ABC’s popular sitcom, Laverne & Shirley would probably not have been made if Penny Marshall hadn’t lost her job on Paul Sand in Friends & Lovers. When the lackluster TV show got canceled in 1975, her producer brother used a discarded script from the show to introduced the characters, Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Feeney in an episode of Happy Days. The resulting spinoff earned six Golden Globe nominations and a primetime Emmy nomination, but when Cindy Williams left in season eight, Marshall found herself faced with having to carry the show on her own.
The cast of ‘Laverne & Shirley’ wasn’t happy
Mental Floss reports that producer Garry Marshall created the role for his sister at the behest of their mother. He and the writers for Happy Days wrote Marshall and Williams in as a couple of fast girls who go on a double date with Fonzie and Richie. Before the episode even aired, he pitched the spinoff idea to ABC executive Fred Silverman. Laverne & Shirley was the number one show the week it debuted, which may have led to inflated egos. Tempers flared regularly on the set. There were disputes about who got the biggest laughs, the most lines, the biggest dressing rooms. Profanity was common and loud arguments were rumored to be heard through the studio walls.
The show’s writers complained that the two leads were mean and hard to work with. As Yahoo reported. “One Happy Days writer he (Garry Marshall) reassigned to Laverne & Shirley spent a few weeks at the new gig then asked Marshall to send him back to Happy Days, after he reported having the urge to run over the Laverne cast with his car.” Despite the rumors, the show’s turbulent working relationships had nothing to do with why Williams left during the eighth season. She hadn’t been happy and wanted to do other things, but it was a dispute over her contract that ultimately drove her away.
In an Archive of American Television interview, Garry Marshall described how Williams’ absence led to the end of the series. “When Richie left Happy Days, there really wasn’t much of a big deal. Fonzie was there, we brought in Chachi. We couldn’t bring in other people very well on Laverne & Shirley, we tried, but nobody really worked. We brought in some other characters. It didn’t work. Penny and Cindy were the show.”
Marshall demanded double or nothing when Williams left
After season five, the show skipped forward into the 1960s and moved from Milwaukee to Burbank, California. Both Marshall and Williams were against the move, but the producer wanted to bring in elements of Hollywood and take the show in a new direction. By season eight, ratings were sliding. Williams was newly married to actor/musician Bill Hudson and pregnant with their first child. Hudson was now managing Williams’ career and making demands on her behalf. Williams’ rigorous work schedule was taking its toll on her health as her pregnancy progressed. When Williams’ new contract made no accommodations for her pregnancy and even required her to work on her scheduled due date, she refused to sign it.
Marshall called Hudson a pest, and the situation she credited him with creating, insanity. In her interview for Archive of American Television, she blamed him for Williams’ sudden departure.
“I said, ‘I don’t care Cin, lay in bed the whole time and be the biggest pain in the ass pregnant person. I’ll run around. Just take half the dialogue,'” Marshall related. “It wasn’t Cindy, but she thought, ‘Oh, he loves me. He’s taking care of me,’ you know, so that was it. Then I didn’t speak to her, not because I was mad at her; because he wouldn’t put me through to her. … she said, ‘they don’t want me back,’ … but, no, it was him.”
By this point, Marshall was ready to quit too. There were already enough episodes for syndication, and she didn’t want to go back. Then her agent told her that if she didn’t, she would be sued, so Marshall met with the President of Paramount Television, Gary Nardino.
“I said, ‘Look, it says Laverne & Shirley. I have favored nations with a person who ain’t here,'” said Marshall, referring to a type of commercial contract in which the parties involved receive equal treatment or compensation. “I’m here. Give me double or nothing and if she comes back, we’ll go back to the way it was. So I made my own deal.”
Marshall finished the series without Williams, but with her added salary. The last episode aired on May 10, 1983.
Years later, the cast remembers Marshall fondly
Time has a way of healing old wounds and lending perspective to life events. Marshall and Williams eventually reconciled and remained close friends until Marshall died on December 17, 2018, at the age of 75. “What an extraordinary loss. My good friend, Penny Marshall is gone — one in a million,” said Williams to Today the day after her co-star’s death. “Utterly unique, a truly great talent. And, oh what fun we had! Can’t describe how I’ll miss her.”
On January 27, 2019, a 12-hour Laverne & Shirley marathon was held in Marshall’s honor at the Garry Marshall Theatre. Her castmates in attendance agreed that she cared deeply about the show and that its legacy would live on. “Penny was the ticker of the show,” said Micheal Mckean who played Lenny. “She felt something emotional and funny in every moment that made you laugh.” David Lander, who played Squiggy, said, “She [Marshall] cared so much about the show that it was inspiring to watch the way she worked.”
Garry Marshall, who died in 2016 once observed, “for many of the people involved in Laverne & Shirley, that was the best time in their life, they just didn’t know it. Now they know it, and it’s too late. So you’ve gotta see what it is going on that makes you happy or not.” There’s no doubt that Laverne & Shirley was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone involved and will be making people happy for years to come.