Cindy Williams, the beloved actor best known as one-half of Laverne & Shirley’s iconic titular duo, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles after a brief illness. She was 75.
No specific cause of death was given in a statement issued to the Associated Press on Monday by a family spokesperson, representing Williams’ children, Zak and Emily Hudson.
“The passing of our kind, hilarious mother, Cindy Williams, has brought us insurmountable sadness that could never truly be expressed,” the statement read. “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.”
Her assistant, Liza Cranis, told The New York Times only that the 75-year-old had died “peacefully.”
Williams debuted the perky Shirley Feeney—alongside Penny Marshall’s tough-talking Laverne DeFazio—in the pilot episode of the slapstick sitcom Laverne & Shirley in January 1976, just months after the two characters first appeared on Happy Days. Whereas the Laverne and Shirley of Happy Days had been equally brassy, the Shirley Feeney of the spinoff series was rewritten to be a more idealistic foil to Laverne’s streetwise counterpart.
With this new formula, Williams and Marshall’s chemistry proved to be just as winning as it had been when their characters were double-dating Richie and the Fonz. The show about two blue-collar roommates who worked at a Milwaukee brewery, bottle-capping and cracking wise, went on to become the highest-rated series of the next few years. By the end of its eight-season run, it had received six Golden Globe nominations and one Emmy nomination.
“We sort of had telepathy,” Williams told the TV Academy Foundation in 2013. “If we walk into a room together and if there’s something unique in the room, we’ll see it at the same time and have the same comment about it. We were always just like that.”
Williams and Marshall’s creative partnership began in 1975, before Happy Days. Both out-of-work actors, they were hired for a project by Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, Zoetrope, according to The Hollywood Reporter. (Ironically, the pair had first met on a real-life double date years earlier.) The gig emerged out of a role Williams had played in Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation, in which she portrayed a woman not as sweet and innocent as she first appears.
The year prior, Williams had cut her teeth on her first big role in a major motion picture in George Lucas’ American Graffiti, playing the cheerleader girlfriend of Ron Howard’s cruising high school graduate. For her part in the box-office smash, Williams was nominated for a BAFTA.
None of it would compare to her time on Laverne & Shirley, however. A couple of months after starting at Zoetrope, Williams and Marshall received a call from producer Garry Marshall, Penny’s brother, asking if they’d want to guest on Happy Days.
“Penny said yes and I said yes and we went and did it,” Williams told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “The rest is kind of history.”
It was the two stars’ gift for physical comedy that won them their audiences’ eyes and hearts. “It was like never say die,” Williams explained. “We never thought there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do. We had youth on our side.”
The sitcom ran from 1976 to 1983, with its only Shirley-less season proving to be its last. Williams departed the show after becoming pregnant with her first child, Emily, at the end of the seventh season. “When it came time for me to sign my contract for that season, they had me working on my due date to have my baby,” she told the Today show in 2015. “I said, ‘You know, I can’t sign this.’ And it went back and forth and back and forth, and it just never got worked out.”
Soon after, Williams filed a $20 million lawsuit against Garry Marshall and Paramount TV, accusing them of having “welshed” her on a promise to take her pregnancy into account when planning production. They settled out of court, and Williams was written out of the series, leaving Penny Marshall’s Laverne a solo act for the show’s final 20 episodes.
Before Marshall died in 2018, also aged 75, she and Williams received their stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in a “rare and fun double ceremony” in 2004. In a statement, the Walk of Fame invited fans to place flowers on Williams’ star on Tuesday, according to CBS News.
In their own statement on Monday, Zak and Emily continued, “We have always been, and will remain, SO proud of her for many things… her lifelong mission to rescue animals, her prolific artistry, her faith, and most of all, her ability to make the world laugh!”
“May that laughter continue in everyone, because she would want that. Thank you for loving our Mom, she loved you too.”
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