Cindy Williams on Laverne & Shirley | The Backlot Podcast | NYFA

The Backlot Podcast: Cindy Williams

  • Cindy Williams
  • How to Get into the Film Industry
  • Francis Ford Coppola
  • Limited by the “Best Friend” Role
  • Switching from Television to Film
  • Laverne and Shirley
  • Importance of a Studio Audience
  • Owning Your Role
  • Williams’ True Love: Being on Stage
  • Williams’ Best Advice: Pursue It
  • Conclusion & Goodbye

Cindy Williams

Eric: Hi I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you Cindy Williams the star of the famed sitcom Laverne and Shirley

— and she’d say, “do know your lines?” and I go, “No.” Do you know yours?” She said, “No.” And so, “action!” And we’d just go out.–

Eric: She also acted for two of the best directors of all time on two of the best films of the 70s. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. And George Lucas’ American Graffiti if that’s not enough for you. She even helped produce the remake of Father of the Bride starring Steve Martin.

— I’m quitting Mr. Slotnik I’m the brains behind that basket.

I’m telling you it’s a jungle out there. We oughta take a cage and just put it around this place. These people are ugly!

Those hills do not make her perky they make her junky!

Boy, you just stepped straight off the bus right into filth town didn’t you?

I don’t approve of this hitting I find it inhuman and only mildly exciting —

Eric: Ms. Williams actually got her start the same way most actors do, by performing for her family.

Cindy Williams: I always could mimic. My grandma was the first one on the block when we lived in Texas to get a television and I was mesmerized by it. And I would watch anything and everything and I would mimic commercials like Lucky Strike commercials. They had a girl dancing you didn’t see – you just saw her legs and arms and there was a hat on top of a lucky strike box and she danced and they sing the little commercial song. And I would sing the song and mimic. And I always put on with my sister shows in the garage. I’m sure all you guys did things like that or made little movies. So, I always had a love for it but I never ever thought of it seriously as oh this is going to be my career this is going to be my life. I wanted to be an E.R. nurse actually but I didn’t have the academic wherewithal. I was a C student all the way through school because I’m dyslexic. And in my drama class was this wonderful actress and her name was Sally Field. And at 15 she was brilliant. And so I did plays that Sally and I were in and we’d do A cast B cast because there were too many students to put you know so you do two performances. I was always B cast and she was always A cast. And A cast got to do like four performances and B cast, three.

So a lot of the students who were in the class were going to this wonderful school called Los Angeles City College which has an incredible theater arts department and I thought, “OK I’ll go there.” And so I did. And very tough curriculum. In fact during orientation day one of the professors said there are two hundred thirty six of you here today. By the end of two and a half years there will be 12 of you. And that’s how they weeded people out. I mean you-you were tardy three times out! You didn’t get your – you didn’t have your scene work done out, goodbye, gone! But they did incredible theater, incredible productions. So that was a big deal. But by the time we finished there I just garnered incredible love for theater. I love being on stage but I thought I was going to go on to teach except one day I was in a class and professor and we were in the main theater and the stage was there and the curtains and we were sitting in the you know in the seats in the auditorium. And he was talking about theater being bigger than life and up to this point I had thought you know, I’ll go and I’ll get my B.A. and I’ll teach theater. And then I had this vision of myself, my students rehearsing the production and me walking down the center aisle crawling up onto the apron pushing them all out of the way and saying, “Let me show you how to do this.” And I thought I could never teach I could never ever teach because I love doing it. And so that was the end of my of my teaching career.

Eric: For everything that Ms. Williams learned in school, there were still two things that she was not taught: the intricacies of breaking into the film industry and that sometimes you need a bit of luck.

