Cindy Williams to Speak
After “American Graffiti”
Interviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Meet Cindy Williams. You may think of her as Shirley Fenney, that cute, wacky sidekick of Laverne DeFazio.
Cindy’s the Grand Marshal for this year’s Fantasy Fest Parade. And she’ll be making a special appearance Friday night at the Tropic Cinema for a conversation with me and the audience following a special 7 p.m. showing of “American Graffiti.”
Like you, I grew up with Laverne and Shirley, those two Milwaukee roomies who worked as bottlecappers at the Shotz Brewery and hung out with geeky guys like Lenny, Squiggy, and Carmine. Even the Fonz made a few appearances.
Cindy and her pal Penny Marshall starred as the title characters on “Laverne and Shirley,” the popular television show that ran from 1976-1983. It was a spinoff of “Happy Days,” a TV show created by Penny’s brother Garry Marshall.
The girls were busily working as writing partners on a script for a never-produced song-and-dance movie titled “My Country Tis of Thee” when they got a call from Penny’s brother, saying “Happy Days” needed two fast girls who looked like they “dated the fleet” for an episode. They did the bit, then returned to their writing. A few weeks later they got a call saying the network liked the characters and wanted to do a spinoff. And just like that, Cindy and Penny were famous television stars.
“It was life-changing,” says Cindy Williams. “Going from obscurity to everybody knowing your face. Moving to the head of the line. One week borrowing money from your mother to pay the rent, the next you’re paying her mortgage. Being able to donate to charities and tithe in church. Being able to go out and buy a car.”
But Cindy heeded her mother’s advice: “You have to be levelheaded or you’ll wind up in the poorhouse.”
“She was right about that,” Cindy laughed, as we were reminiscing about those happy days. “I didn’t think that was gong to be the case, that I’d always be on top, but Henry Winkler gave me the heads-up that it didn’t work that way.”
Cindy still reflects that perky dark-haired, big-eyed girl who won America’s heart as Shirley Feeney. She’s fun to talk with. Particularly when recalling her early days of success.
Cindy stays in touch with her old friends. “I see Henry a lot,” she says. “Penny, too.” And she talks to Ron Howard (“Ronnie” to her) and others. As for Eddie Mekka (that’s Carmine “The Big Ragoo” Ragusa to you), she and he have appeared together in stage productions of “Grease” and “It Had to be You.” Coming up next is a production of “Beau Geste” together.
Cindy’s new book is titled “Shirley, I Jest.” She describes it as “little anecdotes about my life. Upbeat and fun and mirthful.”
In it, she recalls the time her grandmother bought a black-and-white television set. Four-year-old Cindy would watch “Search for Tomorrow,” “Arthur Godfrey Time,” and “Jackie Gleason.” She would act out the TV shows, even mimicking the Lucky Strike cigarette commercials.
It paid off. In high school she won a place in the talent contest by performing a Bob Newhart routine, “The Driving Instructor.” That led to school plays, along with a classmate named Sally Field. After studying at Los Angeles City College, waitressing jobs started to be replaced by roles in TV shows like “Barefoot in the Park” and “Nanny in the Professor.” That led to low-budget movie roles like that of a girl being eaten by a monster in “Beware the Blob.” Returning from Spain where she’d been shooting a small part in “Travels with My Aunt,” she got a call to audition for a movie by some new guy named George Lucas, a little film called “American Graffiti.” She was so tired from jetlag that she had to use the script when paired for a test with Ron Howard. She got the part and the remainder is history.
“American Graffiti” … “More American Graffiti” … “Happy Days” … “Laverne and Shirley” … Cindy Williams has always been attracted to nostalgia. Now she’s part of our memories.