Doing It Their Way: Behind The Scenes With Laverne & Shirley

On January 27, 1976, a Happy Days spinoff called Laverne & Shirley first aired on television. Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney, two bottle-cappers at the Shotz Brewery in Milwaukee, burst onto the scene in an epic opening sequence and the world fell in love. Actresses Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams shared an on-screen chemistry as the best friends and audiences were smitten. By its third season, Laverne & Shirley had become the most-watched television program in America. Here, we’ll dive into some facts about the show and dish out some behind-the-scenes trivia.

Read on to learn which major role Cindy Williams was rejected for before Laverne & Shirley!

The Story Behind That Seemingly Random Intro Song

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“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated!” Schlemiel, schlimazel, and hasenpfeffer are Yiddish terms. A common Yiddish phrase explains the words this way: “A schlemiel is somebody who often spills his soup and a schlimazel is the person it lands on.” And hasenpfeffer is a rabbit stew.

The chant is something that Penny Marshall and her friends used to sing as they walked to school together, the same way Laverne and Shirley do in the song’s opening credits. Cindy Williams later said that they only had to shoot the scene twice.

Penny Marshall Came From A Family Of Entertainers

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Penny Marshall was practically born to become an entertainer. She had a tap dance teacher mother and a film producer/director father. Her sister Ronny was a producer and casting director, and her brother Garry went on to achieve great fame for his contributions to the entertainment industry as a prolific director, writer, producer, and actor.

Marshall started out doing television commercials, including a shampoo advertisement with Farrah Fawcett, before moving onto roles in shows like That Girl and The Odd Couple.

Although she’s massively talented in her own right, brother Garry’s influence changed Penny’s life (and television history) forever as we will see soon.

Cindy Williams Also Seemed Destined For Showbiz (But Lost One Important Role)

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Cindy Williams went to high school with some people who later became very famous, like talent agent Michael Ovitz and actress Sally Field. She went on to college after high school but launched an acting career soon after graduation.

Like Marshall, Williams got her break in commercials before moving on to television and film roles, including playing Ron Howard’s love interest in George Lucas’ American Grafitti in 1973. In fact, she had a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actress under her belt before Laverne & Shirley was even an idea. However, there’s one notable role she was turned down for in another Lucas project: Princess Leia from Star Wars. No biggie, right?

Marshall And Williams Worked Together As Writers When Opportunity Struck

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Before Laverne & Shirley, Marshall and Williams worked together as writers. They were hired to work on a spoof film that director Francis Ford Coppola was producing. The film, called My Country Tis of Thee, parodied The Godfather.

Happy Days, created by Penny’s brother Garry, was one of the biggest shows in America at the time. Williams later recalled, “While we were writing, one day Garry called and said, ‘I’ve got these parts of these two girls who ‘meet the fleet’ on Happy Days. I thought you two would like to take time off from writing and come over for a week and have some fun playing them.'” She continued, “Neither one of us had seen Happy Days.”

Laverne & Shirley’s Introduction On Happy Days

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The characters Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney first appeared on television on November 11, 1975, in a Happy Days episode called “A Date with Fonzie.” In the episode, Fonzie (Henry Winkler) is trying to get his buddy Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) out of a dating slump and picked the two girls from his little black book.

The girls were so popular that Garry Marshall came up with a spin-off sitcom of their own. Laverne and Shirley went on to appear in five more episodes of Happy Days, including “Football Frolics,” “Fonzie the Superstar,” and “Shotgun Wedding (Parts 1 & 2).”

Cindy Williams Had Trouble With Shirley’s Midwestern Accent

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In a 2016 interview with ET, Cindy Williams talked about her struggles to get Shirley’s strong Midwestern accent right. Williams, who is from California, said that she still won’t watch the early episodes of the show. “If you watch those first 13 episodes, which I refuse to watch now, I got this hideous kind of New York accent that was terrible,” she recalled.

