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Schlemiel, Schlimazel: 25 Things You Never Knew About 'Laverne & Shirley'

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo TV

Apologies for the fact that you will not be able to get the schlemieling and schlamazeling of the Laverne & Shirley theme song out of your head for the next few days. But between this week’s release of the complete series DVD box set of the classic 1976-83 sitcom and the recent release of star Cindy Williams’s Laverne tidbit-packed memoir Shirley, I Jest!, there’s much cause for Laverne & Shirley celebration, and more importantly, a walk down Laverne & Shirley memory lane.

Here are 25 things you didn’t know about those milk and Pepsi-drinking, Boo Boo Kitty-loving Milwaukee bottlecappers and BFFs, from the behind-the-scenes turmoil and deep family connections to the behind-the-scenes romances and deep personal inspirations for some of the show’s most beloved moments.

1. The Happy Days spinoff sparked after Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams guest-starred as Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney on Season 3’s “A Date with Fonzie” episode of Happy Days. The characters, factory workers who went on a double date with The Fonz (Henry Winkler) and Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard), were popular with viewers, so when ABC exec Fred Silverman asked producer Garry Marshall for another idea to help the network build a Tuesday night comedy block, Laverne & Shirley became ABC’s next big hit. P.S. Williams briefly dated Henry Winkler, though in the Happy Days ep, Laverne was Fonzie’s date.

2. Series stars Marshall and Williams appeared to be having fun as the titular BFFs, Shotz Brewery co-workers and Milwaukee roommates, but Laverne & Shirley creator (and Penny Marshall’s brother) Garry Marshall describes the workplace as very chaotic, with so much cursing by the show’s stars that he was afraid to let his children visit the L&S set. “I overheard someone say that the cast of Happy Days puts cups up to the wall so they can hear Penny and Cindy screaming at the writers. Is that true?” Marshall reported his then-11-year-old daughter asking him, in his 2012 memoir My Happy Days in Hollywood.

3. In My Happy Days in Hollywood, Garry Marshall elaborates on the unhappy relationship between the stars and the writers of Laverne & Shirley. Essentially, “Penny and Cindy thought that they knew more than anyone else and that the writing staff was without talent… the writers… thought Penny and Cindy were mean, too young to be so bossy, and narcissistic,” Marshall wrote. One Happy Days writer he reassigned to Laverne & Shirley spent a few weeks at the new gig then asked Marshall to send him back to Happy Days, after he reported having the urge to run over the Laverne cast with his car.

4. Penny Marshall and Williams were working together as writers on Francis Ford Coppola’s My Country ‘Tis of Thee, a bicentennial spoof he was producing, when Garry Marshall cast them in Laverne & Shirley. Also on their writing team: Steve Martin, Harry Shearer, and Martin Mull. Williams was initially skittish about signing on for Laverne & Shirley, and the reason why depends on which autobiography you read. Garry Marshall says in My Happy Days in Hollywood that Williams didn’t want to do a sitcom; in Penny Marshall’s 2012 memoir My Mother Was Nuts, she writes that Williams feared doing TV would prevent her from expanding her big-screen career. But in Williams’s new autobiography, Shirley, I Jest!, she writes that she considered turning down the show because Penny Marshall went MIA on her while they were working on the Coppola writing project, leaving Williams to finish the work alone while Marshall went off to help develop Laverne & Shirley with her brother.

5. Laverne & Shirley debuted on January 27, 1976, and was the No. 1 show on TV that week. The No. 1 show of the season that year: All in the Family, which starred Penny Marshall’s then-husband, Rob Reiner.

6. The show was such an immediate hit that Marshall and Williams were asked to record an album, Laverne & Shirley Sing, in 1976. That November, they sang one of the album’s songs, a cover of The Crystals’s hit “Da Do Ron Ron,” on a float during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And yes, the album is available on iTunes. They also performed the song in the Season 2 episode “Citizen Crane,” when music impresario Charles Pfister Crane tried to turn them into a girl group called The Rosebuds.

7. Michael McKean and David Lander, aka Laverne and Shirley’s neighbors Lenny and Squiggy, also released an album, in character, called Lenny and Squiggy Present Lenny and the Squigtones. They performed one of the album’s songs, “King of the Cars,” on American Bandstand in 1979. Credited as a guitar player on the album: Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest).

