New York Film Academy students came together in our Los Angeles campus theater to watch a compilation of scenes featuring actress Cindy Williams and then participate in a Q&A with the cultural icon. Moderating the Q&A were producer Tova Laiter and NYFA LA’s acting department chair Lynda Goodfriend, who co-starred on Happy Days with Williams as Lori Beth Cunningham, Ron Howard’s girlfriend then wife on the TV sitcom.
After college, Williams began her professional career by doing theater, waiting tables and landing important film roles early in her career including Ron Howard’s high school sweetheart in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). In 1975, Williams was cast as a fun-loving brewery worker, Shirley Feeney, in an episode of Happy Days, alongside Penny Marshall, who played her best friend and roommate Laverne De Fazio. The characters proved so popular that a spin-off featuring the characters, Laverne & Shirley was created and aired from 1976 until 1982. In 1990, Williams returned to series TV on CBS sitcom Normal Life and family sitcom Getting By (1993–94). She has guest starred on several television shows including, including two episodes of 8 Simple Rules, performed onstage including the national tours of Grease, and was originator/ a co-producer on the Steve Martin comedy film Father of the Bride and its sequel. Most recently, Cindy has authored the book “Shirley, I Jest!: A Storied Life,” an autobiographical recount of her funny and heartfelt journey from blue collar roots to unexpected stardom.
Cindy reminisced on her career, describing first how she fell in love first with the American theater in acting school. She had the incredible experience of working with legendary directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas early in her career. Williams went into great details describing the extremely different styles of each director but how they are geniuses in their own right–Francis Ford Coppola LOVES actors and eager to ask for their opinion and praise them while George Lucas is shy and laconic, rarely saying more to an actor than “Terrific,” after a take. Williams’ career path was unorthodox as she initially landed major film roles before transitioning into television. In the past, an actor was branded in either film or television and transitioning was rare. She even recalled being turned down for a particular film role by a director who recognized her from the Laverne and Shirley and dismissed her upon entering the room. Today, it is much more flexible as actors want to follow the good material.
As she applied for a director’s lab instead of acting, the program director put her in touch with an upcoming talent agent, Gary Marshall, who at the time was running a talent agency with Fred Roos, a casting director who went on to produce Francis Coppola films and cast her and client Harrison Ford in Lucas and Coppola movies. Then, Gary Marshall became the creator of many hit TV sitcoms including Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. This was the twist of fate that would change Cindy’s life forever. Cindy told the audience, “This is how things in life happen, and don’t let anyone ever tell you any different. One day something will just plop right down in front of you.”
Williams gave extensive insight into the traditional TV sitcom multi-camera process from her experience on Laverne & Shirley. The cast, director, writers and producers would arrive to set on Monday to do a table read of the script and perhaps block a scene or two. On Tuesday, they were given a new script based on notes the writers made during the table read and they would rough out the blocking of all the scenes on stage. On Wednesday, they were given another script with changes from the previous day’s notes, and the actors would begin setting the blocking in stone by laying marks for themselves. On Thursday, the cast and crew received yet another script and the cameramen were included this time to learn the blocking and lay marks for camera. On Friday, yes one final version of the script arrived, and the actors would perform the episode with cameras rolling in front of a live studio audience. Cindy loved this form of TV because its process is so closely linked to acting in plays, particularly the fact that she feeds off the live audience’s reaction.
Cindy Williams was so entertaining and funny as she recounted her amazing career. In fact, she had the audience in stitches most of the time. Not only is she an incredible actress but a top-notch storyteller. Her new autobiographical book “Shirley, I Jest!: A Storied Life” is sure to be a fun ride.
We sincerely thank Cindy Williams for visiting the New York Film Academy and wish her luck on whatever exciting step she takes next on her adventure.