“So one day, after about 13 shows, [Garry Marshall] came down to the set and said, ‘Come over here and talk with me for a minute.’ He sat me down and he goes, ‘It is about the accent.’ I said, ‘Should I lose it?’ and he said, ‘Yes,’ so I did and that was the end. And I was so thankful for that.”

Later, learn the real reason Cindy Williams walked away from the show.

The Characters Needed A Little Clean-Up

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The early versions of Laverne and Shirley’s characters were a bit “looser” than their later incarnations. In fact, the Happy Days versions of the girls have been described as coming from “the wrong side of the tracks.”

As Williams said later, “Our first take on these characters was mightily different than what ended up on Laverne & Shirley.” Marshall put it more bluntly. For the show, the characters were “re-virginized.” Laverne and Shirley were still blue-collar and naïve, but weren’t quite as brazen as they had been on Happy Days.

Although their characters were cleaned up for prime-time viewers, the actresses kept some of their bad habits

Foul Language Between Takes!

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Behind the scenes, the cast was not afraid to be themselves. Garry Marshall, who usually enjoyed having his kids on set, would not allow children to visit backstage for his sister Penny’s show. Along with temper tantrums from the actors, foul language was rampant between takes.

In his memoir, Marshall wrote that his kids begged him to visit the Laverne & Shirley set. He told them no. “On the set they argue and fight a lot. Cursing happens,” Marshall explained. His daughter Lori then asked, “Does Aunt Penny curse too?” His answer: “I’m afraid so…. Laverne & Shirley is Daddy’s toughest show. So I don’t take a lot of visitors to that set.”

Lenny And Squiggy Go Way Back

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Michael McKean and David L. Lander played the leading ladies’ oddball greaser neighbors, Lenny and Squiggy, respectively. The guys were nearly always together, usually barging through the front door, with Squiggy’s standard “Hello” greeting announcing the start of whatever juvenile madness was about to ensue.

The overbearing pair actually pre-date the show’s creation by over a decade, as McKean and Lander created their alter-egos years earlier (while reportedly high on marijuana) when they were both studying at Carnegie Mellon University. In an interview with People in 1978, both actors admit that the characters were based on various people they grew up with and, as Lander put it, “despised.”

Lenny And Squiggy Also Had To Clean Up Their Act

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In light of their drug-fueled origins, it may come as no surprise that the comedy duo had to tone down their act for network prime-time audiences in the late seventies. Michael McKean (Lenny) described the original act as “completely obscene,” and aside from their unique voice characterizations, “unrecognizable.”

After performing their act for a party at Penny Marshall’s house, Lander and McKean were hired as writers for the show, allowing them to keep the characters edgy without crossing the line. On their approach to script-writing McKean states, “if we left it up to the writers, our characters would wind up being as bland as Ralph and Potsie on Happy Days.”

What Is Pepsi Milk?

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Laverne is frequently seen drinking Pepsi milk, which is her comfort beverage of choice. The strange-sounding concoction is exactly what it sounds like: Pepsi cola mixed together with milk. It turns out that Penny Marshall was a real-life fan of Pepsi milk.

She grew to love it after attending a summer camp that served only Kosher foods. In an interview with Good Morning America, she recalled, “I’m not Jewish and they didn’t drink milk with meat. When I came home I said, ‘Why can’t I have soda?’ and they said, ‘Drink your milk first.’ [My mom] didn’t wash out the glass so she then poured the soda in. I used to drink it a lot.”

Next: why Cindy Williams quit.

Cindy Williams Walked Away From The Show

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In 2015, Cindy Williams released a memoir called Shirley, I Jest, in which she explains her abrupt departure from the show. In 1982 she had become pregnant with her first child and did not feel that the show was accommodating her scheduling needs.

She explained on Today, “When it came time for me to sign my contract for that season, they had me working on my due date to have my baby. And I said, ‘You know, I can’t sign this.’ And it went back and forth and back and forth and it just never got worked out.” After filing a lawsuit against the show, Williams was allowed out of her contract.

How did the show go on without Shirley?

