On January 27, 1976, a Happy Days spinoff called Laverne & Shirley first aired on television. Actresses Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams burst onto the scene in an epic opening sequence as best friends Laverne and Shirley. The two women shared great on-screen chemistry and by its third season, Laverne & Shirley had become the most-watched TV program in America.
Let’s dive into fun facts about the show and learn some behind-the-scenes trivia that even the biggest fans might not have known.
Laverne & Shirley’s Introduction On Happy Days
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).”
Penny Marshall Came From A Family Of Entertainers
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 was massively talented in her own right, brother Garry’s influence changed Penny’s life (and television history) forever.
There’s A Story Behind That Intro Song
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated!” 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.
Schlemiel, schlimazel, and hasenpfeffer are Yiddish terms. A Yiddish saying 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.
Cindy Williams Also Seemed Destined For Showbiz (But Lost One Important Role)
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. 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
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.”
Cindy Williams Had Trouble With Shirley’s Midwestern Accent
In an 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.”
Foul Language Between Takes!
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
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 “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 when they were both studying at Carnegie Mellon University. In a 1978 interview with People, 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
It may come as no surprise that this 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 other than their unique voices, “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?
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.”
Cindy Williams Walked Away From The Show
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.
Laverne & Laverne
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.
Penny Marshall, Television’s Beloved ‘Laverne,’ Passes Away
On December 17, 2018, Penny Marshall passed away at her home in Hollywood Hills. She was 75 years old and the cause was diabetes. The Marshall family announced the sad news in a statement to the L.A. Times: “Our family is heartbroken over the passing of Penny Marshall.”
She was a groundbreaker in the entertainment industry as the first woman to direct a movie that earned more than $100 million. Marshall also was the second woman director whose film was nominated for best picture. After her death, Cindy Williams paid tribute in a statement to Today: “What an extraordinary loss. My good friend, Penny Marshall is gone — one in a million.”
Did Williams’ Marriage Cause A Rift?
After Cindy 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.”
The Show Had A Lot Of Guest Stars
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 Made Up
In later years, both women said that their estrangement was somewhat exaggerated. In fact, they were friends who regularly spent time together. Marshall even admitted that her open dislike of Williams’ ex-husband likely fueled the rumors.
Williams joked with USA Today that when she visited Marshall, there was “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
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.
Garry Marshall’s Legacy
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.
Penny Marshall’s Father Locked Her Check Away
Yes, Penny Marshall’s father once locked her paycheck from the show away, but not for safekeeping. Her father, Anthony Marshall was a producer on the show but tended to make things harder than easier for his daughter.
In one instance, he actually locked her paycheck away after he felt that his daughter had been disrespectful toward him. He wouldn’t budge on his decision either, and her brother Gary had to negotiate with their father in order to let him have her check.
Cindy Williams Wasn’t Crazy About The Role Of Shirley
Initially, actress Cindy Williams was hesitant about playing the role of Shirley. At that point in her life, she wanted to be a movie star and not some regular television actress. In addition, she also thought that it would be annoying that Penny Marshall, whose brother was a writer on the show, would always get her way for that exact reason.
Before finally committing to the role, the part was almost given to another actress named Liberty Williams. Luckily, she made the right choice.
Laverne’s “L” Was Penny’s Idea
Everyone knows that when a new show comes on the air, or when you start a new show, it takes a few episodes before you’re completely on board with all the exposition. But sometimes, stating all these facts can get repetitive, which is why Penny Marshall decided to help the audience out a bit.
Marshall thought it’d be annoying to have to repeat Laverne so many times, so she came up with the idea to sew a giant “L” monogram on her character’s wardrobe so that it’d be obvious to viewers which character she was playing.
There Was An Episode About Mental Disability
Over time, Laverne & Shirley began to explore deeper and more serious topics on the show. One of these more mature topics that came up was an episode in season 3 about mental disability.
Although the episode was titled “The Slow Child,” which would have been unacceptable today, it was a well-intended episode about a girl with a mental disability named Amy. Besides the title, the episode also had offensive words that wouldn’t have been considered offensive back then, but certainly are today.
Some Executives Didn’t Want Phil Foster On The Show
Phil Foster, who play, Frank DeFazio, Laverne’s dad, almost didn’t land the part for the show. In an interview, producer Mark Rothman claimed that some ABC executives couldn’t make out Foster’s heavy Brooklyn accent, and for that reason, they were going to get rid of him on the show.
However, they ended up taking a different route, with the show writers using his accent as a recurring joke that nobody ever understood what his character was saying.
The Actors Decorated The Set Themselves
Cindy Williams revealed in her 2015 book, Shirley, I Jest! that when she and Penny Marshall first saw the set of the show, they were shocked by it. Everything appeared to be so luxurious and nice, that it almost didn’t make sense since their two characters were just blue-collar workers.
So, the two actresses felt like they needed to take matters into their own hands and decorated the set using things from their own houses. While the set designers were annoyed in the beginning, they eventually came around to the idea.
David Lander Had A Short Fuse
Over the years, some writers opened up about David’s behavior, saying that he had a short fuse. This was no different on the set of Laverne & Shirley. Apparently, he was known to get so frustrated that he would throw the script across the room sometimes in anger.
In an interview, he once said, “Yeah, I threw a script ever so often and that got kind of well known. I suppose I was a real arrogant thing. I was very young and I was very angry.”