8. Squiggy was originally named Antny (actually, Anthony Squiggliano). McKean and Lander had created their greaser characters during college at Carnegie Mellon, when they were named Lenny (Leonard Kosnowski) and Antny and were much less family-friendly than they were on ABC’s primetime comedy. McKean and Lander were originally hired as writers on Laverne & Shirley, and then wrote themselves into the storyline. Later, the network considered spinning Lenny and Squiggy off into their own sitcom.

9. Squiggy regularly tried to get Shirley to go out with him on the show; Cindy Williams and David Lander dated in real life during the early days of the series.

10. Laverne & Shirley was a Marshall family affair: Penny Marshall starred and directed; Garry Marshall created, produced, directed, and wrote for the show; their sister Ronny Hallin was the show’s casting director; and their father, Anthony Marshall, was also a producer. Once, when papa Marshall felt Penny had talked rudely to him, he refused to sign and issue her weekly paycheck — for $75,000 — until she apologized to him.

11. About Laverne’s ubiquitous “L” monogram… Penny Marshall explained it herself to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: “When you start a television show, the key is to get the audience to remember the names of the characters and their occupations. So an actress ends up saying her name and job many times during the first few episodes of any sitcom. When I first read the pilot script of Laverne & Shirley, it had us saying our names and that we were bottle cappers every other page. So when I went to try on my wardrobe, I remembered the fact that I would have to keep repeating my name, and it might get pretty boring. I was looking for a shortcut as I sifted through the vintage clothing that the wardrobe department had collected from the 1950s. I came across a sweater with an initial sewn in the upper left corner. It suddenly dawned on me how I could save time. Make the initial an ‘L’ and then everyone would remember that my name is Laverne… Many people ask if I still have some items of clothing in my closet with the Laverne ‘L’ on them and my answer is, ‘yes.’ I’m saving them, and if I ever need some quick cash I can always sell them on eBay or [Craigslist].”

12. Laverne’s favorite beverage, milk and Pepsi, also came courtesy of Marshall. In My Mother Was Nuts, Marshall writes, “At kosher camp, they couldn’t drink milk with meat, so they had Pepsi. I wanted Pepsi, too. But my mother made me drink milk first. Then she gave me the soda. Sometimes she didn’t rinse out the glass. Sometimes it wasn’t even empty. Eventually it became half and half. When I did it on the show, I knew it would get a reaction. And it did. People related to those little details.” Marshall says she still enjoys her milk and Pepsis, by the way.

13. Lander encouraged Penny Marshall to make her directorial debut — the Season 4 Laverne & Shirley episode “Squiggy in Love,” in which the roommates have to help break the news to Squiggy that his new girlfriend is using him. Marshall went on to become the first female director to helm a movie that made more than $100 million at the box office — Big — followed by hits like A League of Their Own and Awakenings.

14. Producers originally planned to end Laverne & Shirley after Season 5, which would have had the roommates move to New York City. Penny Marshall and Williams protested the locale switch, however, and Laverne and Shirley remained in Milwaukee for Season 5… and then moved to Hollywood, where the series ran for three more seasons.

15. In 1981, a Laverne & Shirley spinoff cartoon, Laverne & Shirley in the Army, aired for one season in ABC’s Saturday morning lineup. Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams voiced their characters who, based on Season 5’s two-part episode “You’re in the Army Now,” join the Army and report to Sgt. Squealy, a pig who was voiced by Welcome Back, Kotter star Ron Palillo. And yes, cartoon Laverne did wear a giant “L” on her Army uniform. After 13 episodes, Laverne & Shirley in the Army added a cartoon Fonzie (voiced by Henry Winkler) and his dog, Mr. Cool, to the cast and packaged the series with a cartoon version of Mork & Mindy to make a new series, Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour.

16. Eddie Mekka’s Carmine Ragusa, the aspiring actor and singer who was Shirley’s sometime-boyfriend early in the series, was also scheduled to star in his own spinoff series. The Laverne & Shirley series finale, “Here Today, Hair Tomorrow,” found Carmine landing a role in Hair on Broadway, which would have been the focus of the new series, but the project fizzled after L&S was canceled.

17. Future Emmy-winning Cheers star Ted Danson guest-starred in one of the series’ few more serious installments, Season 5’s “Why Did the Fireman …?” In it, Danson’s fireman character, Randy Carpenter, is ready to propose, but is killed on the job. 

