Cindy Williams on performing before a live audience: "I just love having the audience there with me. I love us all being together. I love that room."
PHOTOGRAPHS BY AMY PASQUANTONIO
Desert Hot Springs resident Cindy Williams became a household name when she costarred opposite the late Penny Marshall as the title characters in the 1950s-set sitcom Laverne & Shirley. Before the series premiered in 1976, the actress had already established herself as an endearing presence in other television programs, such as Love, American Style and Happy Days, where she and Marshall introduced their working-class characters. Their appearance as the brewery bottle-capper roommates was so popular that it led to the hit spinoff series.
By this time, Williams had already made a big impact in a number of feature films. She had costarred with Maggie Smith in director George Cukor’s whimsical Travels with My Aunt in 1972. The following year she played alongside a number of soon-to-be famous actors, including Ron Howard, Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, and Suzanne Somers in George Lucas’ period comedy (and enormous blockbuster) American Graffiti, which was nominated for the best picture Oscar and helped usher in a spate of nostalgic films in the early 1970s. In 1974, Williams had a small, but pivotal role opposite Gene Hackman in the paranoia thriller, The Conversation, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and another best picture nominee.
Then Williams landed big on the small screen in her hit sitcom, which was broadcast from 1976 until 1983, although the actress was mostly absent during the final season due to her pregnancy.
Since she left her series, Williams has largely concentrated on a very impressive career on the stage. She’s performed before live audiences in tours of Grease, Nunsense, and on the Great White Way in the hit musical The Drowsy Chaperone. After publishing her rollicking memoir, Shirley, I Jest!, in 2015, Williams realized she has even more fascinating stories to share which led to her solo show Me, Myself and Shirley.
Williams will perform Me, Myself, and Shirley at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Annenburg Theater, January 20-22. For tickets, click HERE. She spoke beforehand with Palm Springs Life about her iconic sitcom, her acting career, and her passion for the desert.
Laverne & Shirley was a huge hit out of the gate. Why do you think it resonated so strongly and instantly with TV viewers?
Because we were every man and there's something in it for everyone. I talk about this in the show: They had built this set for us. It was like The Mary Tyler Moore Show set. It was beautiful with wall-to-wall carpeting.
That sounds like an upscale home for two girls who work in a brewery.
We argued with the producers and said, "These are blue collar workers, and if the wolf isn't always nipping at their heels, and if they don't have that struggle of having to piece the rent together, pay the electric bill, then the show's no fun. The show is over."
We got our way with the set and then we got our way with the writing. We had already played the characters on Happy Days, and they were bottle cappers. They were relatable to everyone, and they had to stay that way. Penny and I were sort of the guardians of that.
Is it true that you and Penny first met on a double date?
Yes, and I talk about that in the show. We'd never met, but I loved her. I'd seen her around. She was dating Rob Reiner. My date Fred, who was friends with Rob, and I were invited to see Liza Minnelli at the Coconut Grove and Little Richard was opening for her.
What an unforgettable way to meet.
Little Richard loved us, and he didn't know who we were. We had to go through his dressing room to get to Liza Minnelli's dressing room after the show, because we were invited backstage. He stopped us and wanted to say a prayer over us.
I have some friends who are hardcore Laverne & Shirley fans, and they want to know if you got to keep your character’s beloved stuffed animal, Boo Boo Kitty.
Yes, I have Boo Boo Kitty. You can tell them that if I ever see them and I have Boo Boo Kitty, they're allowed to hold him.
In the early '70s, your career was on fire with a number of really successful, Oscar-nominated films. You worked with A-list directors like George Cukor, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. What are your memories of working with Cukor and Maggie Smith on Travels with my Aunt?
George Cukor was, or as I knew him when I was 22, was Mr. Cukor Sir.
I was so surprised he hired me. It was amazing working with him and Maggie. She was ever so kind to me and has one of the greatest senses of humor. She was just as splendid a person as you can imagine her.
You then made American Graffiti, which was one of the zeitgeist films of the 1970s and you received a British Academy Award nomination for it. Did you realize you were making such a special movie?