How to Get into the Film Industry

Cindy Williams: In Los Angeles City College. They do not teach you. You know they put you out the back door and they did not prepare you for film. They didn’t prepare you how to get an agent, or how to even work. They prepared you to go and audition for regional theater or Broadway. And that was it. And so you just live on your youthful enthusiasm knowing you can do it and so that was kind of it. And I also thought well lightening better strike because I don’t know what I’m doing so I just went on this journey. But you have youthful optimism and you know you feel as though the world -it’s all in front of you. And it is. Believe me. And there’s nothing you can’t do. And I felt that way. And you know you get knocked down to the ground you just pick yourself up dust yourself off, start all over again. And that’s kind of how that aspect of my life played itself out. And as far as getting a job I had this roommate she was in this program for AFI. It was called young filmmakers or something. And I was waiting tables and she said, “hey Cindy, you know maybe you could go and get in this program.” So I went there and I met with them and they said, “you know, this is really a program for filmmakers and you’re an actress.” And I said, “yes, but you know I think I could write, and I could direct, and put myself in it.” And they said, “no, no, this isn’t for you what we have.” And this is how things work. You’re just – one day something’s plopped down in your lap – and it’s just that magical thing. And so they said, “we’re going to set up an interview for you.” These two men are starting a management company and the names were Fred Roos and Garry Marshall. And so I went to meet them. And I remember Garry said to Fred Roos who produced the Godfather and many many many other things he said. “I like her she’s like a pudgy Barbara Harris.” And I loved Barbara Harris! So I took it as a great compliment. And so then it sort of spun from there.

Eric: It didn’t take long before Ms. Williams found herself working for the likes of Coppola and Lucas. And there was one time she even had to put in a good word to help none other than Harrison Ford land the role that made him a star.

Cindy Williams: Harrison Ford in American Graffiti made four hundred dollars a week for four weeks and he was working as a carpenter and that’s a real success story. And for Han Solo, we begged George to cast him. Because he was such a bad boy on American Graffiti that George was a little reluctant about Harry because he just, you know – I screen tested for it. It was miserable because it was all looking to the right of the camera. That’s what George said. He said, “you’re looking at the universe. You’re steering the ship.” I go, “the ship. OK where’s the wheel?” And it was like all this dialogue about you know, galactic dialogue. And nobody could get it. And George is not exactly a people person. I believe if George could have robots playing, you know, and I think he’s discussed this with Steven Spielberg actually, and he’s very shy and retiring and his genius is all in his whole perception of what he wants on screen. And so you can say, “you know can I try it this way? – Absolutely”! Like the scene in American Graffiti where Ron and I had to make out and go and and we were both so nervous. And I said, “George, how about if we just go out of camera down onto the seat?” and he said, “Yeah.” And that’s how we did it. But George will never tell you anything. It was a joke which Ron and myself we’d say, “George, how was it?” And he’d say, “terrific!” And if you ever ask Ron Howard what George Lucas says the most, it’s “terrific, terrific.”

Eric: Despite being frequent collaborators. Ms. Williams explained that George Lucas’s directing style was vastly different from Francis Ford Coppola’s

Francis Ford Coppola

Cindy Williams: Francis is your quintessential director and he’s operatic. you know. I mean. you know. you’re in a movie with Francis and he loves actors loves them and admires them reveres them and he’s so intelligent. He’ll ask his actors what they think of this scene for the conversation he said, “Who do you think did it?” And all of us said, “you haven’t written the end yet?” and he goes, “No, I haven’t.” And we said, “Holy crap!” But he is just so much bigger than life. He’s like – I don’t know – somebody like Michelangelo or somebody. He’s just a great great artist and he will direct you. And I had this tough thing he asked me to do in the conversation. And I said, “I don’t know how to do this.” And it was a turn. He wanted me to turn and look at Gene Hackman with a look of “if you come toward me any closer I’ll disappear into this fog and you’ll never find me.” And I thought, “OK how do I?” It goes back to interpreting that through your body. And I said, “Francis I don’t know how to do this. I just don’t know.” And he thought for a minute and he said, “when he’s chasing you take every step except the last one. And then when you take the last step turn to him.” And that body movement propelled me into that look. It just gave that indication of “I will be gone if you come any closer to me.” And he just turned it like that. And the other thing he did in the beginning of the conversation – it’s the scene in Union Square. He went to each and every one of them and took them aside and gave them each characters to play. And that’s why when you see the opening of this movie it is so rich. And that’s how he is he just rich with just creation.

Eric: Even though she was working on some incredible projects, Ms. Williams felt limited by the best friend role that she kept getting. A trend which finally changed when she was cast as Shirley.

