She, on the other hand, is at the Huron Country Playhouse for a starring role in the Drayton musical comedy Thoroughly Modern Millie, which casts her as a comically despicable slave trader in a role that will tap into both her comedic talents and the goodwill engendered by her TV past.
And so, as I fire off questions about sitcom life in the ’70s, she discreetly tries to steer the conversation back toward this play about a 1920s flapper who heads to the big city to marry a rich banker.
Back and forth, forth and back, until it gradually becomes clear that:
- Thirty-seven years after she left her TV megahit to start a family, her link with the meek, excitable goofball who shouted “Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated” is as strong as ever.
- Her comedic role in Millie, which she compares to a sitcom without cameras, is a direct descendant of the kind of frothy, clean-cut humour of her TV past.
- Despite her determination to stick to the present, she really likes talking about Laverne & Shirley.
“I had this person come up the other night,” she recalls in her engaging, conspiratorial fashion. “I heard her sing in a club and she was crying and I realized she was transsexual and she said, ‘You don’t know how your show got me through my childhood!’
“And I’ve had more people say that to me. And I understand, because I was a kid with an alcoholic father whose parents would get in violent fights. And I’d be watching (’50s sitcoms) My Little Margie or Your Show of Shows, and they would take me away.
“It was ‘forget your troubles, come on, get happy.’”
When Williams first walks into the empty theatre where this interview takes place, I’m taken aback by the fact that, four decades later, she’s still clearly Shirley.
The chewing gum she snaps as we shake hands, the girlish dimples, the broad smile, the sensible shoes — everything about her screams fun-loving, mischievous, self-deprecating sitcom queen from an earlier, more innocent era.
“It’s like being in the ’50s!” she says of Grand Bend, the tiny beach town where she was encamped for rehearsals preceding the play’s June 5 kickoff.
“It’s just slow and lovely … lots of space … the people are polite. I’m used to living in Las Vegas, so it’s a little opposite.”
That locals who have posted on Facebook about spotting her in the drugstore remember her all these years later speaks not just to the enduring bond she forged with her audience, but to the fact that audience was so big.
A No. 1 sitcom in the ’70s, when there were only three TV networks, no social media and few entertainment alternatives, meant that, unlike today, everyone watched it and knew your name, which made her and Marshall, in their time, bigger than the Beatles.
“It totally took things in another direction,” agrees the 71-year-old comic trouper, whose accidental TV foray after a guest spot on Happy Days overshadowed a promising film career in classics like American Graffiti and The Conversation.
“And of course you get typecast. I’m forever Shirley! But it’s a blessing, an absolute blessing. And when you do a show like that and bring happiness to people, it’s reciprocated and it’s a wonderful thing.”
If it sounds like the usual celebrity banter, it is but, like the character she played, Williams comes off as genuine, funny, in the moment.
Even at the peak of its cultural clout, Williams says she and Marshall were in a bubble, too busy filming to gauge the show’s impact.
“We were in the studio and we never left because it was such a gruelling show to do,” she notes without regret. “So none of the fame tracked for us. We stayed down to earth, and playing those characters kept us down to earth.”
She did get an inkling during an “otherworldly” drive home one night from the set.
“I was giving Penny a ride and, in Hollywood, there’s all these little bungalows right on the street with their windows open. We were at a stoplight at Fairfax and Hollywood Blvd., and as we pulled out we looked to the right, and you could see the TVs and it’s us!“
She laughs. “That was so weird.’’
There were, of course, other indicators, like the New York Times she spotted on set one day with the headline “Laverne & Shirley Drives ABC Stock Through Roof.”
“I said, ‘Penny, c’mere, look at this,’” she recalls with a twinkle. “She goes: ‘Yeah, that’s something. What does it mean?’ That’s about the closest we came to us saying, ‘We’re popular!’”
She smiles: “To this day, if she were still here, God bless her, we’d still be saying, ‘How popular was that show?’”
Marshall, sadly, died of various ailments in December at 75, a loss that — despite their reported feuds — Williams felt deeply.
“We fought, yeah, but when we got out onstage you couldn’t put a playing card between us,” she explains. “Because we just read each other’s minds.