Laverne & Laverne

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Cindy Williams only appeared on two episodes of Laverne & Shirley‘s eighth and final season. Producers wrote her character off the show by saying Shirley married, got pregnant, and moved overseas to join her Army medic husband.

The show featured many guest stars during the rest of the season to account for Williams’ absence. Laverne & Shirley was still getting good ratings, but Penny Marshall declined to sign on for a ninth season. The final episode, “Here Today, Hair Tomorrow,” aired on May 10, 1983.

Did Williams’ Marriage Cause A Rift?

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After Williams left the show, it was said that a years-long rift formed between her and Marshall. In a 2012 interview, Marshall explained it this way: “We were not estranged during the show but then she got married. I was very happy.”

However, Marshall did not get along with Cindy’s husband. “She was having a baby but Bill (Hudson, her then-husband) was a pain in the [rear]. He wanted to be a producer. So that’s what happened. But she was married and she thought he was being protective.”

Read on to find out what the women have to say about each other these days.

The Show Had A Lot Of Guest Stars

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Throughout Laverne & Shirley‘s eight-season run there were tons of guest appearances. Some were already household names and others were just getting started in show business.

Some of the guest stars include Jay Leno, Art Garfunkel, Carrie Fisher, Jeff Goldblum, Adam West, Anjelica Huston, Fred Willard, and more. Pictured above, Ted Danson appeared in an intense episode called “Why Did the Fireman…?” in which he played Laverne’s firefighter boyfriend who is killed on the job.

Marshall And Williams Are Friends Now

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Today, any tension between the former co-stars is gone and both women say that their estrangement was somewhat exaggerated. In fact, they’re friends who regularly spend time together. Marshall has admitted that her open dislike of Williams’ ex-husband likely fueled the rumors.

Williams joked with USA Today that when she visits Marshall, “There’s a chill in the air, but only because [Penny] keeps her thermostat turned down and, to compensate, provides down coats and blankets for guests.”

They’re On The Hollywood Walk Of Fame

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In 2010, Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams each received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Ever the jokester, Marshall said, “I always thought I was a door mat — I let people walk on me. Now I’m a piece of cement. It’s harder, but it’s got a star on it.” She continued, “We never got any Emmys, so this is great.”

Williams gave a touching tribute to her co-star. “I would not be standing here today were it not for one person, and that person I share this day and night with is Miss Penny Marshall,” she said.

Of course, there’s someone else who made it all possible…

Garry Marshall’s Legacy

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Garry Marshall, Penny’s brother and the man responsible for creating Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days, died in 2016. He was 81. Henry Winkler, who played Fonzie on Happy Days, said that Marshall was “larger than life, funnier than most, wise and the definition of friend.”

Beyond his work in the television industry, Marshall made huge box-office hits at the movie theaters with titles like Pretty Woman, Overboard, Beaches, and Runaway Bride. Over the course of his career, he received the Writers Guild of America’s Laurel Award for TV Writing Achievement and was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame and the National Association of Broadcasters’ Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

There’s A Laverne & Shirley Album

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In 1976 Marshall and Williams recorded an album of themselves singing in character. Called Laverne & Shirley Sing, the record featured some original numbers as well as covers of some of their favorite songs from the 1950s and ’60s.

Some pretty big names were involved in the album’s production. Kenny Loggins played some percussion, and Jimmie Haskell (who had arranged music for Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, and Steely Dan) worked on it. Laverne & Shirley Sing was released on CD in 2003 and is currently available on iTunes.

Penny Marshall Is A Cancer Survivor

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Penny Marshall was diagnosed with the double-whammy of lung cancer and a brain tumor in 2009. After undergoing a combo of surgery, radiation, and chemo, she is now in remission although many tabloids reported that she wasn’t doing well.

As she explained to ET, “[I’m] clean as a whistle… The rags write about it and they’re wrong…They have me dying every three months.” She also joked about gaining 60 pounds during her cancer treatments, saying, “everybody else loses weight, but somehow I got fat!”