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‘Laverne & Shirley’ Star Cindy Williams Dies at 75

The beloved actress leaves a legacy of love and laughter

spinner image Cindy Williams at the TV Land Awards 10th Anniversary event
Charles Sykes/AP Photo

Best known as the wisecracking, hardworking, love-yearning Milwaukee girl Shirley Feeney, best friends with Penny Marshall’s Laverne DeFazio on the sitcom Laverne & Shirley, Cindy Williams died Jan. 25 at 75.

Voted “Funniest Female” at her Van Nuys high school, where Sally Field was a classmate, Williams paid her dues in showbiz, working as a waitress serving drinks to stars such as Jim Morrison at the Whiskey a Go Go on the Sunset Strip and appearing on shows including Room 222 and Love, American Style.

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A show creator as well as an actress, she landed a $30-a-week job screenwriting for Francis Ford Coppola with her partner Marshall. She decided to quit Hollywood for Oregon, but Marshall convinced her to costar as her fellow romantically challenged brewery bottlecap worker on their 1950s-set sitcom hit Laverne & Shirley (1976-83). A spin-off of Happy Days, it debuted at number 1, and her bubbly winsomeness as Shirley played brilliantly against Marshall’s adenoidally sardonic Laverne.

spinner image Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams in Laverne and Shirley
(Left to right) Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams in "Laverne & Shirley."
ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Henry Winkler, who won fame as the Fonz on Happy Days, called Williams “a fine and talented person.” Ron Howard, who costarred with her on Happy Days, told People that she was “highly intelligent, very funny, very astute about the world around her. Very skeptical of glamour or the illusions of our business. She fell prey to none of that.” He credited her with teaching him how to do love scenes in the 1973 film American Graffiti. “She was like, ‘Here’s how we got to kiss for the camera,’ ” Howard said. “She’s always had almost a big sister energy around me.”

The success of Graffiti, a nominee for the best picture Oscar, propelled her career and that of costars Howard and Harrison Ford, and director George Lucas went on to still greater fame for Star Wars. Williams auditioned to play Princess Leia but lost to Carrie Fisher.

She starred in another Oscar best picture nominee, Coppola’s decidedly noncomedic paranoia thriller The Conversation (1974). When she married Goldie Hawn’s ex-husband Bill Hudson, father of Kate Hudson, and became pregnant with her first child, Emily, she lost her job on Laverne & Shirley and sued for $20 million. She reconciled with Marshall, sister of the show’s producer Garry Marshall, before Penny died in 2018.

Williams coproduced the 1991 and 1995 Steve Martin/Diane Keaton remakes of Father of the Bride and was still acting and pitching shows in recent years. Her latest show, the short-form musical series Sami, premieres in April on Prime Video. “Always keep learning every day,” she advised young actors, “and don’t let your time go to waste. Oh, and always read Shakespeare out loud. Because if you can, you can audition for anything.”

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