“We had perfect rhythm and were great counterparts. We could just look at each other and know what we were gonna do onstage.
“I love her and I know she loved me. But we had utterly different personalities and attitudes toward life. She called me ‘the schoolmarm,’ which I wasn’t. But she’s a task mistress and I’m not.”
It’s of no consequence to Williams that critics hated their show, described its humour as “cockeyed” and that “we were sort of shunned.”
You were the Led Zeppelin of sitcoms, I tell her: idolized by fans, panned by critics.
“Well, thank you for that,” she jokes. “Where’s the stairway to heaven?”
There’s a joke on TV’s The Simpsons in which patriarch Homer confuses his life with characters from the ’50s-set Happy Days, telling his wife, “It’ll be great to see the old gang again: Potsie, Ralph Malph, the Fonz.”
“That wasn’t you!” protests Marge. “That was Happy Days!”
“They weren’t all happy days,” insists Homer, confusing TV reality with his own. “Like the time Pinky Tuscadero crashed her motorcycle, or the night I lost all my money to those card sharks and my dad, Tom Bosley, had to get it back.”
In an equally amusing way, Williams recalls plots of famous Laverne & Shirley episodes as if they happened to her personally.
“We never tried to rise above or have some highfalutin storyline,” she insists. “It always had to be the wolf at our heels or we couldn’t pay the rent: blue-collar problems everybody goes through.
“I remember one time I got a cheque back from the electric company, and they were reimbursing us and we knew it was wrong. And we struggled with the moral thing of keeping it or giving it back.”
As independent career women in an era when men ruled the roost, she and Marshall have been retroactively tagged as feminists, a word Williams has decidedly mixed feelings about.
“People come up, ‘Oh, what you did for women and feminism!’ And Penny and I go … (shrugs) … because we just assumed everybody’s problems are everyone else’s problems.
“I, of course, would have marched to vote and things like that, but I’m not a screaming feminist who thinks men are out to get them.
“I love men and animals and everything, although our bosses at Paramount, we found out, gave us half the salary they were giving (Happy Days stars) Ron Howard and Henry Winkler.”
She mulls this over, momentarily peeved, then bounces back, cheerful as ever.
“But I’m from the ’50s,” she says unapologetically. “I think the man is the head of the household … I’m just like that. I think that’s masculinity and I love that.”
It’s intriguing that she says she’s “from the ’50s.” Even as an actor, she’s always been a woman out of time.
In 1973, American Graffiti — which paired her with pre-Happy Days Howard — cast her as an early ’60s high schooler in a film with the immortal ad line, “Where were you in ’62?” (“Junior high,” she says when I ask. “Because I remember they were shooting the film The Music Man in the San Fernando Valley where I lived.”)
In Laverne & Shirley, she occupied the prepsychedelic ’50s and ’60s.
In Thoroughly Modern Millie, she enters a portal back to the Roaring Twenties.
“It’s got beats,” she says proudly. “Garry Marshall (who produced Laverne & Shirley) also produced The Odd Couple, which is Neil Simon, which is great comedy.
“And this play has that: great writing, especially Mrs. Meers, and all kinds of political incorrectness in this play for the fun of it.”
It’s been a contentious point in some productions, with the play’s Asian slave-trading subplot tagged racist, but Williams insists this version is pure comedy.
“I run a human slavery ring, but it’s making fun of it. It’s showing how stupid it is and horrible. But you don’t ever say that — it’s just that the audience is smart.
“They’re gonna laugh at it and not hate themselves tomorrow and not call the #MeToo movement, because Millie could never be written today.”
“She wants to marry her boss, a rich man, and get a job … (wry pause) … but isn’t that a feminist also?”
She sighs contentedly. “The play has all the great stuff in it, just like Laverne & Shirley had all the great stuff in it.”
And, not for the first time, our interview comes full circle.
Thoroughly Modern Millie is at the Huron County Playhouse, RR 1, 70689 B Line, Grand Bend, until June 22. See www.draytonentertainment.com for information.Joel Rubinoff writes for the Waterloo Region Record. Email him email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @JoelRubinoff