To most people, the actress Cindy Williams, who died on Wednesday at age 75, was synonymous with Shirley Feeney of the hit 1970s and ’80s sitcom “Laverne & Shirley,” a spinoff of “Happy Days” about two unattached women in the 1950s and ’60s. But Williams was much more than that character. She had serious dramatic chops, as evidenced in her early film work. And as a comic actor, she demonstrated a Lucille Ball-like ability to combine sweetness and slapstick.
Still, Shirley was a career-defining role — a lively, sometimes demure, sometimes daring bottle-capper at Shotz Brewery, in Milwaukee. The show resurrected a vintage style of zany comedy that freed up Williams and her co-star, Penny Marshall, to act both more adult and more childish at the same time. Audiences ate it up, and the show ran for eight seasons.
Of the two lead characters, Shirley was the more relatable, restrained of the two, which made her moments of cutting loose just that much more memorable: Watch her hungry and diving for food on the floor in “Guinea Pigs” (Season 2, Episode 14); going agro in “Tag Team Wrestling” (Season 3, Episode 2); drunk-crawling across the dinner table in “Shirley and the Older Man” (Season 4, Episode 24); or panicking while chained to a giant computer, in protest of the local power company, in “The Right to Light” (Season 5, Episode 17).
Since much of her best work was steeped in nostalgia, it seems only fitting to look back at a few career highlights, with some tips on where to stream them.
‘American Graffiti’ (1973)
In this hit boys-coming-of-age movie from George Lucas that set off a wave of 1950s and ’60s nostalgia (see “Happy Days,” two years later), Cindy Williams pulled off the difficult trick of standing out in a stardom-bound cast that includes Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford and Ron Howard. In it, Williams plays a high-school head cheerleader who is losing her class-president boyfriend (Howard) as he heads off to college. In one great scene, he proposes that they see other people while he’s away; in an even better one, set at a school dance, she breaks the news to him that she has always been the controlling force in their relationship. You might be tempted to follow this memorable pair into adulthood in the sequel “More American Graffiti,” but don’t bother — it’s better if they stay 17 forever. (Read the original review of “American Graffiti” here.)
Rent it on Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube and other major platforms.
‘The Conversation’ (1974)
In her earliest roles, Williams was often cast as a best friend or ingénue — a sweet slip of a girl and not much more. But in this paranoid thriller from Francis Ford Coppola, she showed us something darker. Playing one half of a young couple being covertly recorded by Gene Hackman’s security pro Harry Caul, Williams sounds at first — on audio tape — like the embodiment of innocence. But as Harry applies filters to clean up his recordings, the carefully nuanced nature of Williams’s line readings slowly becomes clear, and we’re left wondering whether her character might be the spider in this web of deceit. (Read the original review here.)
Stream it on Showtime; rent it on most major platforms.
‘Happy Days’ (1975)
Season 3, Episode 10: ‘A Date With Fonzie’
Following her dramatic turn in “The Conversation,” Williams was tapped to join her comedy-writing partner, Penny Marshall, in what was intended to be a one-time guest appearance on this popular sitcom set in the 1950s. In the episode’s story line, Fonzie (Henry Winkler) enlists Laverne (Marshall) and Shirley (Williams) to go on a double date with him and Richie (Howard), for whom Shirley was thought to be an easy conquest. Williams had a relaxed chemistry with Howard (who played her boyfriend in “American Graffiti”), but this time, her character got to enjoy herself. The Shirley persona freed Williams up: She was funny, cute and sexy, and she had a mean right hook. Naturally, Richie — and the audience — wanted to see more of her and her bestie, which in TV-world meant a spinoff featuring the twosome was in order.
Stream it on Paramount+.
‘Laverne & Shirley’
Season 5, Episode 25 (‘The Diner’)
“Laverne & Shirley” helped fine-tune a certain type of sitcom convention — the female duo, the “hangout” comedy — but if you want to do a deep dive, stick with Seasons 1 to 5. Once Laverne and Shirley move from Milwaukee to California in Season 6, the quality declines.
For one of the funniest episodes, head over to “The Diner,” where the gals (briefly) take over the diner left to Lenny (Michael McKean) by his late uncle Lazlo (renamed Dead Lazlo’s Place, where you can get a Dead Lazlo Burger). It’s got the physical comedy: Laverne cooks and Shirley serves, resorting to carrying items to tables with her mouth. It’s also got some of the best lines, especially when the customers don’t even have the decency to call Shirley by her right name. You’ll want to plead, along with Laverne, “Please don’t harass Betty, please!”
Stream much of Season 1 to 5 free on Pluto; bootlegs of individual episodes are easy to find online.
Season 4, Episode 3: ‘Playing the Roxy’
One of the best things about Season 4 is how many Shirley-centric episodes there are. In “Playing the Roxy,” the gal pals were reading a trashy story about a stripper before Shirley hits her head; suddenly, she believes she is that stripper, the best exotic dancer in North America. If Shirley’s body is a temple, Roxy’s is an amusement park — and Williams throws herself into the role with gusto, practicing bumps and grinds against a doorframe before staging an elaborate burlesque performance. If anything signaled that Williams wasn’t content to play it safe, it was this.
Season 4, Episode 7: ‘A Date With Eraserhead’
Granted, some of the sitcom’s plots are outlandish and require a suspension of disbelief. But then, occasionally, some are incredibly realistic. What would your best friend do if she believed your boyfriend was cheating on you? In “A Date With Eraserhead,” Laverne confronts Shirley’s beau, Carmine (Eddie Mekka), on her friend’s behalf (“I’ll hold him, you hit him”), only to learn that the couple has “an understanding” — that’s to say, an open relationship. This episode may not have the usual comic centerpiece, but it feels more true to the relationships at the core of the series, and Williams gets to show a few sides of Shirley that we might not have suspected were there, including heartbreak, jealousy and perhaps even love.