By John Benson
Anyone familiar with the phrase “Schlemiel! Schlemazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated” knows that Cindy Williams has been making her dreams come true in film, television and on stage for roughly 40 years
While the Hollywood actress first appeared in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” and then had an award-winning role in George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” it wasn’t until the mid-’70s when Williams landed an appearance as Shirley Feeney on then television ratings winner “Happy Days” that her fate was sealed. This led to the incredibly popular series “Laverne and Shirley.”
“At first it was a whirlwind experience. We had no idea what was going on,” said Williams, calling from Michigan. “The first season, we knew the network had bought four shows they were going to air and take it from there. Then it just kept going. We didn’t understand the success of it or any of that. We were just doing our jobs, and then it became bigger than life. There were major adjustments I had to make in my life. One day you’re asking your mom to loan you rent money, and the next day you can pay off the mortgage on your mother’s home. That’s kind of what it was like — a game changer.”
For Williams, the game changed in the ’80s in a typical fashion for a popular television star. Unlike today, where actors jump freely from the small to the big screen, the California native was typecast as Shirley Feeney. She found work in pilots and television movies, but as one door shut, another opened in the form of stage work.
This included appearing on Broadway in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and in national tours of “Grease,” Deathtrap,” “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Nunset Boulevard.” Today, Williams is reprising her role as Reverend Mother in the latter with a tour that comes to Youngstown’s Stambaugh Auditorium on Saturday.
So what is it about playing a nun that continues to keep Williams engaged and challenged as an actress?
“Well, who doesn’t like a good nun comedy?” Williams said, laughing. “It’s just all based in innocence. You know people who are trying to be godly getting into a jam. They have to have patience, and that’s always funny to see a person in a terrible situation having to be forgiving and loving. Where do we see that today in this day?”
“Nunset Boulevard” is the seventh show in the nun-based series. In it, the singing nuns from Hoboken, N.J., are on the road to Hollywood to sing in the Hollywood Bowl Cabaret. The problem is it turns out the venue is actually the Hollywood Bowl-erama, a bowling alley with a cabaret lounge. Still, the ladies make the best of it singing a mix of blues, ballads and rock ’n’ roll.
“It’s just a whole bunch of fun and a wonderful evening in the theater,” Williams said. “You’ll go away humming.”
Though in some ways the 65-year-old actress remains a pop-culture figure based on the success of “Laverne and Shirley,” which earlier this year was honored with a TV Land Fan Favorite statuette, it turns out Williams was close to landing another high-profile role that could have made her Comic Con royalty.
“George [Lucas] always wanted to cast very young people in the role of Hans Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker,” Williams said. “I was doing ‘Laverne and Shirley’ at the time, but he still had me come in and audition for the role of Princess Leia.”
She quickly added, “I will say the right person got the part. You can’t think of anybody else to play Princess Leia than Carrie Fisher. But I was happy just to audition for it. That’s kind of great in its own way.”