Cindy Williams, star of Laverne & Shirley, dies aged 75

The actress played Shirley opposite Penny Marshall’s Laverne on the popular sitcom

Cindy Williams died after a brief illness. AFP
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Cindy Williams, who was among the most recognisable stars in America in the 1970s and 1980s for her role as Shirley opposite Penny Marshall's Laverne on the beloved sitcom Laverne & Shirley, has died, her family said on Monday.

Williams died in Los Angeles at age 75 last Wednesday after a brief illness, her children, Zak and Emily Hudson, said in a statement released through family spokeswoman Liza Cranis.

"The passing of our kind, hilarious mother, Cindy Williams, has brought us insurmountable sadness that could never truly be expressed," they said. “Knowing and loving her has been our joy and privilege. She was one of a kind, beautiful, generous and possessed a brilliant sense of humour and a glittering spirit that everyone loved.”

Williams worked with some of Hollywood's most elite directors in a film career that preceded her full-time move to television, appearing in George Cukor's 1972 Travels With My Aunt, George Lucas' 1973 American Graffiti and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation from 1974.

Jimmy Carter's son, Chip, centre, is pictured with with Penny Marshall, left, and Cindy Williams in 1976. AP Photo

But she was best known for Laverne & Shirley, the Happy Days spin-off that ran on ABC from 1976 to 1983 that in its prime was among the most popular shows on US TV.

Williams played the straitlaced Shirley Feeney to Marshall's more libertine Laverne DeFazio on the show about a pair of blue-collar roommates who toiled on the assembly line of a Milwaukee brewery in the 1950s and 1960s.

“They were beloved characters,” Williams said.

DeFazio was quick-tempered and defensive; Feeney was naive and trusting. The actors drew upon their own lives for plot inspiration.

“We’d make up a list at the start of each season of what talents we had,” Marshall said in 2002. “Cindy could touch her tongue to her nose and we used it in the show. I did tap dance.”

Williams said in 2013 that she and Marshall had “very different personalities”, but tales of the two clashing during the making of the show were “a bit overblown”.

The series was the rare network hit about working-class characters, with its self-empowering opening song: “Give us any chance, we’ll take it, read us any rule, we’ll break it."

From left, Henry Winkler, Penny Marshall, Cindy Williams, Ed Begley Jr and Garry Marshall, at a rare two-star unveiling ceremony honouring the two actresses on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on August 12, 2004. Reuters

That opening would become as popular as the show itself. The duo's chant of “schlemiel, schlimazel” as they skipped together became a cultural phenomenon and oft-invoked piece of nostalgia.

Marshall, whose brother, Garry Marshall, co-created 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 died in 2020.

As ratings dropped in the sixth season, the characters moved from Milwaukee to Burbank, California, trading their brewery jobs for work at a department store.

In 1982, Williams became pregnant and wanted her working hours curtailed. When her demands weren’t met, she walked off the set, and filed a suit against its production company. She appeared 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 she was born, but returned to Los Angeles, where she would take up acting while attending Birmingham High School and major in theatre arts at LA City College.

Her acting career began with small roles in television starting in 1969, with appearances on Room 222, Nanny and the Professor and Love, American Style.

Her part in Lucas's American Graffiti would become a defining role. The film was a forerunner to a nostalgia boom for the 1950s and early 1960s that would follow. Happy Days, starring her American Graffiti co-star Ron Howard, would premiere the following year. The characters of Laverne and Shirley made their first TV appearance as dates of Henry Winkler's Fonzie before they got their own show.

Lucas also considered her for the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars, a role that went to Carrie Fisher.

In the past three decades Williams made guest appearances on dozens of TV series, including 7th Heaven, 8 Simple Rules and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. In 2013, she and Marshall appeared in a Laverne & Shirley tribute episode of the Nickelodeon series Sam and Cat.

Last year, Williams appeared in a one-woman stage show full of stories from her career, Me, Myself and Shirley, at a theatre in Palm Springs, California, near her home in Desert Hot Springs.

Williams was married to singer Bill Hudson of musical group the Hudson Brothers from 1982 until 2000 and had two children with him. He was previously married to Goldie Hawn and is also the father of actor Kate Hudson.

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Updated: January 31, 2023, 5:33 AM