LOS ANGELES (AP) — Cindy Williams, who was among America’s most recognizable stars in the 1970s and 1980s for her role as Shirley opposite Penny Marshall Laverne on the beloved sitcom “Laverne and Shirley,” her family said Monday.
Williams died in Los Angeles at the age of 75 on Wednesday after a brief illness, her children, Zack and Emily Hudson, said in a statement released by family spokeswoman Lisa Kranes.
“The passing of our hilarious good mother, Cindy Williams, has brought us an indomitable grief that can never be truly expressed,” the statement said. “Knowing and loving us was our joy and our privilege. She was so unique, beautiful, generous, and had a wonderful sense of humor and a sparkling spirit that everyone loved.”
Williams worked with some of Hollywood’s elite directors in a film career that preceded her transition to full-time television, appearing in George Cukor’s 1972 “Travels With My Aunt,” George Lucas’ 1973 “American Graffiti,” and Francis’s “The Conversation.” Ford Coppola” from 1974.
But she is best known for “Laverne & Shirley,” the “Happy Days” spin-off that ran on ABC from 1976 to 1983 and that was among the most popular shows on television.
Williams played Shirley Feeney straitjacketed to Marshall’s freer Laverne DeFazio in the show about a pair of blue-collar roommates who toil on the assembly line of a Milwaukee brewery in the 1950s and 1960s.
“They were likeable characters,” Williams told the Associated Press in 2002.
DeFazio was short-tempered and defensive. Vinnie was naive and confident. The actors drew on their own lives to inspire the plot.
“We’d put together a list at the beginning of each season of the talent we had,” Marshall told the Associated Press in 2002. “Cindy could touch her tongue and her nose and we used it on the show. She did tap dancing.”
Williams told the Associated Press in 2013 that she and Marshall have “very different personalities” but that the tales of the two clashing while setting up the show were “a little overdone.”
The series was the rare network hit about working-class characters, with its self-empowering opening theme song: “Give us any chance, we’ll take it, read us any rule, and we’ll break it.”
This opening would become as popular as the show itself. Williams and Marshall’s chant of “schlemiel, schlimazel” as they skipped together became a cultural phenomenon and a piece of nostalgia.
Marshall, whose brother Garry Marshall co-produced the series, died in 2018.
The show also starred Michael McKean and David Lander as Laverne and Shirley’s oddball hangers-on Lenny and Squiggy. Lander passed away in 2020.
With ratings dropping in the sixth season, the characters moved from Milwaukee to Burbank, California, where they traded their brewery jobs to work in a department store.
In 1982, Williams became pregnant and wanted to cut back on her hours. When her demands weren’t met, she walked off the set, and sued her production company. She appears infrequently during the final season.
Williams was born one of two sisters in the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles in 1947. Her family moved to Dallas soon after her birth, but she returned to Los Angeles, where she would begin acting while attending Birmingham High School and majoring in Theater Arts at LA City College.
Her acting career began with small roles in television starting in 1969, with appearances in “Room 222”, “Nanny and the Professor”, and “Love, American Style”.
Her role in Lucas’ American Graffiti would become a defining role. The film was a precursor to the nostalgia boom of the 1950s and early 1960s. Happy Days, starring Ron Howard, her American Graffiti co-star, will be released the following year. The characters of Laverne and Shirley made their TV debut as Fonzie dates Henry Winkler before she got her own show.
Lucas also considered her for the role of Princess Leia in “Star Wars,” a role that Carrie Fisher went to.
In the past three decades, Williams has made guest appearances in dozens of TV series including “7th Heaven,” “8 Simple Rules,” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” In 2013, she and Marshall appeared in the “Laverne & Shirley” tribute episode of the Nickelodeon series “Sam and Cat”.
Last year, Williams appeared in a one-woman stage show filled with stories from her career, ” Me, myself and Shirley,” at a theater in Palm Springs, California, near her home in Desert Hot Springs.
Williams was married to singer Bill Hudson of the Hudson Brothers musical group from 1982 until 2000. Hudson was the father of their two children. He was previously married to Goldie Hawn and is also the father of actor Kate Hudson.
Follow AP Entertainment writer Andrew Dalton on Twitter: https://twitter.com/andyjamesdalton
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