Cindy Williams, Star of ‘Laverne & Shirley,’ Dies at 75

Cindy Williams, an actress best known for her role on the 1970s slapstick sitcom “Laverne & Shirley,” died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 75.

Her death followed a brief illness, her assistant, Liza Cranis, said by phone on Monday, adding that she had died “peacefully.” No cause was given.

With Penny Marshall, Ms. Williams starred in the sitcom, which ran from 1976 to 1983 and was a spinoff of the television show “Happy Days.” It followed two young single women working at a Milwaukee brewery in the 1950s. Ms. Williams played Shirley Feeney, an upbeat and demure complement to Ms. Marshall’s brash Laverne DeFazio.

“Laverne & Shirley” ran for eight seasons and, for several years, was among the highest-rated shows in the country.Ms. Williams appeared in more than 150 episodes but left in the final season of the show, after considerable on-set tension between her and Ms. Marshall. Ms. Marshall died in 2018, also at age 75.

Ms. Williams is survived by her children, Emily and Zak Hudson, who, in a statement on Monday, described their mother as “one of a kind,” noting her sense of humor and “glittering spirit.” Her marriage to the musician Bill Hudson ended in divorce.

Ms. Williams signing copies of her book “Shirley, I Jest! A Storied Life” in 2015.Credit…Beck Starr/Getty Images

Before Ms. Williams debuted in the role that would most define her career, she was cast in the George Lucas film “American Graffiti,” released in 1973. For her portrayal of Laurie in the film, she earned a nomination for best supporting actress from the British Academy Film Awards. The next year, she was in the Francis Ford Coppola film “The Conversation.” American Graffiti” and “The Conversation” garnered best picture nominations at the Academy Awards.

Ms. Williams also auditioned for the role of Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” franchise, a part that eventually went to Carrie Fisher.

Later in her career, Ms. Williams was a guest star on well-known television shows such as “Law and Order: SVU” and “7th Heaven” and earned several stage credits including the Broadway production of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” in which she briefly played Mrs. Tottendale.

But she was best known as Shirley.

“She was sort of an optimist, kindhearted, repressed, temperamental, fun-loving person,” Ms. Williams once said of her character. “I always saw her as having this fear,” she added, noting that while Shirley’s desires were never explicitly played out onscreen, both Laverne and Shirley strove for the comforts of modern life.

“That was the sadness of those characters to me,” Ms. Williams added. “What if that never happens, then where are we? And that was sort of my life, too.”

Born in Van Nuys, Calif., a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, on Aug. 22, 1947, Cynthia Jane Williams became interested in acting during high school and attended Los Angeles City College, where she majored in theater arts, according to biographies provided by Ms. Cranis. “I’m what you might call a ‘Valley Girl,’” Ms. Williams wrote in her 2015 memoir, “Shirley, I Jest! A Storied Life.”

She worked at a pancake house, as well at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub in Hollywood, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Ms. Williams went on to perform in commercials for deodorant and sunglasses, some of which never aired, she said in an interview with the Television Academy. Her early television roles included parts on “Room 222,” “Nanny and the Professor” and “Love, American Style.”

“I always played the lead’s best friend, always,” she said.

Then known for her seemingly guileless American sweetheart presence, Ms. Williams turned that expectation inside out with an exceptionally sly performance in “The Conversation.” In the film, the viewer pieces together her words from a surreptitiously recorded conversation, expecting her to be a helpless victim, not the calculating femme fatale that she is. More dramatic roles might have followed, but she turned to situation comedy instead.

Ms. Williams and Ms. Marshall were writing partners at Zoetrope, a production company founded by Mr. Coppola, where they were working on a prospective TV spoof for the bicentennial, when Garry Marshall, Ms. Marshall’s brother, asked if the two women would guest star on his show “Happy Days” as easy dates for Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and Richie (Ron Howard). Fonzie claimed Laverne for himself, while Shirley was meant for Richie, reuniting Ms. Williams with her “American Graffiti” co-star, Mr. Howard, who had played her boyfriend in that film.

The episode of “Happy Days,” which aired in 1975, was so popular that Mr. Marshall pitched Fred Silverman, a top executive at ABC, about doing a comedy starring the two, arguing that there were no other shows about blue-collar women.

The opening credits of “Laverne and Shirley” featured a school rhyme and a heartwarming mission statement that summed up the duo’s playful, hopeful ethic that anyone could relate to: They might just be young working-class women in the big city, but they are going to make their dreams come true.

Laverne and Shirley’s high jinks were reminiscent of those of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz on “I Love Lucy,” but, for this classic comedy duo, Shirley was (usually) the calmer and dreamier of the pair. With her breezy personality, Ms. Williams demonstrated an easy flair for portraying the awkwardness of youth in broad physical comedy.

In a review of “Laverne & Shirley” in 1976, John J. O’Connor, the television critic for The New York Times, wrote: “Both title roles are played to a splendid noncondescending turn. Miss Williams and Miss Marshall touch all the best bases, a bit of Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas” here, a bit of Giùlietta Masina in “La Strada’ there, touches of Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and that crowd all over the place.”

Though the actresses shared the screen, Ms. Williams sometimes felt that her co-star got preferential treatment because of her connection to Mr. Marshall. For her part, Ms. Marshall felt that Ms. Williams’s husband at the time, Mr. Hudson, who wanted to be a producer, was too demanding.

At the beginning of the show’s final season, viewers watched Ms. Williams marry Walter Meeney — and become Shirley Feeney Meeney. Soon afterward, however, her long run had an ignominious end, with the plot claiming Shirley had followed her new husband overseas, leaving only a note to say goodbye. In reality, the actress had hoped to work with the show to hide and accommodate her pregnancy. She later sued for $20 million; the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

“‘Laverne & Shirley’” ended abruptly for me,” Ms. Williams wrote in her memoir. “When we shot the first episode, I was four months pregnant. But when it came time to sign the contract for that season I realized that the studio had scheduled me to work on my delivery due date.”

“In the wink of an eye, I found myself off the show,” she wrote. “It was so abrupt that I didn’t even have time to gather my personal things.”

In 2013, Ms. Williams and Ms. Marshall reunited for an appearance on the Nickelodeon series “Sam & Cat,” a modern show that riffed on the themes of “Laverne & Shirley” and starred Jennette McCurdy and Ariana Grande.

Ms. Williams published her memoir two years later, and last year she completed a national theater tour of a one-woman show, “Me, Myself and Shirley.” In the show, she chronicled her life in Hollywood as well as her relationship with Ms. Marshall.

“You couldn’t slip a playing card in between us because we just were in rhythm,” she said last year in an interview with NBC. “I couldn’t have done it with anyone else.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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