Cindy Williams, ‘Laverne and Shirley’ star, dead at age 75

Cindy Williams, best known for starring opposite Penny Marshall on “Laverne & Shirley” for seven of eight seasons, has died at the age of 75. No cause was given, but an assistant for Williams told the New York Times the actress died “peacefully” after a brief illness. 

While Williams appeared in a number of projects, “Laverne & Shirley” was seismic in her career. The series was nominated for just one Emmy during its entire run—for Best Costume Design in 1979—but its hold on pop culture was recognized even if it failed to win prestigious awards. The whole nation, for a time, knew the difference between a schlemiel and a schlimazel. 

Williams, born in Los Angeles, began her career in television commercials, landing gigs for Foster Grant sunglasses and TWA. Early film work included a role in the Jack Nicholson-directed “Drive, He Said,” and George Cukor’s “Travels With My Aunt.” Her break came in 1973 when she secured the role of Laurie, Ron Howard’s boyfriend (and Richard Dreyfuss’s sister) in George Lucas’s nostalgia-rich “American Graffiti.” The part won her nominations for Best Supporting Actress from the National Society of Film Critics and the BAFTAs. 

The performance led to more television work (some episodes of ‘Love, American Style’) but also staying “in-house,” as it were, at Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s company that produced “American Graffiti.” She had a small but clutch role in Coppola’s paranoid thriller “The Conversation” and was hired by the company to work as a writer on a never-completed comedy about the then-upcoming bicentennial. She was, however, paired with Penny Marshall, and when Marshall’s brother, Garry Marshall, saw the two in action he found a way to slip them into his successful series “Happy Days” – another nostalgia project which starred Ron Howard, oddly enough. The characters they played the fun-loving gals, Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney. On social media, Howard noted how frequently he was paired with Williams in those early days of his career.

“Her unpretentious intelligence, talent, wit & humanity impacted every character she created & person she worked with. We were paired as actors on 6 different projects. #AmericanGraffiti a couple of dramas & then #HappyDays & #laverneandshirley Lucky me. RIP, Cindy,” he wrote.

The popularity of Laverne and Shirley on “Happy Days,” of course, led to its own spin-off, in which the two young women worked in a beer manufacturing plant downstairs from television’s ur-wacky neighbors, Lenny (Michael McKean) and Squiggy (David Lander). Other characters included “The Big Ragoo.” I don’t know what to say, this was a weird era. 

Shirley Feeney was the more wide-eyed, optimistic of the two; she still kept a stuffed animal (Boo-Boo Kitty) and was quick to have crushes on pop crooners. She also had a fondness for Scooter Pies, which are similar to mallomars. 

Anyway, it was a great show. Here’s a clip I distinctly remember from childhood. I could set it up and explain why they are acting so wacky, but maybe it’s funnier not to know.


Backstage, unfortunately, the show ended on a sour note. Williams got pregnant but was scheduled to work up to and on her due date. This led to her suing the producers and only appearing in two episodes of the final season. Following “L&S,” she kept busy with no shortage of guest shots—mostly sitcoms—but did not have another substantial hit. In 2015 she published a memoir, “Shirley, I Jest: A Storied Life,” which she transformed into a one-woman show that toured as recently as last year. 

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