With the release of her new memoir “Shirley, I Jest,” Cindy Williams spoke to Bio about the twists and turns of her life story and her role as one of TV’s most beloved characters on “Laverne & Shirley.”
We must be willing to let go of the life we planned, noted scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell once advised, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. Sometimes that means walking away from the best-laid blueprint for a regular payday in nursing to pursue a career in the performing arts, a fool’s errand in the estimation of everyone we love. Sometimes it means forsaking the foundation we’d laid formidably and with conviction as a dramatic actor in order to take a chance at rousing laughter from 30-million weekly viewers on a situation comedy that ran for 178 episodes and, though cancelled some three decades ago, has remained on the air without break ever since. Sometimes it means walking away from million-dollar bonanzas and international superstardom to raise a family. Sometimes it means shedding one’s celebrity skin, moving to the desert, penning a brisk, revelatory, uplifting memoir at the age of 67, then plotting a return to the limelight with a poignant, knee-slapping two-woman play, created with one’s lifelong friend. Joseph Campbell and Mick Jagger are not typically lumped together in the realm of pop philosophy, but it’s probably true: you can’t always get what you want, but you just might get what you need.
So it has been for Cindy Williams – the spritely, effervescent star of Laverne & Shirley, which ran for eight seasons on ABC beginning in the mid-‘70s, life presenting her a series of “gifts and opportunities,” she says, that were not always exactly what she intended, but rich with experiences she would trade for nothing, gathered in the ebullient autobiography, Shirley, I Jest! A Storied Life, published last month. The warmly received book, accompanied by the DVD release of Laverne & Shirley: The Complete Series, are reminders of how criminally underappreciated Williams has been through the years, a stellar dramatic actress and comedienne, equally adept at slapstick and heartache, one-liners and gut-wrenching cutaways. Whatever you thought you knew about the woman best-known and much-loved as the “High Hopes” crooning, blue-collar boob with a heart of gold, Shirley Feeney, there’s a whole lot more waiting for you.
Why was now the right time to pen your memoir?
That’s become such a joke with me and my literary agent. Why write a book? Why write a book now? When would I write it? When should I have written it? (Laughs) If I had written the book when I was in my 20s, I wouldn’t have half the stories. If I had written the book when I was in my 30s, I wouldn’t have a third of the stories. I felt, finally, at my age now that there were enough stories to tell.
Your book is different from a lot of celebrity tomes in that it’s candid and revealing without being mean-spirited, blithe and bubbly without being fluff, occasionally heart-rending without being bathetic.
I never wanted to write a book that was mean or savage or gossipy. I have never in my life had any interest in throwing people under the bus or answering any of the “he said-she said” situations that people think I should or in defending any of the things people think they know about me or my life. That’s just not who I am. I wanted to do a fun, upbeat book about all the wonderful things that were afforded to me and that I had the privilege and blessing of being able to experience as a part of a hit television show. The gates and doors that were opened to me because of Laverne & Shirley, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to fully understand or appreciate all of it, though I appreciate it more than I can possibly say. I wanted to write a book so that when the reader put it down they had a big grin on their face and felt like they’d been there with me. I owe a lot to the 30-million people who were with me every week on that show.
It’s the kind of memoir, frankly, that Shirley – a perennial optimist – herself might have written had she done a little bit better than straight C’s in high school.
I consider that a great compliment. Thank you.
Most of us live fairly unexamined lives, and when called upon to survey our years on earth, we are surprised by the themes that emerge. Were there surprises for you in writing this book?
Well, you know, I never intended on writing anything about my childhood or my early life, but the publishers wanted it. My childhood was complex and I really tried to steer clear of it, and it could really be a whole book itself. But on my publisher’s request, I went back over all of that and found it was an even deeper road than I expected. It was a lot more gnashing of teeth and wrenching of hands and introspection than I thought it would be. I’d pace around the house and remember things and write them down and try to figure out which things I should include and which things I leave alone. I cherry-picked in a lot of cases because I really didn’t want the book to be a downer. At the same time, I had to be true to the fact that I was the child of an alcoholic. I had to tell that tale and be honest and truthful. Balancing that with a brightness and buoyancy was challenging, but I’ve never been one to sit around on a pity pot, you know what I mean. It was harrowing, going back to all of those years, but I think I’m glad that I did.
Was that healing or cathartic for you?
It was, yes. To really go back in time and delve into those experiences and call my sister and read her pages and ask if I was remembering it correctly, there was a lot of laughing and a lot of crying. All of that was surprising for me, and it was a beautiful way for my sister and I to connect about things we hadn’t really discussed from a long time ago. Those childhood experiences are things I certainly carried with me every single day of my life, but they were things I didn’t really ever talk about – not only in public, but in private. So yes, I think it had to have been cathartic to get it all out. Or most of it.
When did you know the actor’s life was for you? Was that something you were encouraged to pursue as a child?
No. No. Oh, no. My parents both thought. . .Well, let’s put it like this: the one time I mentioned wanting to be an actor to them, they thought, “Buy a pair of dice and go to Vegas instead.” They were horrified. I said, “Maybe I could act,” and they said, “Oh no, you need to learn to type faster and become a secretary.” It was pretty horrible in the house, so I left. I went to City College to study theatre. I had no money. My parents gave me no money. So I’d go to classes every morning until noon and then I’d go do a full shift in Downtown LA because I didn’t have enough money to pay for my classes. I worked my way through community college.
