Remembering Laverne & Shirley Star Cindy Williams

Actress Cindy Williams

Actress Cindy Williams

Once upon a time, there were only three TV channels to watch, and in the late 1970s, no show was bigger than Laverne & Shirley, a sitcom starring Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall as roommates who worked at a Milwaukee beer factory. The series was a spin-off from a Happy Days episode in which Fonzie had arranged for Laverne (Marshall) and Shirley (Williams) to double date with him and Richie (Ron Howard). By its third season, Laverne & Shirley was the number one show in the country, and its stars became cultural icons.

I caught up with Cindy last April and we talked by phone about her then-upcoming one-woman show, “Me, Myself, and Shirley”, which she performed at High Point Theatre. The show was a big hit and we stayed in touch after that, but I wondered why I didn’t get a response to my most recent email. Now I know why. Cindy had been in bad health the past few months, and on January 25 she passed away at the age of 75. The following are highlights from our conversation back in April.


JL: Do you remember the first time you performed on stage?

CW: Yes, it was in the first grade, and they had a talent show, and I sang “Hickory Dickory Dock”, and I had total stage fright, but I did it.

JL: Do you remember who won the talent show?

CW: No, but I’m sure it was some ne’er-do-well first-grader [laughs].

JL: When did you first realize that you wanted to act professionally?

CW: It was in high school. I had wanted to be a nurse, but I didn’t have an academic brain, so I entered a talent show at school, and the drama teacher, Mr. Kulp, said, “If you have an elective, I’d like to offer you a spot this coming semester to be in ‘Play Production’” so I did. That’s when I thought I’d like to be able to earn a living from acting. I just loved it so much.

JL: Over the years, various cast and crew members on Laverne & Shirley say that they had to work long hours because you and Penny would often do re-writes on the script. What drove you to work so hard on that show?

CW: We had a litmus test, which was if the script made Penny and me laugh out loud, then we figured it would translate to the audience at home. When it didn’t, we would re-write it, or try and put things in that made it funny. Once we got the show on its feet and started moving around, we would add things, add lines, and ad lib. The whole cast would.

JL: Even in the late 1970’s, there were certain things you couldn’t do or say on television, thus the reason for you and Penny using the phrase “Vody-O-Doe-Doe,” instead of saying “having sex”. If Laverne & Shirley were on the air today, would using more graphic language make the show better or funnier?

CW: No, it wouldn’t. When audiences of today laugh at graphic language, they’re usually laughing out of nervousness, not out of joy.

Also, we had a censor back then. He was a born-again Christian and the nicest guy, and he wouldn’t let us get away with anything. That’s how we came up with “Vody-O-Doe-Doe,” which made the audience laugh out loud, because they know what Shirley did. It’s much more fun when everybody is thinking the same thing at the same time. Instead of saying someone is showing pornography, we’d say, “They’re showing dirty pictures,” and the audience would laugh because it’s much more fun. We used innuendo and attitude in a fun-loving way.

JL: Moving from comedy to drama, I went back recently and watched the episode you did on Law & Order: SVU in which you played an evil woman who was trying to kill her little granddaughter. You also played serious roles in such films as “The Conversation” with Gene Hackman. Do you prefer doing drama over comedy, or wish you had done more?

CW: I’d like to have played more middle-of-the-road parts, but I didn’t have a chance because no one was going to cast me after Laverne & Shirley I remember going up for this big part, and I went in, and the producer said, “I’d love to cast you, but I can’t. You’re just too recognizable as Shirley Feeney.” And it’s the truth, and I understand that. Look, it’s a blessing that I got to play that character and it became so popular with people, so I never regret that.

JL: Do you remember when you first realized you were famous?

CW: I guess it was in the second season we were in New York City and they had asked us to be in the Thanksgiving Day parade, and we were on this float, and we saw all these people push past this barrier and they were running toward us. So we looked behind us to see who it was they were running toward, and we were going to join them [laughs]. It must be somebody big. Then all this security came up and we realized it was for us. That was the first time we realized the popularity of the show. Penny and I had this same glitch in our personalities where we thought, “we can’t possibly be the popular girls.” We never took show business seriously, and I think that’s part of the reason that Laverne & Shirley kept our feet on the ground.

JL: The road to success hasn’t always been easy for you. You had to wait tables at a pancake house, and you had all your scenes cut from your first film, but eventually became one of the most famous people in the world. What is it that anyone from any walk of life can learn from your journey?

CW: It can all be accomplished, but you have to always stay yourself. You have to keep your sense of humor. If you get knocked down, you have to get right back up and just keep going. God played a big part for me. I would talk to God and I’d get brave again. You always have to stay brave, and have faith in yourself and in all the beautiful things around you. You’re not always going to be invited to the party, you’re not always going to get the job, and you can’t let that deter you from what you want. If somebody else gets the job, you bless them and say “it wasn’t meant for me.” There was a point where I thought I’d be back to waiting tables, and I was OK with that, and it’s right before I got Laverne & Shirley.

JL: I know you get a lot of fan mail, but I wonder if you realize how much pleasure and even comfort you’ve given to people over the years. There must have been times when someone had just lost a loved one, or lost their job, and they turned the TV on and watched Laverne & Shirley and you had an impact on their lives.

CW: Thanks Jim. Yeah, people still come up to me and say, “You got me through a very bad time in my life, and made me laugh at a really bad time.” I love people, and want to comfort them.

JL: So in a way, I guess you did become a nurse.

CW: Yeah, in a way I guess I was a nurse. But doing the show was such a blessing for me and such a privilege.


You can catch “nurse” Cindy at High Point Theatre this Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. A few tickets are still available by calling (336) 887-3001.


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