Cindy Williams: I was always cast, in the beginning, as a lead’s best friend. “Oh, don’t worry Monica. Johnny’ll be coming back to ya. You’ll see.” And it was always stuff like that and I never got to play comedy which I loved and like in American Graffiti I said, “Oh please Fred, this girl cries the entire time. There’s no fun. I want to play Debbie, the bad girl.” And he said, “already cast” and I said, “Well then, what about Carol?” He said, “The 12-year-old?” And I said, “I could put braces on my teeth.” He said, “I’m actually casting a 12-year-old in that part.” So I know I could do physical comedy. I knew I could do comedy and I wanted to play it so badly. I mean we did the Imaginary Invalid in college but that’s not really comedy. It’s like restoration humor. But no, I never got to. And even when we did Laverne and Shirley I had to beg Garry because he let me do humor but he kept saying, “No, you’re a nice one, you’re the solid one. You know, you have your head screwed on straight. You keep Laverne, you know, steady.” And I said, “Yeah but you know that physical comedy, I can do that.” And he wouldn’t let me do it; wouldn’t let me do it. And finally I must have dogged him so much that he said, “all right I’m going to write you something. We’ll see how you do and that’ll be the measuring point.” So he wrote me this little thing where we’re cleaning house. I believe that’s it. And she gets the vacuum cleaner stuck on her mouth and she can’t – and I come to the room and it was just written, “Shirley gets vacuum cleaner off of Laverne’s mouth.” So he just wanted to see what I ‘d invent to get it off of her mouth and I think I finally just put my foot up to her chest and pulled then he started writing physical comedy for me. Yeah, so, Laverne and Shirley was just such a blessing for me.

Eric: Though we’re in a golden age of television right now. TV used to be viewed as a step down from the glamour of film. So Ms Williams was initially unsure about taking a TV role even after she was offered a part in the original Charlie’s Angels.

Cindy Williams: This sounds silly but I never even thought about television – well before – before Laverne and Shirley I was offered Charlie’s Angels the part they wanted me to play was – I remember there was this one scene where the character rides to a vineyard on a horse and shoots a guy and it was the most ridiculous thing in the world to me. I mean I’m very bad at reading scripts and you know seeing their potential I just am. And I said oh I could never do that so I turned it down. And the next thing was Laverne and Shirley after, after that. But I mean could I have done that? I guess I could have, you know? But it wasn’t my cup of tea. But also the dramas on television, it’s serious. I mean it’s really well done and it’s done like film. The creative aspect of it on all levels is just so superior to what we had. It’s so different than what it is now.

Eirc: When Ms. Williams was cast in Laverne and Shirley she assumed it’d be easy to jump back into film. But it took a shot with the Fonz himself. Henry Winkler to realize that switching to television might be a one way street.

Switching from Television to Film

Cindy Williams:  When Laverne and Shirley came about and I had done films I thought well I’ll do this and then I’ll go back to films. And I think it was Henry Winkler or someone said to me you know, once you’re in this they don’t want to go and you’re constantly likened to that character. And I didn’t believe that. I thought I could trump that but I couldn’t. And I’m so blessed with what I have. I remember going in for a movie while I was doing Laverne and Shirley Warren Beatty was directing it. And I went in to meet him and he recognized me immediately said, “Oh no no no.” And that was when it hit me and he said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He said, “it’s just I can’t have a person as recognizable in the film.” And I said, “it’s OK it’s all right.” I went home I was so upset and he was so nice he called me and apologized. That’s when it hit me that it was for real that you in those days there was no crossing. Especially something as big as Laverne and Shirley.

Laverne and Shirley

Eric: Laverne and Shirley was quite modern by focusing on a friendship between women. Yet it also harkened back to classic screwball comedy like I love Lucy and other famous sitcoms filmed live in front of a studio audience

Laverne and Shirley is filmed before a studio audience. —

Cindy Williams:  The way we did like Laverne and Shirley is – it was done like a little stage play but with cameras right. You did the three cameras and the camera’s between the audience and the stage. So you still had the feeling a proscenium but it was on film and you could be a lot bigger film is a whole other deal. I find it absolutely different than doing a sitcom. You go out and you say one line or they call you at 6:00 in the morning and you’re on camera during a crying scene at 7:00 in the morning. It’s a very very different ballgame. I never could figure it out. I couldn’t figure it out. I never did it long enough to learn the technique and it’s a totally different technique. And I’ve studied it on other actresses and actors and it’s about moves attitude but you have to keep yourself within the lens of the camera. It’s just a different play. Francis Coppola used to say that when he would bring his actors in onto the set he would have them go through the scene and he’d stand there with the DP because he said your actors will show you where the camera should go. And that is just so brilliant because the actors intuitively go to where their bodies send them.

