Cindy Williams Never Actually Stopped Working

Cindy Williams (1947-2023) passed away about a week ago (Jan. 25) but somehow the news didn’t get out until last night.

Of the two Laverne and Shirley stars, Williams was far and away my favorite as a tween devotee of the show: funnier, cuter, the better actor, and by all appearances, the smarter one. The show had an interesting evolution. Originally a Happy Days spin-off, producer Garry Marshall seemed to develop it over time into a sort of female Odd Couple, with Shirley as the Felix. Williams absolutely had the comic acting chops for that role. It’s not easy to play a finicky, complainy character and remain likable.

Though I was an enormous fan of the show during its peak years (like the show that spawned it and gave us the phrase, it “jumped the shark” at a certain point), I thought it would be better to stress all the work Williams did apart from her most famous role, for there was plenty of it. It’s not remotely like she retired 40 years ago, although the headlines and tributes will make it sound like that was the case.

Williams’ screen career was six or seven years old by the time her hit sit-com launched. Not only had she been on Room 222, Nanny and the Professor, Love American Style, Hawaii Five-O, Cannon, Police Story, and Petrocelli, but she had actually already been a regular on a series. It was a sketch show called The Funny Side (1971) which I wrote about here. There’s a terrific interview with Williams about that show here.

Williams also had a promising movie career going at the outset. After admitted shlock like Roger Corman’s Gas-s-s (1970) and Larry Hagman’s Beware! The Blob (1972), she landed roles in George Cukor’s Travels with My Aunt (1972), Curtis Harrington’s The Killing Kind (1973), George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Dean Martin’s last starring film Mr. Ricco (1975).

Obviously, Williams’ role opposite Ron Howard in American Graffiti is what led to her 1975 appearance on Happy Days, which led to the spin-off Laverne and Shirley (1976-82), as well as the animated shows Laverne and Shirley in the Army (1981-82) and The Mork and Mindy/Laverne and Shirley/ Fonz Hour (1982), and, a not unrelated vehicle More American Graffiti (1979).

Laverne and Shirley was already sundowning at the time Williams left the show. The show shifted from the ’50s to the early ’60s, and moved from Milwaukee to Burbank, straying very far from what had clicked with the public in the first place. By the time she left the show, Williams and Penny Marshall were locked in a rivalry, one Williams couldn’t win given that the producer of the show was Marshall’s brother. And she had gotten married and was pregnant (her husband was Bill Hudson of The Hudson Brothers; thus she was for a time Goldie Hawn’s sister-in-law and Kate Hudson’s aunt). So she quit Laverne and Shirley. But the strong identification with the show and her role on it seems to have eroded her ability to work with prestige directors in major Hollywood films as she once had. Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s her two mainstays were made-for tv dramas (about a dozen of them), and undistinguished, sophomoric theatrical comedies like Uforia (1985), Rude Awakening (1991), and Meet Wally Sparks (1995) with Rodney Dangerfield.

Lost in the shuffle of her obits no doubt, however, will be that in addition to The Funny Side and Laverne and Shirley, Williams starred in two more sitcoms: Normal Life (1991) with Barney Miller‘s Max Gail, and Frank Zappa’s daughters Dweezil and Moon Unit, and Getting By (1993-94) with Telma Hopkins, the latter of which ran two full seasons. In the quarter century since, TV guest shots were her main jam and she worked steadily, showing up on programs like Lois and Clark, Touched By an Angel, 7th Heaven, 8 Simple Rules, Law and Order: SVU, and even the Odd Couple reboot. Her last role was in Richard Rossi’s comedy Canaan Land (2020), but she was appearing on talk shows and in documentaries up until a few months ago.

Williams was only 75. The only cause of her passing that has been given is “a brief illness”. Of all the Laverne and Shirley principals (Williams, Garry Marshall, Penny Marshall, Phil Foster, Betty Garrett, Eddie Mekka, Dave L. Lander) the only one left is Michael McKean. He’s only 75, which is young in an era when people are routinely living into their ’90s. It must be a lonely feeling.