The role of Shirley Feeney came just in time for Cindy Williams.
Although she’d been acclaimed, and received award nominations, for her work in movies such as “American Graffiti” and “The Conversation,” directed by powerhouses George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, she went through a period when she was not being offered roles and considered putting her acting career on hold to move from Hollywood to Eugene, Oregon to take a job as a waitress.
“I couldn’t be a waitress in L.A.,” Williams says by telephone from her California home. “I was too recognizable from the movies. So, Eugene, Oregon was my intended destination.”
Williams recounts how she received a call from Garry Marshall to do what was supposed to be a one-time guest shot on the Number One television series of the time (a time before cable and hundreds of channels), “Happy Days.”
“Garry enlisted his sister, Penny Marshall, and me, to play sure-fire dates for Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and Richie (Ron Howard). We weren’t meant to be regulars, but our characters became so popular, we were written into more scripts.”
Those scripts led to an ABC spinoff, “Laverne and Shirley,” that matched and even eclipsed “Happy Days” in the rating. Williams was established as Shirley Feeney, queen of the bottle corkers in a Milwaukee brewery.
“Laverne and Shirley” influenced Williams’s career, although she has done other stage and television work, and remains popular in rerun on various cable stations.
Though grateful to be acting and spared the relocation to Oregon, she struggled with the 1970’s situation that movie actors resisted doing television.
“Today, the biggest movie stars kill to be in television series. When I began in the movies, going to television was considered a demotion. Movie actors would hold out as long as they could from doing television. I thought of it as the wrong career move. In my mind, I could never ‘deign’ to do it.
“But my career hit a dry spell. I was elated when Garry called. I liked the part, and ‘Happy Days’ was a huge hit. Circumstances told me to ‘deign.’ Looking back, I’m so glad Shirley came along when she did and that I became so identified with her. It all turned out to be positive. I have no regrets, only gratitude.”
Anecdotes from “Laverne and Shirley,” and other stories about Cindy Williams’s life and career, including her audition with George Lucas for the part of Princess Leia in “Star Wars,” are the basis for a 90-minute one-woman show Williams will perform on Saturday and Sunday at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse.
Writing the show, “Me, Myself, and Shirley,” kept Williams occupied during the COVID shutdown. It was one of the things she was told she should do, wanted to, and finally found time to do when faced with a period when most of the world was at a standstill.
“I was set to do ‘Nunsense,’ and was in the middle of another show when every stopped.”
Working, Williams says, is what she does. “I’d love to tell you about my achievements in cooking and gardening,” she says in response to a question about what she enjoys in her leisure time, “but I have been working since I was a teenager. When I wasn’t acting, I was writing or producing. Putting together ‘Me, Myself, and Shirley’ was a blessing. I spent the quarantine doing what I like best.”
Williams was cautious not to give away all she will present at Bucks County Playhouse, but she is a breezy conversationalist and said how she will talk about “Laverne and Shirley” as well as the movies she made, and the relationship she had with several of the contemporaries, such as “Happy Days” stars Howard and Winkler and “American Graffiti co-stars such as Howard and Richard Dreyfuss.
The show is not just talk.
“After a brief introduction to welcome the audience, there’s a song,” Williams says. There are also clips and pictures from the various part of her career.
“My purpose was to keep everything light-hearted and to provide as many laughs as I can in a 90-minute show. The song is a resume of my career. Among the people who helped me was Danny Goggin, who created ‘Nunsense’ and its sequels. I worked with people over the telephone and on Zoom, but we got it done.”
“It” includes Williams talking about some “B” movies she made, such as “Beware the Blob” and “The Kelly Kid,” and titles she says are a ‘mouthful.’
Shirley, from “Laverne and Shirley” is one of the title characters in the show.
Before Shirley existed, Williams had already met her on-screen partner, Penny Marshall, who played Laverne.
“Penny and I knew each other before we were cast on ‘Happy Days,’” Williams says. “The first time we met was a on a blind date, sort of like Laverne and Shirley with Fonzie and Richie. We were paired with two guys who took us to the Coconut Grove to see that natural combination, Little Richard and Liza Minnelli.
“Later we were both hired as writers for a comedy special about the Bicentennial. They wanted women in the writers’ room, and Penny and I were hired. Each pair of writers was assigned a different sketch. Ours was about ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee.’
“It never aired because we got the call from Garry about ‘Happy Days,’ and for the next long while, I was Shirley Feeney.”
