Question: Please help settle a bet (there's a bottle of champagne riding on this one). I say Laverne & Shirley was a spin-off of Happy Days, but my know-it-all brother insists only Mork and Mindy was. Who's right? Thanks.
Answer: Get ready for some free bubbly courtesy of your humble sibling, Denise. Right you are.
As you say, those lovable blue-collar gals Laverne DeFazio (Penny Marshall) and Shirley Feeney (Cindy Williams) initially appeared as dates for Fonzie (Henry Winkler) and Richie (Ron Howard) on Happy Days. They proved popular enough to warrant their own series, which went on to regularly beat its parent sitcom on the Top 10 ratings list (earning the No. 1 spot for both the '77-78 and '78-79 seasons) during its 1976-83 run on ABC. The funny thing is, the two actresses only took the roles as a favor Marshall doing it for brother Garry, who produced Happy Days, and Williams agreeing to it only after Winkler twisted her arm.
For her part, Bronx native Marshall only moved to L.A. after divorcing her first husband and falling into a personal crisis over what to do with her life. Her brother cast her as Oscar Madison's (Jack Klugman) secretary on his hit show The Odd Couple, but that didn't do much to help her confidence or happiness quotient. ("My sister isn't one of the really "up" people of the world," her producer sibling told TV Guide in 1976.) And much of that downer attitude came from her self-image problems. "I'm insecure mostly because of my looks," she said at the time. "I just cannot bring myself to accept that the homely person on the screen is me... I've got a pretty good idea what I look like standing next to Cindy, who's little, cute, has dimples and a high voice. I was in analysis for about four years. It helped, but not enough. I'm still constantly seeking approval."
Mind you, for someone with a major confidence problem, the lady's gone pretty darn far toward garnering that approval. Like ex-husband Rob Reiner, she's directed her share of big-screen hits, with such films as Big, A League of Their Own and Awakenings on her résumé.
Meanwhile, Williams had problems of her own. Wary that a costar whose brother and father (Tony Marshall) were producers of the show would mean a disadvantage cloutwise, she complained during the comedy's run that Laverne got all the attention and juicy lines. At one point in 1976, after Williams' manager demanded Shirley get her fair share of the gags, the actress got fed up and walked off the set, returning only after a writer she championed was brought in. "I had signed on to do this terrific character, see?" Williams said in a 1977 TV Guide interview. "But the show was thrown together so quickly that the terrific part got washed away. 'Come on, fellas,' I said, 'let's get back on the track.' But they never did. The thing was that Laverne, the cynic, was easier to write for than Shirley, the idealist. That's when I really started to get unhappy." (That unhappiness resulted in Williams leaving the show in 1982, but a few years later she told an interviewer there were no hard feelings.)
Marshall's key complaint was that Laverne and Shirley lost their rough edges when they jumped from Happy Days, where they were streetwise brawlers, to their own series, where they morphed into Lucy and Ethel. "We started the girls out tougher, but we keep having to pull back," she said. "The characters have potential, but they're certainly not the characters either Cindy or I envisioned. I thought we were going to have our hair in rollers and wear black scarves to cover our hickeys. But they don't think people want to see two toughies in their living room every week, so they mellowed us out and made us kind of blah. But we're a hit, so maybe they know what they're doing."
It seems they did. So enjoy the champagne and remember to keep the bottle pointed away from everyone's eyes when you pop the cork, huh? I don't want to be responsible for you, as my mom used to say, shooting somebody's eye out. And while you're toasting your superior smarts, tell your bro Joanie Loves Chachi joins Laverne & Shirley and Mork & Mindy on the Happy Days spin-off list.