Cindy Williams, who rose to great fame as the eternally optimistic Shirley Feeney on the Happy Days spin-off Laverne & Shirley, died last Wednesday in Los Angeles after a brief illness. She was 75.
“The passing of our kind, hilarious mother, Cindy Williams, has brought us insurmountable sadness that could never truly be expressed,” said her children Zak and Emily Hudson in a statement. “Knowing and loving her has been our joy and privilege. She was one of a kind, beautiful, generous and possessed a brilliant sense of humor and a glittering spirit that everyone loved.”
Born Cynthia Williams on August 22, 1947 in Van Nuys, California, Williams started her professional career in a string of TV commercials, including TWA and Foster Grant sunglasses. In 1970, she began appearing as a guest star on numerous TV series, including My World and Welcome to It, Barefoot in the Park, Nanny and the Professor, and the high school drama Room 222. Her first regularly scheduled role was in the short-lived romantic-themed musical sketch comedy The Funny Side in 1970.
In 1973, Williams scored a huge theatrical hit care of American Graffiti and opposite her soon-to-be Happy Days co-star Ron Howard. The film received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Produced on a $777,000 budget, it become one of the most profitable films in cinema history.
Once Happy Days took off, ABC developed the first of its three spin-off series, Laverne & Shirley, centered on the Shotz Brewery bottle cappers and best friends, Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney. An immediate sensation, Laverne & Shirley finished its first week (and seasons two and three in 1977-78 and 1978-79, respectively) as the top-rated show in all of primetime.
In the final season of Laverne & Shirley, in 1982-83, Williams, then pregnant with her first child, left the show and filed a $20 million lawsuit against Paramount after they expected her to work on her scheduled due date. The case was later settled out of court and Williams was released from her contract. After the first two episodes in that final season, Williams unceremoniously exited.
In 1990, Williams returned to series TV in the short-lived sitcom Normal Life opposite Barney Miller star Max Gail. It ran for 13 episodes. In 1993, she reunited with Laverne & Shirley producers Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett for the comedy Getting By opposite Telma Hopkins. It ran for two seasons.
Onstage, Williams performed in the national tours of Grease, Deathtrap and Moon Over Buffalo, among others. And she reunited with her Laverne & Shirley co-star Eddie Mekka in 2008 in a regional production of the comedy play It Had to Be You.
Williams reunited with Penny Marshall in an episode of the Nickelodeon comedy Sam & Cat in 2013.
Her film roles also included Roger Corman’s Gasses (1970), The Killing Kind (1973), Mr. Ricco (1975), The First Nudie Musical (1976), Big Man on Campus (1989), Bingo (1991) and Stealing Roses (2012).
In 2015, her memoir Shirley, I Jest!: A Storied Life was published. The book documented Williams’ journey from her blue collar roots to unexpected stardom.
With the passing of Cindy Williams, Michael McKean (Lenny Kosnowski) is the sole survivor among the primary cast of Laverne & Shirley. Penny Marshall died in 2018.