Eric: Nowadays the vast majority of half-hour comedies are single cam shows like Modern Family and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. No studio audience, no laugh track. I said no laugh track. See! Better. But in the time of Laverne and Shirley, it was a very different story.

Importance of a Studio Audience

Cindy Williams:  We would get the script and we’d say, “Oh this isn’t going to work. This is thin here and it’s not funny doesn’t start off funny. It isn’t dynamic enough.” And so we just work on it and we work on it on our feet the first day maybe we try and block one seeing a scene that might have been full that might work. And then we come in the next day there’s new pages and you go through that and you see what they’ve changed and you add that into the mix and then because our show was very physical as was Happy Days we would walk it and try and just through body language and attitude and pacing just lift it just make it funny. And that would be the second day and then they come back on Wednesday and there’d be a new script and on Laverne and Shirley we always aim toward. There was always a big physical scene at the end so it was all moving toward that. And we blocked that and that was just that was so exhausting and so Penny and I would mark that and then there’d be a run through were you know everybody’s down there. And then on Thursday the camera crew would come in and they would be on wheels so they’d follow us around so because they had to learn the show. So that day was stop-and-go. And we’d still be creating and trying to make things you know funnier props funnier costumes funnier. And we tried to get it so that it would make us laugh out loud because we figured what we laughed at an audience would laugh out loud at. And then Friday you run through once, then you know scripts are out of your hand and you run through again. But we’d still get rewrites that was like death-defying work. I mean sometimes I’d say to Penny, “if Jesus walked the earth he could make this work but he’d be the only one who could make this work.” And then sometimes we’d be standing behind the door before they yell, “Action!” And she’d say, “you know your lines?” And I go, “No. Do you know yours?” She said, “No.” And so, “Action!” And we just go out because it was so tiring and just so much stress but so gratifying and especially when you heard the audience react. It was just. And that’s the other thing in comedy you don’t know what the timing is going to be because you have to hope for the laughs and you have to you know keep the rhythm going. It was very different in those days. But it was so gratifying when that audience came in and they reacted the way you were hoping and praying they would react.

Eric: Part of what made Laverne and Shirley such a successful and beloved sitcom was how Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall fully owned the roles they played.

Owning Your Role

Cindy Williams:  The actual act of acting. It’s every element of your being interpreting filtering the words in the script through all your elements and assigning certain feelings you have that you feel are correct to that character and then you have to forget about it. You’ve done all the work and then you go out there and you play it and you own it. But it’s going through you it’s your interpretation of it you put it all together and that’s the character I mean because you’re given the map and you just interpret that map. It’s going to be individual for everybody. How they go about it and you can study people and see how they go about it. Like Meryl Streep – the first movie she was ever in I remember critics saying, “watch this little move this wonderful actress.” She only has three lines and she did this little thing before she said the line where she adjusts a brooch and I said, “whoa! She added that. She flavored it with that.” So it’s also a little bit of your own flavoring and so – it’s just a myriad of things.

Eric: Similar to Penny Marshall who went on to direct films like Big, Awakenings. Cindy Williams also expanded her career behind the camera.

Cindy Williams:  You know I took time off had my children but I produced, well I got co-producer credit on Father of the Bride. And the way that came about was I my son woke me up one morning he was three years old and he wanted to go downstairs and play. So I took him downstairs to the den and Turner Classic Movies had just started. And Father of the Bride was on with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. I loved that movie as a kid and I thought this is like a big old sitcom and there’s something for everybody. What about an updated remake with Jack Nicholson? And so it evolved and it became Steve Martin, brilliant in it. And it turned out to be this marvelous marvelous remake. And I was just so fortunate. But when you get an idea and you know that it’s something special you can feel it your body will tell you everything will tell you and you got to just follow that instinct because you’re your own litmus paper for that. You’ve got follow that instinct. When you get an idea and it takes your breath away it’s correct.

Eric: Despite being on a hit TV show and acting for Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas one of Ms. Williams favorite roles was when she returned to her first love the stage.