Cindy Williams’ Manager Counted Her Lines
Cindy Williams’ manager was Pat McQueeny, and a constant presence on the set while filming. She was incredibly good at her job, maybe even too good, and make sure that all of Williams’ needs were being met and that she wasn’t being taken advantage of.
She went so far as to count the lines on the scripts of episodes and then complain if it appeared that Marshall had more lines than her client. In Marshall’s memoir, she wrote “She made [Cindy] insecure about a job that she was doing extremely well.”
There Was Some Romance Behind The Scenes
Apparently, behind the scenes, Cindy Williams and David Lander were involved in an off-and-on romantic relationship. Supposedly, the two would date for a little while and then break up again, a cycle that would go on and on.
They would go home together, break up, show up at work mad, and then end up going back home together again. However, through all of their struggles they could always be heard saying that they loved each other. Probably why they kept dating through all of the breakups.
Penny Marshall Was A Cancer Survivor
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 went into remission although many tabloids continued to report that she wasn’t doing well. Because of her health, Penny Marshall passed away in 2018.
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!”
There Was Supposed To Be Another Spin-Off With Carmine
The characters Laverne and Shirley were such a hit that they got their own show, so it’s no surprise that the same would happen for a character in their show. This almost happened for the character Carmine Ragusa, Shirley’s on-and-off boyfriend.
Carmine was played by actor Eddie Mekka, who had a background in musical theatre and often performed a song-and-dance number on the show. Laverne & Shirley’s series finale, “Here Today, Hair Tomorrow,” was actually supposed to serve as a backdoor pilot for Carmine’s own show, but it didn’t pan out.
Laverne And Shirley’s Characters Came From A Failed Script
Laverne & Shirley was born out of another sitcom – and we’re not talking about Happy Days. While the show was a spin-off of Happy Days, the characters of Laverne and Shirley were born out of an unused script for a short-lived sitcom called Paul Sand in Friends & Lovers.
Actor Paul Sand played a shy guy named Robert Dreyfuss and in the scrapped script, he tries to pick up women in a supermarket. The episode never happened but parts of it were incorporated into the Happy Days episode where Laverne and Shirley make their debut.
David Lander Raised Awareness For MS
Actor David Lander, who played Squiggy on the show, worked as the Goodwill Ambassador for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. He was initially diagnosed with MS in 1984 and went public with the news in 1999. He frequently spoke about the disease at conventions. He also wrote an autobiography called Fall Down Laughing: How Squiggy Caught Multiple Sclerosis and Didn’t Tell Nobody.
Sadly, Lander passed away due to complications from MS in 2020.
Cindy Williams Had A Backup Plan
Though the characters were a hit, the cast and crew at first couldn’t predict if Laverne & Shirley would pick up. For her part, Williams was just happy to have a paycheck to pay the rent. Michael McKean, who played Lenny, joked to ABC News that Williams’s backup plan was to open a car wash.
“The very first show before an audience, Cindy is saying, ‘You know, this probably won’t go but we’re really having a great time. Let’s open a car wash or something… we had no idea what was happening,” McKean said.
Remember When They Joined The Army?
One Laverne & Shirley spin-off that did pan out was Laverne & Shirley in the Army. Kids who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons in the early ‘80s ought to remember this one. The animated series was loosely based on the 1979 episode, “You’re in the Army, Now,” where Laverne and Shirley enlist in the Army!
Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams actually voiced their characters for this cartoon that aired for just one season. There were 13 episodes of the cartoon in total and perhaps that’s just a testament to the fact that people loved the live-action version better.
There’s A Laverne & Shirley Album
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.
There Were Plenty Of Injuries On The Set
Believe it or not, there were more accidents than you may have imagined. In fact, there were more than a lot of shows that had much more action. Cindy Williams said that she had even suffered an injury.
On one occasion, she had been injured so badly while performing a stunt that she suffered from health problems such as sciatica for years later. She later told Real Life with Jane that it all turned out to be worth it.
The Show Was Supposed To End After Five Seasons
The writers of Laverne & Shirley had originally intended the show to end at five seasons. At the end of the fifth season, it was originally planned that Laverne and Shirley would move to New York City. Leaving Milwaukee meant ending the series for good, but the cast protested and kept the show alive.
They didn’t stay in Milwaukee for long, however, since seasons six and seven had Laverne and Shirley pick up and move to Los Angeles, California. After losing their jobs at the brewery, they moved to LA with hopes of becoming stars.
One Writer Said He Wanted To Run Over The Actresses
In producer Garry Marshall’s autobiography, he recalled one particularly unsettling occurrence during the making of the show. At one point, he had hired a new writer named Arthur Silver to help keep the wild and willful actresses in check.
After working with the girls for only a few weeks, Silver admitted to Marshall that when driving by the girls, he had been tempted to run them over with his car. Ti no surprise, Marshall let Silver go after making that comment.
They Utilized Eddie Mekka’s Talents
The real reason Carmine is multi-talented (a boxer, owns a dance studio, can tap dance and sing) is because Eddie Mekka comes from a Broadway background. All of his talents made him an incredibly likable and interesting character.
The producers figured that they could use his experience on the show, so they crafted the character Carmine around Mekka’s various skills. It paid out in the end too, as everybody loved Carmine’s character.