Williams was best known for playing the straitlaced Shirley Feeney on the ABC sitcom “Laverne & Shirley.”
LOS ANGELES — Cindy Williams, who was among the most recognizable stars in America in the 1970s and 1980s for her role as Shirley opposite Penny Marshall’s Laverne on the beloved 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 spokeswoman 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 1972 “Travels With My Aunt,” George Lucas’ 1973 “American Graffiti” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” from 1974.
But she was by far best known for “Laverne & Shirley,” the “Happy Days” spinoff that ran on ABC from 1976 to 1983 that in its prime was among the most popular shows on TV.
Williams played the straitlaced Shirley Feeney to Marshall’s more libertine Laverne DeFazio on the show about a pair of blue-collar roommates who toiled on the assembly line of a Milwaukee brewery in the 1950s and 1960s.
“They were beloved characters,” 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 told the AP in 2002. “Cindy could touch her tongue to her nose and we used it in the show. I did tap dance.”
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.”
That opening would become as popular as the show itself. Williams’ and Marshall’s chant of “schlemiel, schlimazel” as they skipped along together became a cultural phenomenon and oft-invoked piece of nostalgia.
Marshall, whose brother, Garry Marshall, co-created the series, died in 2018.
Actor Rosario Dawson shared a video of the opening theme on Twitter on Tuesday.
“Singing this song with so much gratitude for both of you ladies,” Dawson tweeted. “Absolute gems. United again… Rest in Paradise Cindy Williams.”
The show also starred Michael McKean and David Lander as Laverne and Shirley’s oddball hangers-on Lenny and Squiggy. Lander died in 2020.
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, California, 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 its production company. She appeared infrequently during the final season.
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 a major in theater 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’ “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.
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 episode of the Nickelodeon series “Sam and Cat.”
Last year, Williams appeared in a one-woman stage show full of stories from her career, “ Me, Myself and Shirley,” at a theater in Palm Springs, California, 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.