Actress Cindy Williams, who played the upbeat Shirley to Penny Marshall’s gruff Laverne in the hit television show “Laverne & Shirley,” has died, according to a family spokesperson. She was 75.
Ms. Williams died in Los Angeles on Wednesday “after a short illness,” according to spokeswoman Liza Cranis.
Cranis released a statement from Ms. Williams’s children, Emily and Zak, that in part reads: “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.”
Neither schlemiel nor schlimazel, Ms. Williams was one of America’s most talented physical comedians.
From 1976 to 1983, she co-starred with Marshall on ABC’s “Laverne & Shirley” - a spinoff of the show “Happy Days” - from 1976 to 1983, playing employees in a Milwaukee beer-bottling plant who lived together, sharing misadventures in dating and on the job.
Maybe not since the Queen of American television slapstick Lucille Ball had the small screen seen such consistently hysterical physical comedy in a sitcom.
The show’s intro of the two women counting down - “A One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight! Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” - before Cyndi Grecco’s “Making Our Dreams Come True” plays is as beloved as the series itself.
(An old saying explains the difference between the Yiddish words that roughly goes: A schlemiel spills their soup on someone else. A schlimazel is the person they spilled it on.)
Ms. Williams played the straitlaced Shirley Feeney to Marshall’s more libertine Laverne DeFazio on the show.
“They were beloved characters,” Ms. Williams told the Associated Press in 2002.
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.”
Despite the show being centered on two women who work hard against all odds, Ms. Williams sued the show because she claimed they ousted her after she became pregnant.
She sued Paramount TV and producer Garry Marshall (Penny’s brother) in 1982 for $20 million, alleging they went back on a deal to accommodate her pregnancy and still pay her $75,000 per episode plus a piece of the profits, according to the Los Angeles Times. They settled out of court. The actresses reconciled before Penny Marshall died in 2018.
A native of Los Angeles, Ms. Williams first became interested in acting during high school, according to a biography provided by Cranis. After high school, she majored in theatre arts at L.A. City College.
She 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’s 1973 “American Graffiti,” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” from 1974. 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.
On stage, Ms. Williams was in a national tour of “Grease” as Miss Lynch. She also had a stint as Ouiser Boudreaux in an adaptation of “Steel Magnolias,” played in the film by another Shirley - MacLaine.
Ms. Williams also helped produce the successful 1991 remake of “The Father Of The Bride” with Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, according to IMDb.
She wrote a memoir in 2017 and completed a national theater tour of a one-woman show: “Me, Myself and Shirley” last year. In the show, she chronicled her life in Hollywood, as well as her relationship with 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.”
Material from The New York Times and Associated Press was included in this obituary.