But she was best known as Shirley.
“She was sort of an optimist, kindhearted, repressed, temperamental, fun-loving person,” Ms. Williams once said of her character. “I always saw her as having this fear,” she added, noting that while Shirley’s desires were never explicitly played out onscreen, both Laverne and Shirley strove for the comforts of modern life.
“That was the sadness of those characters to me,” Ms. Williams added. “What if that never happens, then where are we? And that was sort of my life, too.”
Born in Van Nuys, Calif., a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, on Aug. 22, 1947, Cynthia Jane Williams became interested in acting during high school and attended Los Angeles City College, where she majored in theater arts, according to biographies provided by Ms. Cranis. “I’m what you might call a ‘Valley Girl,’” Ms. Williams wrote in her 2015 memoir, “Shirley, I Jest! A Storied Life.”
She worked at a pancake house, as well at the Whisky a Go Go nightclub in Hollywood, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Ms. Williams went on to perform in commercials for deodorant and sunglasses, some of which never aired, she said in an interview with the Television Academy. Her early television roles included parts on “Room 222,” “Nanny and the Professor” and “Love, American Style.”
“I always played the lead’s best friend, always,” she said.
Then known for her seemingly guileless American sweetheart presence, Ms. Williams turned that expectation inside out with an exceptionally sly performance in “The Conversation.” In the film, the viewer pieces together her words from a surreptitiously recorded conversation, expecting her to be a helpless victim, not the calculating femme fatale that she is. More dramatic roles might have followed, but she turned to situation comedy instead.
Ms. Williams and Ms. Marshall were writing partners at Zoetrope, a production company founded by Mr. Coppola, where they were working on a prospective TV spoof for the bicentennial, when Garry Marshall, Ms. Marshall’s brother, asked if the two women would guest star on his show “Happy Days” as easy dates for Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and Richie (Ron Howard). Fonzie claimed Laverne for himself, while Shirley was meant for Richie, reuniting Ms. Williams with her “American Graffiti” co-star, Mr. Howard, who had played her boyfriend in that film.