Williams’ True Love: Being on Stage

Cindy Williams:  Being on Broadway and doing The Drowsy Chaperone and I don’t know if any of you have seen it but it’s a marvelous musical about musicals and theater. And just getting to run on stage, and when the orchestra came, it was just I’m getting goosebumps right now. It was just thrilling. And I was the first character onstage except for the narrator in the beginning and then he says, “Don’t you love theater?” That’s how it begins. And it is a marvelous musical. So don’t – you just love it. Sitting there in the dark and wondering when the lights are going to come up. Anyway, it’s this marvelous monologue before the lights come up and when the lights I got to play the character of when the lights came up and that and the music starts I run on stage and that for me. Of course, the show was canceled three weeks into my run of the show. But I call that my three weeks on Broadway. But those were the most thrilling moments onstage for me.

Eric: And part of what still makes the stage so thrilling for her is that sometimes it can go so wrong.

Cindy Williams:  You know that’s happened to me where I’ve gone up on stage more times than I’d like to admit to. But you’ve got to stay in the play. I’ve watched myself on Laverne and Shirley where I’m like drifting off. And I’m like not in it – I’m just not present and I don’t know why. I was tired or something but I caught myself a few times. So you just have to make that note you’re here listen to what’s going on even if you’re standing back or you’re sitting back peeling an apple while the scenes going on. Listen to what’s going on and you’ve got to stay present there. I’m talking to myself here too giving myself some notes right now. I once actually I had this play and I cut to the end. I only had 10 days rehearsal we were doing it was Jo Anne Worley and myself and we were doing female odd couple to try and save this theater and we had like nine days rehearsal. And there were two lines that were similar at the end of two of the scenes and one was in the third scene and one was at the end of the play and I just I started the speech she gave me the line and I’m still to this day not sure if she didn’t say the wrong line. But anyway I found myself going into the monologue for the end of the play but I wasn’t aware of it and I thought this is going well and she’s supposed to exit. And I said, “and don’t come back!” And she turns, Jo Anne Worley turns in the wings and she goes, “don’t you want to ask me about dating men?” And I go, “oh my god! Yes! yes I do.” And then I like my mind rolled back and I improvised for a while and then we got back on script. But now we had done the end of the play. So when I go off stage the stage manager, gosh it was like noise is off he said, “oh my god. Jo Anne says he wants to know what you want to cut to when we come-?” And somehow some way and we got through it – and it was Neil Simon and I felt awful. I mean he wasn’t there, thank god, but I’m sure he heard about it – but oh my god. Talk about sweating through your suit jacket. I was mortified but you can’t be – I mean you know, I had to finish the play and we did.

Eric: When asked about the best advice for a new performer Ms. Williams’ answer was simple direct and profound

Williams’ Best Advice: Pursue It

Cindy Williams:  Pursue it. You know. I mean pursue it and and think outside the box and you’ve got to put your rhinoceros skin suit on. I had a publicist tell me this. You know it’s like not being invited to a party most of the time. You can’t take it personally although we all do. Because you-you know you’ve opened yourself up to these people and then you know you don’t get the part but you just have to pick yourself up dust yourself off and start all over again and and be done with that day and it’s on to the next and the next thing will happen. And you have to keep that attitude but you just keep pursuing it don’t take any prisoners don’t take no for an answer. Just keep going and always think outside the box. Like if there’s an audition that you might not be able to get in on. You can figure out a way to get in there. You’ve heard all those stories about people going after a part. Also keep studying keep. Keep doing like, scene work and what you’re doing here.

Conclusion & Goodbye

Eric: Keep doing your thing and things can happen to learn more about Cindy Williams’ storied career pick up her book, “Shirley, I Jest!” We want to thank Ms. Williams for speaking to our students and we want to thank all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated and produced by Tova Lyter and co-moderated with Lynda Goodfriend. If you’d like to watch the full interview you can find it on our YouTube channel at youTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden produced by David Andrew Nelson Kristian Hayden and myself executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to our events department Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about her programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen see you next time. And now the theme to Laverne and Shirley as read by me Eric Conner: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 schlemiel shemozzle Hossen Pfeffer incorporated. We’re going to do it. Give us any chance we’ll take it. Read us any rule, we’ll break it. We’re going to make our dreams come true. Doing it our way.

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