Cindy Williams, Laverne & Shirley and American Graffiti star, dies at 75

Cindy Williams, the actress best known for playing Shirley Feeney on the popular sitcom Laverne & Shirley, died Jan. 25 at her home in Los Angeles after a brief illness. She was 75.

A family spokesperson, Liza Cranis, confirmed the news and provided a statement from Williams' children, Zak and Emily Hudson: "The passing of our kind, hilarious mother, Cindy Williams, has brought us insurmountable sadness that could never truly be expressed. 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 endeared herself to audiences as a strait-laced brewery bottle-capper on Laverne & Shirley, opposite Penny Marshall as her roommate and best friend Laverne De Fazio. The characters were first introduced on Happy Days in 1975 as "sure thing" dates for Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and Fonzie (Henry Winkler). They were so popular that Happy Days creator Garry Marshall launched Laverne & Shirley as a spin-off series, which ran from 1976 to 1983 on ABC.

Laverne & Shirley became a hit with viewers thanks to the comedic talents of its two leads and their zany antics. The show was also well known for its theme song and the title characters' matching monogrammed sweaters.

Cindy Williams in 1985
Cindy Williams in 1985

Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Cindy Williams in 1985

Though Williams was beloved most for the sitcom, she worked across television, film, and theater. She notably featured in George Lucas' American Graffiti as Laurie Henderson, high school sweetheart to Ron Howard's Steve, and appeared in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation as Ann, one of the people whom Gene Hackman's surveillance expert Harry Caul has been hired to spy on.

Cynthia Jane Williams was born Aug. 22, 1947, in Los Angeles. Her family moved to Dallas when she was a year old, but they returned to L.A. when she was 10.

Williams was interested in the performing arts from a young age, appearing in productions at church and her high school, where she shared a stage with Sally Field. She studied theater at L.A. City College before booking her first TV roles on series such as Room 222, Nanny and the Professor, and Love, American Style.

Like many actors of her generation, Williams made her film debut in a Roger Corman production: GAS-S-S-S, alongside Talia Shire and Ben Vereen. Her breakout role came opposite Maggie Smith in George Cukor's Travels With My Aunt.

Williams was reportedly one of the many actresses to audition for the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars.

Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams on 'Laverne & Shirley'
Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams on 'Laverne & Shirley'

Silver Screen Collection/Getty Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams on 'Laverne & Shirley'

She also worked as a comedy writer, and it was as a writer that she met her longtime screen partner Penny Marshall, while they were working at Coppola's production company, American Zoetrope, on a TV special for the bicentennial. While there, Marshall's brother, Garry, approached them about appearing on Happy Days.

That ultimately led to the success of Laverne & Shirley, which at one time was the top show on television. Williams left the series early in its eighth and final season when she became pregnant with her first child.

She returned to TV with the short-lived sitcom Normal Life in 1990 and starred on another sitcom, Getting By, from 1993 to 1994. She continued to appear in guest roles on such TV series as 8 Simple Rules, 7th Heaven, The Odd Couple, and Law and Order: SVU. In 2013, she reunited with Penny Marshall on Nickelodeon's Sam & Cat.

After Laverne & Shirley, Williams worked predominantly on stage, appearing in many national tours, including Grease as Miss Lynch, the national tour of Deathtrap opposite Elliot Gould, the female version of The Odd Couple with JoAnne Worley, and Steel Magnolias in the role originated by another Shirley, Shirley MacLaine, as Ouiser Boudreaux.

Williams made her Broadway debut in 2007, taking over as the daffy Mrs. Tottendale in The Drowsy Chaperone. More recently she completed a national tour of her one-woman show Me, Myself, and Shirley.

She published a memoir — Shirley, I Jest!, which she co-wrote with Dave Smitherman — in 2015.

Williams was married to Bill Hudson, of musical trio the Hudson Brothers, from 1982 to 2000. She is survived by their two children.

Related content: