'Honored' Ron Howard salutes 'Happy Days,' 'American Graffiti' co-star Cindy Williams

Two women wearing makeshift veils and holding bouquets stand between two casually dressed men
Ron Howard, left, shown in the 1979 "Shotgun Wedding" episode of ABC's "Happy Days," paid tribute to his co-star Cindy Williams, second from left. The pair co-starred with Penny Marshall and Henry Winkler, right, in the episode. (ABC Photo Archives)
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Director and producer Ron Howard says he's honored to be able to comment on the life of his "American Graffiti" and "Happy Days" co-star Cindy Williams, who died Wednesday at age 75, because "she lived it with a lot of integrity" and he "always respected her."

The two-time Oscar winner broke out on the big screen around the same time as Williams, who was his romantic counterpart in George Lucas' 1973 coming-of-age drama "American Graffiti" and the beloved 1970s sitcom "Happy Days."

The "Beautiful Mind" director and producer told People magazine on Monday that he last connected with Williams in Palm Springs last year after not seeing her for years. He said he "was just so taken by how her intelligence, energy, and sense of humor ... was still in high gear." He added that it's "really a shock to imagine that spark is gone."

A man hugs a woman while leaning on an old car.
Actors Ron Howard and Cindy Williams with a Ford Edsel in a promotional portrait for the 1973 film "American Graffiti," directed by George Lucas. (Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images)

The "Apollo 13" director played high school grad Steve and Williams played his girlfriend Laurie — the sister of his best friend Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) — in "American Graffiti" during their last hurrah before the boys left for college back East. Set in Modesto in the summer of 1962, Lucas' nostalgic film chronicled the rock 'n' roll and cruising cultures of the time period and was nominated for five Academy Awards.

Howard said that he had his first kissing scenes with Williams, who was 24 to his 18. He told People that they weren't very romantic because Williams "knew that she had this nervous kid on her hands and she had to take charge of the situation."

"And so she was like, 'Here's how we got to kiss for the camera. Here's what we have to do.' She's always had almost a big sister energy around me," he said, adding that although they "had terrific acting chemistry," she always treated him like a kid.

The pair worked together frequently over the course of five years before writer-director Garry Marshall enlisted Williams and his sister Penny Marshall for a guest spot on his popular 1950s-set sitcom "Happy Days." The pair made a splash during a double date with Howard's Richie and Henry Winkler's Fonzie.

Their initial Season 3 arc on "Happy Days" led to guest spots on the show and their ABC spin-off "Laverne & Shirley," Williams' most famous leading role in a career full of great character parts.

Howard described Williams as "highly intelligent, very funny, very astute about the world around her." He said she was "very skeptical of glamour or the illusions around our business" and that she never "fell prey" to it and that "she really was dedicated creatively, and I took notice of that and tried to draw inspiration from it."

Winkler, who played iconic biker Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli, was among Williams' notable Hollywood peers who paid their respects to the film and TV star. In a series of tweets responding to Williams' death, Winkler said that he was feeling sad Monday night.

"My condolences for the loss of your incredible friend," he tweeted in response to actor Michael McKean, who is the last surviving star of "Laverne & Shirley," adding, "What a fine and talented human being ! RIP."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.