A not-so-funny thing happened to Cindy Williams on her way to the Wick Theatre.
Not only did the comedienne most closely associated with the long-running sitcom Laverne & Shirley contract the deadly virus — she’s fine now — but the production of Nunsense that would bring her to Boca Raton had to be canceled.
As Williams recalls, it was Dan Goggin, the creator of Nunsense, who came up with a Plan B. “He got the bright idea, since we couldn’t have a lot of performers onstage, why don’t you do your one-woman show?”
The only problem was she didn’t have one. So Williams and her producer-manager sifted through old Laverne & Shirley re-runs, her 2015 memoir Shirley, I Jest!, and her recollections of the rest of her career. The result is a slides-and-videos-filled evening, dubbed Me, Myself & Shirley, having its world premiere at The Wick this Thursday and running through June 27.
Researching her half-century in show business, “I found myself going, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’ When I was in the middle of it, there didn’t seem to be a flow to it. Then when you step outside of yourself, and have to become that audience, you go ‘Wow, I did all that?’,” says the 73-year-old Williams.
Laverne & Shirley happened by accident, albeit a fortuitous one. Williams and Penny Marshall were writers on the staff of Happy Days when producer Garry Marshall – Penny’s brother – needed a pair of lively performers to play a fun-loving brewery bottle capper (Shirley Feeney) and her best friend and roommate (Laverne De Fazio), who were to be “sure-thing” dates of Richie (Ron Howard) and Potsie (Anson Williams). The audience response was so strong for the two women that they had their own spinoff show faster than you can say “Schlemiel-schlimazel.”
She accepts that most of her fans only know her as Shirley Feeney, despite an extensive résumé beyond that show. “But there’s nothing wrong with that,” Williams says. “That is a blessing, but I see your point, they might be surprised that I was in all these other things.”
At 24, she appeared opposite Maggie Smith in Travels with My Aunt, directed by the legendary George Cukor. A year later, she was part of a soon-to-be-stars ensemble comedy in George Lucas’s American Graffiti, for which Williams earned a British Oscars nomination. And after seeing her in that movie, Francis Ford Coppola cast her as a woman under audio surveillance in The Conversation, arguably Williams’s finest dramatic work on film.
But the role that got away from her, the one that would have changed the trajectory of her career, is Princess Leia in the original Star Wars.
“Just recently I was thinking, ‘Wow, if I had done that, so much would have opened to me.’ But I wasn’t meant to do that, because it didn’t happen.
“George (Lucas) had us all on the set of ‘American Graffiti’ and he was telling us about this movie that he was writing next. He said, ‘It’s about teenagers in outer space who save the galaxy.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, that will never happen.’ But he did say, ‘You all could be in it.’ He was pointing to Ronny and Richard Dreyfuss and me.
“Because I had ‘Laverne and Shirley’ at that time, I didn’t mourn not getting Princess Leia. But I just sucked. No, I didn’t even suck. I didn’t have the intensity or the dynamic to even suck in the screen test. I screen-tested with Frederick Forrest, who I was in ‘The Conversation’ with, and both of us looked at the script and went, ‘What is all this?’ Who knew?”
The other reason she did not mind losing the role of Princess Leia was that Williams yearned to do comedy, particularly physical comedy. “I always wanted to play comedy, but I was always cast as the ingenue’s best friend and confidante. And I kept saying, ‘I play comedy. Hey, over here, I can play comedy.’”
“Then ‘Laverne & Shirley’ happened, and still I had to fight to play the kind of comedy I wanted. The first season they basically wrote me as, ‘Aw, c’mon, Laverne …’ I was the best friend and confidante. I kept complaining to Garry (Marshall) and eventually they wrote this scene where I pull a vacuum cleaner off her lips. I wanted to put my foot on her chest and pull, but I couldn’t get my leg up that high.”
As time went on and the writers of the sitcom got to know Williams, they would add her personality traits to the character of Shirley. “They’d catch little nuances and they’d write them into the character,” she says. “Like I do observe things and I will correct people, like she was always correcting Laverne.”
And surprisingly, Williams concedes that in the latter seasons of the show, she and Marshall were not getting along. “Oh, we fought all the time,” she says. “We’re very different people and exactly alike all at the same time. But we never took it to the stage. When we hit the stage, you couldn’t slip a playing card between us. But we were very, very different. She used to call me ‘the schoolmarm.’ I am like Shirley like that, but I’m not really.”
Things could be abrasive between them offstage, “but we were best friends. I’d go over to her house and sit and we’d watch TV together. We loved each other and sometimes want to kick the poop out of each other.
“But we always agreed on what was funny. That was always our goal. That was paramount, to make the audience laugh out loud.”
And that is the goal of Me, Myself & Shirley, concludes Williams. Her wish for the audience? “Hopefully they’ll laugh out loud and have a whole bunch of fun.”
Me, Myself & Shirley, The Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Thursday, June 10– Sunday, June 27. $75-$95. 561-995-2333, or visit thewick.org.