Asked the de rigueur question about whether being Shirley for eight seasons affected her being chosen to to do other work, Williams was to the point.
“Of course it did. No matter what I was considered for or wanted to do, everyone saw Shirley. I never got the opportunity to make the transition my high school classmate, Sally Field, did.
“It never made me sad or angry. I understood the situation. I even did another series (“Getting By”), but Shirley was an indelible part of my identity.
“I worked on stage. I came to Philadelphia in ‘Deathtrap’ with Elliott Gould and was in New Hope before the pandemic in ‘Middletown,’ with Donny Most, Didi Conn, and Adrian Zmed. On Broadway, I replaced Joanne Worley who replaced Georgia Engel in “The Drowsy Chaperone.’ I also did a lot of guest spots on television.”
Williams also co-produced the 1991 remake of the movie classic, “Father of the Bride” starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton. (A second remake is due out this year on Amazon Prime.)
Acting was not Williams’s first ambition.
“In my early teens, I wanted to be a nurse.
“I don’t know how I missed that I liked performing. From my childhood, I remember writing skits and imitating sketches Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar did on ‘Your Show of Shows.’
“I didn’t think about becoming an actress until I was in high school and auditioned for shows. The school was in Hollywood, so there were classes beyond being in productions. Sally Field got all of the leads, but I enjoyed performing and absorbing all I could from some wonderful teachers.
“I was not interested in academics, and when I graduated, I got parts in series like ‘Room 222’ and ‘Love American Style,’ and then came the movies.
“Except for that period just before ‘Laverne and Shirley,’ when I thought acting was a thing of the past, I’ve worked constantly. From high school on, with one down period and a stint in a writers’ room, I’ve been able to keep active in television and on stage.
“Now, there’s ‘Me, Myself, and Shirley,’ so the story goes on.”
‘Factual’ election ads
While doing some personal research to prepare for next month’s Pennsylvania primary elections, I happened across a type of story and style of reporting I hadn’t seen for a while and welcomed.
Matt Barcaro, a reporter for WGAL-TV, Channel 8 in Lancaster, took on a once popular, now old-fashioned, task of checking the televised ads of political candidates for whether they are factual.
It wasn’t only the return to enterprise that impressed about Barcaro. His report was thorough and helpful. Even when something potentially damaging proved factual, the context Barcaro provided put that matter into clear, unbiased perspective, via a transcript or footage from the mentioned incident, truly giving the viewer and the voter useful information. I can tell you, in my case, it gave me insight and led to my determining for whom I intend to vote.
Also admirable in Barcaro’s segment was his total neutrality.
Barcaro took a “Dragnet” approach, the checked facts, ma’am, just the checked facts. He never imposed an opinion or attitude that might show his preference or disdain. That alone is priceless in these days of partisan headlines and of TV newspeople falling over themselves to be fashionably politically correct.
The piece I saw reviewed an ad by Republican contender, Mehmet Oz, in which he attacked his prime rival, Dave McCormick. Two thirds of what Oz claimed, according to Barcaro’s investigation, proved to be true.
Learning that provoked some thought on my part, not necessarily concluding in the direction Oz and his ad agency might have desired.
What made Barcaro’s report different in a positive way from most stories I’ve seen about fact-checking is he found and aired the McCormick speech that supported Oz’s criticism while also letting his audience know the speech was from 2005, when McCormick was working in the George W. Bush administration, and not from 2015 as is either misprinted or intentionally misinforming in the Oz ad.
Again, the piece included content and context without spin. It was good, solid, refreshing reporting that covered all key bases and left decisions to the viewer.
Other stations and reporters might be doing fact-check spots as the primary comes closer and as some of the candidates without the resources of Oz or McCormick begin to afford and purchase TV time. (Besides Oz and McCormick, the Republican field includes Kathy Barnette, Jeff Bartos, Sean Gale, Carla Sands, and others. Democrat front-runners John Fetterman and Conor Lamb are already airing ads.)
So far, I haven’t seen any fact-checks, and I would not have seen Barcaro’s if it hadn’t popped up as a choice on Google when I looked up each of the “R” candidates’ web sites.
Should any local station venture into fact-checking the various ads, I suggest they look at Barcaro’s work as an example of how such a report should be done, particularly when it comes to objectivity.
Barcaro is on family leave from WGAL until the end of the month, but I will return to Google to see anything else he’s aired during this primary season and to look for his resumed spots as the primary comes closer.
Neal Zoren’s television column appears every Monday.