We all thought we were doing like a Roger Corman hot rod movie. There were no dressing rooms, no hair and makeup. George described it to Ron Howard and me as a musical when he met with us before we did the movie. Two weeks in, George invited us all to San Francisco, where he was editing. He showed us a 20-minute assemblage of the movie that he had edited together with music. By the time it was over, there was dead silence in the room except for Harrison. He turned and said, "This is frickin' great." He didn't say frickin'.
The movie was a huge success. What did it mean to your career?
It certainly jump-started a part of it. It was a pinnacle of my career. It was the big start of it.
George must have been impressed with you. You auditioned to play Princess Leia in Star Wars.
I show the audition in the show, and I talk about George talking to the cast while we were making American Graffiti about having this little space movie he was going to do. I don't want to give the story away.
How did you feel moving from such a busy film career to a sitcom at that time? Not a lot of people did it. Did you feel like it compromised your film career?
No, it was the end of it. I remember I was up for a big film, and I was doing Laverne & Shirley, and they had me in and said, "We'd hire you, but you're too recognizable as Shirley" and I realized that was the end of it. But, what a way to go. What a way to end a film career, with a fabulous television series.
Did you enjoy playing to a live studio audience more?
I'd much rather play to that audience. Not that I don't love film audiences, I'm not saying that. I should just say the temperament of our audience was so much fun. They weren't looking to criticize you. They weren't looking to do anything but have fun. Penny and I always figured if it made us laugh in rehearsal, it would make the audience laugh. We were right. We were not acknowledged by our peers, but we didn't care. I mean, we had a bigger purpose, and that was to make everybody laugh.
During the series, you starred in a film titled The First Nudie Musical. I have an old movie magazine in which a fan wrote in that she was indignant that “that nice Cindy Williams made a porno film.” Except for some nudity from other cast members, it’s a rather innocent comedy, like a Mel Brooks-type send-up of adult movies.
It's risqué, but it's not ... No, it was all my friends from school, from the theater arts department at Los Angeles City College. Bruce [Kimmel, the director and screenwriter] thought pornography was so silly, so he wanted to do a spoof, send it up. I play the secretary who ends up having to dance and sing. People magazine called me “Little Miss Filth Mouth.”
I watched a pilot you starred in for a series version of Steel Magnolias, which I wish had been picked up for a series.
Oh, wasn't it wonderful? We shot it where it took place, in Natchitoches, Louisiana. You know, because Bobby Harling [the writer] was there and we had dinner at his mother's house because he wrote it about his sister. He wrote that show. But they wouldn't let us do it in the end because they had another big Southern show that was competing with it. I'm not going to name names.
Besides your current tour, you’ve created an impressive stage resume over the years. What do you enjoy most about performing on stage in front of a live audience?
I just love having the audience there with me. I love us all being together. I love that room. There's nothing like it and hearing their response and knowing that you're working for them. And that they're all there and everybody's happy and enjoying themselves, which is far and few between these days.
You recently hosted the Food Now food bank event in Palm Springs. Why is this organization important to you?
In my mind and my heart, I can't understand how anyone in America is hungry, especially children. I live in Desert Hot Springs and that's where Food Now originates. They send children, who have food insecurity in their households, home with backpacks for the weekend filled with healthy food to get them through so they don't come in on Monday morning and have that thing where the teacher is vying for their attention because they've been hungry all weekend.
You reside in Desert Hot Springs. What do you enjoy most about living there?
I've been living here in Desert Hot Springs for about 10 years. I've always come to the desert. I had a house in Palm Springs for years. I started really coming down here during Laverne & Shirley. I leased a house and my friends, and I would pack up and come down here on the weekends. I just love it down here. I love Desert Hot Springs. I love all about the communities down here. The desert calls its people, somebody once said. There's a certain place that when you're driving from L.A. to Palm Springs, where honest to goodness, everything is taken off your shoulders and you just step into another world. It's a wonderful, beautiful world.
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