Cindy Williams, an actress best known for her role on the long-running sitcom “Laverne & Shirley,” died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 75.
Her assistant, Liza Cranis, confirmed the death on Monday, saying it came after a brief illness. No specific cause was given.
“Laverne & Shirley,” which ran on ABC from 1976 to 1983, starred Ms. Williams and Penny Marshall as 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. The show was a spinoff of the hugely popular sitcom “Happy Days.”
For several years “Laverne & Shirley” was among the highest-rated shows in the country. Ms. Williams appeared in more than 150 episodes but left early in the eighth and final season 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. Her marriage to the musician Bill Hudson ended in divorce.
Before Ms. Williams landed the role that would most define her career, she was cast in the George Lucas film “American Graffiti,” a 1973 coming-of-age story about a group of California teenagers. Ms. Williams played Laurie, the girlfriend of one of the film’s other main characters (played by Ron Howard), a portrayal that earned her a best supporting actress nomination from the British Academy Film Awards.
The next year she was in the Francis Ford Coppola film “The Conversation.” “American Graffiti” (which was produced by Mr. Coppola) and “The Conversation” garnered best picture nominations at the Academy Awards.
Ms. Williams auditioned for the role of Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” movie, also directed by Mr. Lucas, a part that went to Carrie Fisher.
Later in her career, she was a guest star on well-known television shows like “Law and Order: SVU” and “7th Heaven” and earned several stage credits, including a brief stint in 2007 in the Broadway production of the musical “The Drowsy Chaperone.” 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.”
Cynthia Jane Williams was born on Aug. 22, 1947, in Van Nuys, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, to Beachard and Frances Williams. She became interested in acting during high school and attended Los Angeles City College, where she majored in theater arts. “I’m what you might call a ‘Valley Girl,’” Ms. Williams wrote in her 2015 memoir, “Shirley, I Jest! A Storied Life.”
Before going into show business, she worked at a pancake house and the Whisky a Go Go nightclub in Hollywood. She 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 the high school comedy-drama “Room 222,” the sitcom “Nanny and the Professor” and the anthology comedy series “Love, American Style.”
“I always played the lead’s best friend, always,” she said.
Known at the time for her seemingly guileless American sweetheart presence, Ms. Williams turned that expectation inside out with a sly performance in “The Conversation.” In that film, the viewer pieces together her words from a surreptitiously recorded conversation, expecting her to be a helpless victim and not as someone in control of her own fate, as she actually is. More dramatic roles might have followed, but she turned to situation comedy.
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 the producer and director Garry Marshall, Ms. Marshall’s brother, asked if the two women would guest star on his show “Happy Days” as 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.
That episode of “Happy Days,” which aired in 1975, was so popular that Mr. Marshall pitched Fred Silverman, a top executive at ABC, on a comedy starring the two, arguing that there were no other shows about blue-collar women.
The opening credits of “Laverne & Shirley” featured a school rhyme and a heartwarming mission statement that summed up the duo’s playful, hopeful ethic: 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 in this comedy pairing, Shirley was (usually) the calmer and dreamier of the two. With her breezy personality, Ms. Williams demonstrated a flair for portraying the awkwardness of youth in broad physical comedy.
In a review of “Laverne & Shirley” in 1976, John J. O’Connor of 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 familial 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 making too many demands on the production to accommodate his wife’s pregnancy.
At the beginning of the show’s final season, viewers watched Ms. Williams marry a man named Walter Meeney (and become Shirley Feeney Meeney). Soon afterward, however, her long run came to an ignominious end, with the plot claiming that Shirley had followed her new husband overseas, leaving only a note to say goodbye. In reality, Ms. Williams 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 continued. “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.
Last year, Ms. Williams completed a national theater tour of a one-woman show, “Me, Myself and Shirley,” in which 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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