entertainment Tonight in 2015 and spoke highly of her TV buddies.

“It’s like an Italian family at the Sunday table and someone doesn’t pass the celery properly,” Williams said. “There will always be disputes”

Happiness “was everyone’s goal” on the show, she said, and that was the case with her and her co-star: “I go to Penny’s house, I go to bed with her and we watch TV. She is like my sister.”

The show would resonate for decades to come as the cast reunited frequently. In 2013, Williams and Marshall notably appeared in the Nickelodeon series Sam and Cat, a modern day Laverne & Shirley starring Jennette McCurdy and pop star Ariana Grande in the title roles. The performances marked the first time the duo had collaborated on a scripted series in more than 30 years.

“I was watching ‘Wayne’s World,’ and all of a sudden they’re doing a parody of ‘Laverne & Shirley!’,” Williams said in an archive interview with Television Academy. “I called Penny to tell her. She asks, “How was it?” And I said, ‘You will be honored and humbled at the same time.’ And that was the spirit that these two characters really embodied. I love that about them.”

With the inconveniences surrounding her departure resolved and after a two-and-a-half year absence from prime-time television, Williams returned to ABC for a short-lived fish-out-of-water pilot, “Joanna” — her first television work since she ” Laverne & Shirley”.

It was co-produced by Hudson and Gary Nardino for Paramount after the agreement, giving the television studio its first chance at a pilot for Williams.

She went on to star in a string of ill-fated pilots and a handful of made-for-TV movies, including the pilots to Steel Magnolias and the series Getting By, and appeared on Broadway in 2007’s The Drowsy Chaperone, a successful film producer who joined in 1991 as an associate Produced the hit comedy Father of the Bride, starring Steve Martin.

Born on August 22, 1947 in Van Nuys, California, Williams was a self-proclaimed “Valley Girl”. Her father, Beachard “Bill” Williams, was from Texas and Louisiana of Welsh, French, and Cherokee origins and was an easy-going man until he started drinking. This prompted 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 children, Carol and Jimmy.

At age 4, while her parents and grandmother worked, Williams became “an underage domestic help” to a woman who rented a bedroom from her grandmother. And when her family bought a television in 1951, Williams watched everything – even cigarette ads – which she “mimicked, memorized and acted out,” according to her memoir.

The family moved back to Van Nuys when she was 10 and Williams began putting on shows in her garage that would attract the neighborhood kids. She then hosted an entire talent show at the First Methodist Church in Reseda.

“I was a pretty fun kid,” she told The Times in 1993. “I could see the humor in things.”

Despite this, as a little girl she suffered from anxiety, bit her nails and was “painfully shy”. Ironically, she was punished at school for not being able to keep silent and was cornered with a jester’s hat on her head.

“As much as I wanted to socialize and be a leader, part of me resisted. Still, there was another ubiquitous part of me that longed to express the fantastic things I envisioned, to share the fun of my shadow world — loudly and with exuberance,” Williams wrote in Shirley, I Jest!

In high school, she caught the drama teacher’s attention by performing Bob Newhart’s “The Driving Instructor” routine for the school’s talent show. She then enrolled in an acting production course, which she took with Sally Field. She briefly dreamed of becoming an emergency room nurse, but pursued her acting career by enrolling in LA City College’s theater arts program, where she befriended Lynne Stewart, who would play Miss Yvonne in Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Like Shirley, Williams started out in the working class. She had odd jobs at a law firm, a bank, IHOP, and the Whiskey a Go Go to pay for her college books. She was invited to join the Actors Studio after attending a friend’s three-minute audition, which she considered to be one of the greatest honors of 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 60’s. But basically I’m quite normal. I like to walk around the house before bed and turn off all the lights. Sometimes I even take the hangers back to the cleaners for them to use again.” Cindy Williams, one half of TV series Laverne & Shirley, has died at the age of 75

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