Cindy Williams’ book is titled Shirley, I Jest but it could just as easily have been called The Magnificent Mundane. (Click here to read my review)
If you read the book (or even know who she is, having acted in one of the most famous and beloved sitcoms ever—Laverne & Shirley—or from movies like The Conversation or American Graffiti), you’ll understand that her life is not at all the usual life many of us know.
But, as she says, her life is actually the “magnificent mundane.” It was her life and experiencing it day-to-day, it seemed very ordinary. Looking back, though, it’s obvious it was something else entirely.
“I wanted to write a string of stories about all the paths I have been able to take and all the people I’ve been able to meet and have adventures with,” she said. “Fame and fortune is such a strange thing. It’s an absolute heightened blessing. You get giddy from it. It’s heady.”
Cindy says she’s been approached before about writing a memoir and says her joking response was, “Baby needs a new pair of shoes.”
Really, though, it was more a chance to share things she’s experienced with her fans.
For example, there’s a story in the book about the day she and her mom met Cary Grant. It’s a fantastic story, the kind that makes you love Cary Grant even more, and she says, “I knew how special that was. I wanted to share it with everybody. We were experiencing it for everybody.”
But as great as many of the stories are, there are also darker moments. Writing about her childhood, in particular, was difficult.
“I put childhood aside and I deflected and I would acknowledge it. But I knew I had to write it,” she said. “I tried to speak something fun that wasn’t fun.”
But don’t get the impression that this is in any way a sad or depressing book.
“I didn’t want to throw anybody under the bus or rebutting anything anyone had ever said. I wanted no part of this. I wanted the reader to sit down and have some laughs. I wanted to write something that was buoyant,” she said.
Her cowriter, David Smitherman, was a huge help. When she said she was having problem starting the book at the beginning of her life, he gave her incredibly simple advice: “Then begin it somewhere else.”
“He was very kind and patient. He had no ego. He would let me go and just make suggestions. I feel like God sent him to me,” she said.
Right after she was to begin working on the book, she had cataract surgery on both eyes. What should have been a week’s recovery turned into three months.
“As my friends say, I’m an eleventh hour person. Fear and self-loathing cause me to organize myself,” Cindy said.
The fascinating thing is that the book—roughly 165 pages, not counting pictures and other material—was written longhand.
“David told me to put everything in order of appearance, and so I had all these notepads and pens all over the dining room table. He walked in and said, `What is that?'” she said. “It was a C-student, disorganized kind of process that turned out to be great because of David Smitherman.”
Obviously, Cindy Williams is synonymous with comedy because of her great role as Shirley Feeney. She doesn’t mind this (“I’m very happy to get Laverne & Shirley questions because they’re always happy”) but she’s also worked with two of the most acclaimed directors in cinema history.
“I hadn’t seen The Godfather before I agreed to do The Conversation. I didn’t realize what an artist Francis Ford Coppola is. I saw The Godfather right before filming and it frightened me because I’d be working for and with him. He is the magnificent mundane: brilliant, easygoing. He and the cinematographer would go on set and we would do the scenes and then we’d move around and he’d adjust. He always said actors show you where to put the camera. He loves actors; it’s indescribable. He’s like Michelangelo and also one of the guys. To be in his presence—it’s fun and an incredible experience. I feel like he’s part of my family. He makes you feel that way. He’s a brilliant, brilliant person and artist. He’s a brave artist,” she said.
She’s also worked with George Lucas in American Graffiti, which the AFI said is one of the best 100 movies ever made.
The budget and working experience on this was very different. Most of the movie was done in only one take and the editing began immediately after shooting.
“The scene with Ron [Howard] and me in the car; we were both a little nervous about that. I had the idea to move down in the car so we would be out of camera range. You can see it in the car; we say the dialogue but we’re not on the screen. They never reshot it,” she said.
(There is much more about both movies in her book, released May 1.)
The First Nudie Musical is not mentioned very much in Shirley, I Jest. (Fun fact: my friend and coworker Vikki LOVES that movie. In Vikki’s honor, I did ask about it.) They did the movie during the first season of Laverne and Shirley. Then the show became a hit and the movie came out.
“That was my friend Bruce Kimmel and he wrote all the music and script. All our friends were in it. We made this little cheap movie on 8mm and we wanted to do it to spoof pornography. We thought porn was ridiculous and no one got that it was a spoof. I thought it was a lot of fun,” Cindy said.
If you watch the movie (and good luck; it’s out of print), you will see another famous face. Ron Howard has a brief appearance with the line, “Is this union?”
“He was interested in people making their own movies,” she said.
Another interesting fact: Hugh Hefner screened it all the time at the Playboy Mansion.
This interview was such an amazing experience. When I was a child, I spent summers with my grandmother (my parents worked and she was free daycare) and we spent many afternoons watching episodes of Laverne & Shirley. I’ve known Shirley my entire life, and getting to talk to the woman who portrayed her was surreal in the best possible way.
The book is available now and you absolutely want to read it. It’s delightful.