Before Cindy Williams Was Shirley, She Was Laurie. It’s All Good.
Cindy Williams spent the last half of her life being known as Shirley Feeney from Laverne & Shirley. She was, she said, fine with that.
“I love my life,” she said in 2013. “I wouldn’t trade it for anyone’s.”
Williams died Sunday at the age of 75, after what was reported to be a brief undisclosed illness, and her death triggered an appropriate wave of Laverne & Shirley nostalgia, including a marathon on Pluto TV’s Happy Days channel.
Laverne & Shirley earned its stature as an iconic sitcom with its humorous, sometimes touching and, okay, unsubtle portrayal of two working-class women navigating their 20s in late-‘50s and early-‘60s Milwaukee.
Shirley was traditional and a little nervous about the world. Penny Marshall’s Laverne DeFazio saw the world as a place to charge out into. Their clashing sensibilities became part of what made the show work.
“It was a female buddy show,” Williams said in 2013, “Like Lucy & Ethel. Their take on life was a little different than it would have been with guys.”
Its first year, Laverne & Shirley became the country’s №3 television show. It was №2 in its second and №1 for the two years after that. This meant tens of millions of viewers back in the pre-streaming years when the whole country watched broadcast television.
Most performers would love to create a character who becomes part of America’s popular culture vernacular. With Shirley Feeney, Williams accomplished that.
But she also took dozens of other roles over the years, including a very different and disturbing character in the movie The Conversation.
A wider audience knew her as part of the ensemble cast in the 1973 film American Graffiti, in which her Laurie Henderson character is both easy to underappreciate and worth remembering.
Laurie on the surface was living the female high school dream of the late 1950s and early 1960s. She was the head cheerleader at her clean-cut high school in Modesto and she was going steady with student council president Steve Bolander (Ron Howard). By the conventional wisdom of the day, she was on track to marry Steve, have a couple of children and settle into a comfortable life as Mrs. Bolander, bonding with the other Moms at bake sales and taking care of house and home.
Williams plays Laurie as someone who accepts that path. But she also is starting to sense life isn’t all that simple, a realization hammered home by the fact that the next morning Steve will be flying off with Laurie’s brother Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) to attend college in the East. American Graffiti, for those who haven’t seen it (and should), is set entirely in that one late-summer evening, with Steve’s and Curt’s impending departure metaphorically marking the end of everyone’s high school years.
This separation troubles Laurie on several levels. Up to now, she and Steve have led the same lives. They’ve been high school students. Very successful high school students. From here on, Steve will be taking the next step, training for his role in the working world and as the breadwinner for the home. He’s still growing. Laurie will remain in Modesto, watching and waiting.
Steve further unsettles Laurie with a classic guy move: He suggests that while he’s gone, they should date other people “just to be sure” how they feel about each other. Yeah, right. Williams smartly captures how all this is rattling around in Laurie’s head, and the result is that she and Steve spend the night arguing.
Finally, full of anger and frustration with no outlet for any of it, Laurie hops into a car driven by the obnoxious Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford!). She doesn’t really know him. She just knows he’s probably heading for a drag race, that is, it’s her way of saying “Screw it” to everyone and everything.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey baby,” the mildly surprised Falfa says. “What do you say?”
“Don’t say anything,” she says, not looking at him, “and we’ll get along just fine.”
What happens next — spoiler alert — is that he blows a tire in the race. The car careens off the road and rolls, with Bob and Laurie crawling out just before it bursts into flames.
Laurie looks like she might burst into flames herself, from the pent-up anger, frustration, fear, shock and adrenaline. When Steve rushes onto the scene, she grabs him and tells him never to leave. He agrees, blowing off college in the East and setting himself on course to become an insurance agent in Modesto.
In the American Graffiti sequel, set a decade later and not recommended, we’re told that Steve and Laurie did get married and have two kids. We’re also told that Laurie has become restless, has become involved in anti-war protests and wants a career of her own.
We didn’t need a sequel to tell us that. Williams’s performance in the original gave us all the clues we needed about where Laurie was likely headed.
If Laurie wasn’t rejecting the comfort and security of that course she had been raised to expect and embrace, she was also perceptive enough to sense that might not be either all or enough.
Williams recalled in 2013 how she and Marshall had their own encounter with conventional rules during the filming of Laverne & Shirley. Specifically, the written and unwritten television codes of the times frowned on these two single women having love lives.
“Penny and I were so censored,” Williams said. “We had our own censor who would come and watch the rehearsals to make sure there were no sexual references.
“We got around it,” she said, with what became a signature phrase for the show, “vo-do-de-oh-do.” The phrase had been around for decades in music as a kind of rhythmic scat, but in Laverne & Shirley it was code for sexual encounters, frivolous or serious. Which the audience, of course, knew.
“I think,” said Williams, “using that phrase made it even more funny.”
Williams’s acting roles over the years covered a wide range, though she admitted that “There were times when people would say, ‘We can’t use you because you’re too recognizable.’ But I could always work in plays, for instance, because that’s a different category.”
In 2013 she and Marshall reunited to reprise Laverne and Shirley in an episode of Sam and Cat, a Nickelodeon series in which Jennette McCurdy and Ariana Grande played two young female buds not unlike Laverne and Shirley.
“When they approached us with the idea, Penny and I called each other and talked about it,” said Williams. “We said look, we’re out of shape and over our fighting weight for the physical comedy the show was known for. But we can still make it funny. So we did it.”
In the end, she suggested, she had a career she loved in a fluid business where the next step is almost always the unknown.
“In my head,” she said, “I’m always 19. My life is a work in progress. Do I wish I’d known when I was really 19 what I know today? I do. But I know it now. There’s complexity and humility at the same time. It’s joyful and painful. It’s been such a blessing.”