Cindy Williams Dies: ‘Laverne & Shirley’ Star Who Appeared In ’American Graffiti’ & ‘The Conversation’ Was 75
Cindy Williams, who starred in the smash Happy Days spinoff Laverne & Shirley after appearing in two Best Picture Oscar nominees — George Lucas’ American Graffiti and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation — has died. She was 75. Her family told the Associated Press today that the actress died Wednesday after a brief illness.
“The passing of our kind, hilarious mother, Cindy Williams, has brought us insurmountable sadness that could never truly be expressed,” reads the statement from her children, Emily and Zak Hudson, relayed through a spokesperson. “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 played Shirley Feeney in Laverne & Shirley opposite Penny Marshall’s Laverne DeFazio. The series was an out-of-the-box smash after premiering in January 1976 on ABC. The characters first appeared briefly on Happy Days — which was created by Marshall’s brother, Garry Marshall — but made enough of an impression to lead their own series. The midcentury-set sitcom about a pair of lower-class workers at Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee would finish as the No. 3 series in all of primetime for the 1975-76 season, far outpacing Happy Days.
The next season, Happy Days was the No. 1 in primetime, followed by Laverne & Shirley at No. 2, but the latter would rule the rankings for the next two seasons, averaging a 31 rating in the three-network universe.
The show’s opening credits was among the era’s most memorable, with the two friends high-stepping with locked arms and chanting, “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” before the title theme “Making Our Dreams Come True” kicked in. (It was a minor pop hit in the U.S, and Canada.) Also starring Phil Foster, Michael McKean, David L. Lander, Eddie Mekka and Betty Garrett, it would be one of the decade’s most popular comedies, airing more than 175 episodes before wrapping in 1983. Williams scored a Golden Globe nomination for the role in 1978 and directed a 1981 episode of the series.
Williams and Marshall guest-starred on a Season 2 episode of Saturday Night Live in 1977, and an animated series based on the characters, Laverne & Shirley in the Army, aired in 1981-82, with Marshall — who died in 2018 — and Williams voicing their respective roles. The pair were honored with stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in a 2004 dual ceremony.
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In a 2013 interview for the Television Academy Foundation’s “The Interviews” series, Williams said: “I went to see ‘Wayne’s World’ and suddenly they’re doing a parody of ‘Laverne & Shirley!’ 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.”
Watch part of the interview below.
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Born on August 22, 1947, in Van Nuys north of Los Angeles, began her screen career in 1970, guesting on such TV series as Nanny and the Professor and Room 222. She was cast as a series regular on 1971 NBC comedy-variety series The Funny Side, whose regular host was Gene Kelly. The show only lasted a handful of episodes, though.
Williams appeared in a few feature films — including playing a hippie in George Cukor’s 1972 romp Travels with My Aunt starring Maggie Smith — before landing her first major role, playing Laurie, the girlfriend of Ron Howard’s Steve in Lucas’ pre-Star Wars pic American Graffiti. The film also featured several other rising actors who would become household names including Richard Dreyfuss, Suzanne Mackenzie Phillips and one Harrison Ford. Produced by Coppola, the film was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture and Director but didn’t win any as The Sting romped through the ceremony. Williams, who earned a BAFTA nomination for the pic, also appeared in the 1979 sequel More American Graffiti.
American Graffiti helped fuel the national nostalgia craze for 1950s and early ’60s Americana as the nation came to grips with Watergate and Vietnam. Among the films and TV shows that reflected the oldies fad was Happy Days.
Williams and Marshall appeared in five episodes of Happy Days, starting with the Season 3’s “A Date with Fonzie” in 1975. Richie Cunningham (Played by Howard) had broken up with his girlfriend and goes to his play Arthur Fonzerelli (Henry Winkler) for guidance. The Fonz decides ends up whipping out his little black book — a recurring gag on the show that had the other guys gasping at its mere appearance — and decides that the chosen two would double date with them. Enter Laverne and Shirley. As in American Graffiti, Williams was paired with Howard — eventually leading to one of the most successful spinoffs in TV history.
But before Laverne & Shirley hit the ABC airwaves as America began its bicentennial celebration, Williams was cast in The Conversation. Starring Gene Hackman AS an obsessed and paranoid surveillance expert, the 1974 thriller was writer-director Coppola’S film between his Oscar-winning The Godfather movies. Williams played Ann, who early on is assumed to be sweet, if trouble, but turns out to be anything but.
It was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar but lost out to The Godfather Part II.
Williams continued to work steadily after Laverne & Shirley ended. Along with many TV guest roles, she was a series regular on Normal Life, a 1990 family sitcom starring Frank Zappa’s children Dweezil and Moon Unit Zappa, that lasted only half a season. Williams last toplined the sitcom Getting By, which aired during the 1993-94 season on ABC and was picked up for a second and final run on NBC. She later recurred on the 2000-01 Comedy Central sitcom Strip Mall, which was set in Williams’ hometown of Van Nuys.
Since then, Williams had done guest shots on such TV series as 7th Heaven, 8 Simple Rules, Law & Order: SVU, Girlfriends, Sam & Cat, Are We There Yet? and others.
She also co-produced the two Father of the Bride films in the 1990s