Cindy Williams, who played Shirley on TV's Laverne & Shirley, dead at 75

Actor Cindy Williams, who played the straitlaced Shirley to Penny Marshall's more libertine Laverne on Laverne & Shirley, died in Los Angeles on Wednesday after a brief illness, her family said. She was 75.

Williams died in Los Angeles on Wednesday after a brief illness, family says

A woman with short brown hair smiles.
Actor Cindy Williams attends the 10th Annual TV Land Awards in April 2012 in New York City. Williams, who starred in the sitcom Laverne & Shirley with actor Penny Marshall, has died at the age of 75. (Gary Gershoff/Getty Images)

Cindy Williams, who played Shirley opposite Penny Marshall's Laverne on the popular sitcom Laverne & Shirley, has died, her family said Monday.

Williams died in Los Angeles at age 75 on Wednesday after a brief illness, her children, Zak and Emily Hudson, said in a statement released through family spokesperson Liza Cranis.

"The passing of our kind, hilarious mother, Cindy Williams, has brought us insurmountable sadness that could never truly be expressed," the statement said. "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."

Williams 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 Travels With My Aunt, George Lucas's American Graffiti and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation between 1972 and 1974.

But she was by far best known for Laverne & Shirley, the Happy Days spinoff that ran on ABC from 1976 to 1983. In its prime, it was among the most popular shows on TV.

Two men and two women are shown onstage near a microphone. One of the women is speaking.
From left to right, Laverne and Shirley actors David L. Lander, Michael McKean, Williams and Penny Marshall are shown onstage at the 10th Annual TV Land Awards on April 14, 2012, in New York. (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Williams played the straitlaced Shirley Feeney to Marshall's more libertine Laverne DeFazio on the show about a pair of friends and roommates who worked at a Milwaukee bottling factory in the 1950s and 60s.

"They were beloved characters," Williams told The Associated Press in 2002.

Marshall, whose brother, Garry Marshall, co-created the series, died in 2018.

'Very different personalities'

Williams told The Associated Press in 2013 that she and Marshall had "very different personalities" but tales of the two clashing during the making of the show were "a bit overblown."

The series was the rare network hit about working-class characters, with its self-empowering opening song: "Give us any chance, we'll take it, read us any rule, we'll break it."

Laverne & Shirley was known almost as much for its opening theme as the show itself.

Williams's and Marshall's chant of "schlemiel, schlimazel" as they skipped together became a cultural phenomenon and oft-invoked piece of nostalgia.

The show also starred Michael McKean and David Lander as Laverne and Shirley's oddball hangers-on Lenny and Squiggy. Lander died in 2020, followed the next year by Eddie Mekka, who portrayed Carmine Ragusa on the show.

Two people make hand impressions in cement.
Laverne & Shirley co-stars Williams, left, and Marshall press their hands in cement after the taping of their show in Los Angeles in November 1979. (Lennox McLendon/The Associated Press)

McKean paid tribute to Williams on Twitter with a memory from the production.

"Backstage, Season 1: I'm offstage waiting for a cue. The script's been a tough one, so we're giving it 110% and the audience is having a great time," McKean tweeted. "Cindy scoots by me to make her entrance and with a glorious grin, says: 'Show's cookin'!' Amen. Thank you, Cindy."

As ratings dropped in the sixth season, the characters moved from Milwaukee to Burbank, Calif., trading their brewery jobs for work at a department store.

In 1982, Williams became pregnant and wanted her working hours curtailed. When her demands weren't met, she walked off the set and filed a lawsuit against the show's production company. She appeared infrequently during the final season.

Ron Howard pays tribute

Williams was born one of two sisters in the Van Nuys area of Los Angeles in 1947. Her family moved to Dallas soon after she was born, but returned to Los Angeles, where she would take up acting while attending Birmingham High School and then majoring in theatre arts at LA City College.

Her acting career began with small roles in television starting in 1969, with appearances on Room 222, Nanny and the Professor and Love, American Style.

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. The characters of Laverne and Shirley made their first TV appearance as dates of Henry Winkler's Fonzie on Happy Days before they got their own show.

Ron Howard, who played Richie Cunningham on Happy Days after being the high school sweetheart of Williams in American Graffiti, paid tribute on Monday.

"Her unpretentious intelligence, talent, wit & humanity impacted every character she created & person she worked with," he said.

Lucas also considered her for the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars, a role that went to Carrie Fisher.

In the past three decades, Williams made guest appearances on dozens of TV series including 7th Heaven, 8 Simple Rules and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. In 2013, she and Marshall appeared in a Laverne & Shirley tribute.

Last year, Williams appeared in a one-woman stage show full of stories from her career, Me, Myself and Shirley, at a theatre in Palm Springs, Calif., near her home in Desert Hot Springs.

Williams was married to singer Bill Hudson of musical group the Hudson Brothers from 1982 until 2000. Hudson was father to her two children. He was previously married to Goldie Hawn and is also the father of actor Kate Hudson.


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