Among other Laverne & Shirley guest stars: Jay Leno, Christopher Guest, Mark Harmon, Dennis Haysbert, Carrie Fisher, Art Garfunkel (who dated Penny Marshall), Adam West, NFL star-turned-actor Fred Dryer, Eric Idle, Charles Grodin, Vicki Lawrence, Ed Begley Jr. (as Shirley’s alcoholic brother, Bobby), Fred Willard, Richard Moll, Anjelica Huston, Carol Kane, Harry Dean Stanton, G.W. Bailey, Jim Belushi, Jeff Goldblum, Hugh Hefner, Laraine Newman, Howard Hesseman, Louise Lasser, Joanna Kerns, and Charlene Tilton.

18. Shirley Feeney’s beloved Boo Boo Kitty became an inanimate series regular when Williams pulled the stuffed animal prop out from under a bed during rehearsal one day. Laverne and Shirley were spring cleaning, and while Shirley was supposed to find dust bunnies under the bed, she found a black, stuffed animal cat, instead. She improvised and called it Boo Boo Kitty, in honor of one of her mom’s real cats. Because there was only one of the props — the propmaster couldn’t find a duplicate — it had to be locked up after every show for safekeeping, but Williams writes in Shirley, I Jest! that, years later, the propmaster gave Boo Boo Kitty to her. The toy cat also had its own celebrity fan. Williams writes that when she met Stevie Nicks backstage at a Bruce Springsteen concert, Nicks greeted her with, “Oh, hi! It’s you. I love Boo Boo Kitty!”

19. The show inspired a line of tie-in merchandise, including Laverne, Shirley, Lenny, and Squiggy dolls, a board game, puzzles, a Shotz brewery delivery van toy car, coloring books, paperback novels, and, in 2009, a Laverne & Shirley casino slot machine that features Boo Boo Kitty, milk and Pepsis, Laverne’s “L,” and bottles of Shotz beer.

20. Laverne & Shirley was filmed on Paramount’s Stage 20, which was also the filming location for the original TV series version of The Odd Couple (on which Penny Marshall co-starred), My Three Sons, Star Trek: Voyager, and Edward Norton’s Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated film debut, Primal Fear.

21. In Season 3’s The Second (Almost) Annual Shotz Talent Show,” both Marshall’s and Williams’s mother guest starred. Frances Williams played Mrs. Bellini, who had to sweep up the pennies from her talent show act after she sang “Pennies From Heaven,” while Marjorie Marshall, a dance teacher, played Mrs. Ward, who danced with Laverne while she was auditioning for the Shotz talent show.

22. Marshall and Williams were asked to be presenters at the People’s Choice Awards in 1977, and Williams says they initially said no, because the awards fell on a Laverne & Shirley rehearsal night. When the awards show’s producers told them they didn’t have to worry about dressing up, they agreed to an appearance… so, for the 1977 broadcast, the actresses presented the Favorite Television Comedy Program award to Happy Days stars Henry Winkler and Ron Howard while dressed in their rehearsal outfits, sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers.

23. The famous “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!” that preceded Cyndi Grecco’s classic theme song “Making Our Dreams Come True” in the show’s opening montage was from a song Penny Marshall and her childhood friends used to sing while they walked to school. Marshall writes in My Mother Was Nuts that she didn’t know what the words meant, but, according to TheFreeDictionary.com, both “schlemiel” and “schlimazel” describe an unlucky person.

24. The story behind Cindy Williams’s exit from the series — a couple of episodes into the eighth and final season — depends, again, on whose memoir you’re reading, though everyone agrees there were issues surrounding Williams’s and her then-new husband Bill Hudson’s demands about the show accommodating her pregnancy. The situation became volatile, and very public, and, Penny Marshall writes in My Mother Was Nuts, it led to a period of several years in which she and Williams didn’t speak to each other.

25. Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams reunited (and proved they’ve still got some serious physical comedy skills) for a 2013 episode of the Nickelodeon series Sam & Cat, in which they played the warring creators of a 1970s TV series called Salmon Cat. Sam & Cat stars Jennette McCurdy and Ariana Grande recreated the iconic L&S show opening for the episode, and, according to all the memoirs of the Laverne & Shirley crew, they have put the more chaotic memories from the past behind them and are friends in real-life again.

Laverne & Shirley: The Complete Series is available from CBS Home Entertainment.

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