What do you think gave you the strength of character, the sheer determination, to go your own way?
I think, in some ways, I had always kind of been like that. I think I maybe had to be. I remember having my first job. I was 11 years old, living in Reseda. I had my little wagon and I’d sent away from the back of a magazine for Christmas cards and I had the idea that I could re-sell these cards around the neighborhood and make some money. So I loaded up my little wagon with Christmas cards and I went door to door every day after school until I sold out. I remember one month I made a profit of $12 and I was the happiest girl in the world. I never stopped working.
How does that ethos inform your life today?
Well, life’s an adventure. You have to treat it that way. My friends today, we’ve all had our careers. We’ve all been rich. We’ve all gone through it. We’ve all been up and we’ve all been down. And we’re all of a certain age now. (Laughs) My best friend Lynne (Marie Stewart), who played Miss Yvonne on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, she recently asked me, “Gosh, Cindy, what are we going to do now?” And I thought about it for a second and I said, “We’ve got to treat it like we’re 19 again, Lynne. It’s an adventure. We’re in college again and we’re scraping money to go down to Arturo’s and get a burrito and a root beer. It’s the same thing as when we were kids; it’s an adventure.” And she goes, “You know what? You’re right. Not the same energy, and the knees are a little shakier, but that’s exactly right. We’re 19 again and we can’t think any differently.” So we’re going to put a show together. I said, “That’s it. I’ve had it. Get that back room together and we’re going to turn it into a little studio and do our play.” It’s what we did when we were 18, 19 years old. There’s just no reason not to do it now. Why give up the ghost?
When did the pursuit of acting really become a mission for you?
At Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. They were having a talent show and I thought I would audition, though I couldn’t really tell you why. When we were little, my sister and I were always putting on little variety shows in our garage, imitating Soupy Sales and singing songs and being silly, and I just always loved it. But I never really thought that it was something you could do when you grow up. So I auditioned for the talent show and Mr. Kulp, this fabulous English teacher at the school who was also directing the talent show, came up to me after my audition and said, “You’re very talented. If you have room in your class schedule, I’d really like you in my Drama class.” I couldn’t believe it. That’s where I was introduced to serious literature, serious theatre. We did Our Town, and I just fell in love with the whole deal – the curtains, the stage, the possibilities. All of it. At that time, I’d been planning on becoming an emergency room nurse. That was my big plan. It was a terrible plan because I was, like, a C-minus student in the sciences. I was terrible academically. I had to take biology twice, and I still couldn’t do better than a C-minus. I knew the SATs would be my doom. I didn’t really know it at the time, but I was dyslexic. That wasn’t a “thing” back then. It was just: the teacher would tell the class to read a chapter in class and then we’d discuss it and 30 minutes later, everyone had closed their book and was ready for the discussion and I was still stuck on page two. So a career in medicine quickly seemed impossible to me. Thank goodness for Mr. Kulp and the Drama program – and the friends I made there – because I had somewhere to go and some place to belong after I graduated.
Before Laverne & Shirley, you had laid the groundwork for a very different career. You had done superb dramatic work in films like American Graffiti and The Conversation, working with filmmakers like George Lucas, George Cukor, Francis Ford Coppola. It looked like there was going to be a very potent dramatic career ahead of you. And then, you became an international superstar on one of television’s most popular situation comedies. Looking back, were there pitfalls in choosing to do Laverne & Shirley?
There weren’t really any dramatic roles after the series ended. Well, I thought I could have it both ways, but I couldn’t. I just became too recognizable as Shirley. Before I got the series, I’d always wanted to do comedy – and then after I got Shirley, that was the nail in it, so to speak. I got to do comedy and, pretty much, only comedy. (Laughs) Would I change it? No! Penny (Marshall, Laverne & Shirley costar) and I got to make too many people laugh, and it was like I had my nursing career after all. The laughter was good medicine for audiences – and for me as well. The ability to make people laugh, that was a gift I was given and I was meant to use it. I would have always longed for it if it hadn’t happened.
On Laverne & Shirley, you had the privilege of working with the great comedy writer/producer/director Garry Marshall. Are there lessons learned working with Marshall that you were able to employ in penning your life story?
Garry would always, always ask us, “What’s the funny picture?” In other words, what picture are you going to put in the mind of a viewer or a reader, and is it the funniest picture it can be? Penny (Garry’s sister) and I spent almost eight years asking ourselves, and each other, “What’s the funny picture?” That’s a question that goes to structure and to gestures and to word choice and to inflection and attitude. It’s just a brilliant, brilliant question, especially in comedy, and that’s Garry Marshall for you. I definitely had that question in mind with every sentence I wrote in my book.
Speaking of Shirley, it’s been some 30 years since audiences have had a chance to check in on her. Where do you think she is today?
I never really thought very long and hard about it, even though Shirley’s been such a huge part of my life. If I think about it for a moment, I think I see her marrying the man of her dreams and having two kids and a beautiful little home and being very, very happy. I see her managing a grocery store, a supermarket, probably. I see her still friends with Laverne, and every year, they go on a two-week vacation together. I see her as perfect and imperfect, as full of mistakes, but very beautiful. And very happy. In other words, I see her as every woman, as the kind of woman I’d like to be. One thing about Shirley, no matter what: she’s still, without a doubt, an optimist with an edge.