Cindy Williams’ run on Laverne & Shirley came to a seemingly abrupt end in the fall of 1982, when she left the show two episodes into its eighth season.
While viewers at home had seen Williams’ Shirley Feeney marry Walter Meeney in the eighth-season premiere (making her Shirley Feeney Meeney), it was a startling development for one-half of the show’s titular duo to depart so suddenly.
The change was just as shocking behind the scenes, and for good reason: In March 1982, Williams got pregnant with her daughter, Emily. She coordinated with the show to continue working through her pregnancy, recalling on Today in 2015, “I thought I was going to come back and they’d hide me behind benches, couches, pillows, and that wasn’t it.”
Instead, Williams said, the show had her scheduled to work through her due date that fall, all of which was stipulated in her contract. “When it came time for me to sign my contract for that season … I said, ‘I can’t sign this,'” Williams told Today. “And it went back and forth and back and forth, and it just never got worked out.”
Watch the Opening Credits to ‘Laverne & Shirley’
The actress chose to walk away from the sitcom instead of signing what today would be considered a discriminatory and unrealistic contract. With then-husband Bill Hudson, she’d later sue the show for $20 million (the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount). Williams told Today that soon after she left Laverne & Shirley she noticed that more and more shows were building nurseries on sets and providing nannies for their stars.
At the time, celebrity media wasn’t what it is today, and Williams’ decision to leave the series was left fairly opaque to both viewers and people watchers. Some reports said that a longstanding feud with costar Penny Marshall led to her decision to leave, while others claimed that Williams had made outrageous demands during contract negotiations, leading to her being fired from the role.
Watch a 2016 Interview With Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall
In reality, while Marshall and Williams’ relationship had become a bit strained because Marshall thought Williams’ husband was “a pain in the ass,” Marshall did try to get her costar to stay on the show, offering to do whatever it took to keep the duo together. “I don’t care, Cin. Lay in bed the whole time and be the biggest pain-in-the-ass pregnant person you’ve ever seen,” Marshall recalled saying. “I’ll run around! Just take care of the dialogue.”
When Williams chose to leave the show instead, Marshall tried to call her, but forces kept the two from speaking. “They wouldn’t put me through to her,” Marshall said. “I missed her not being there.”
Fans also missed Williams, and the actress’ abrupt departure left Marshall in an uncomfortable situation. “I was going out in front of the [studio] audience and they said, ‘What happened with Cindy?’ It was a drag.” Eventually, Williams and Marshall reconciled and hung out frequently until Marshall died in 2018.
The way Laverne & Shirley dealt with Williams’ departure on-air was jarring. In the second episode of Season 8 – which aired on Oct. 12, 1982 – things were seemingly normal with the wacky duo, as the pair spent a week in a store display before somehow being hypnotized to think they were chickens whenever they heard a bell.
Watch Cindy Williams’ Final Episode of ‘Laverne & Shirley’
In the show’s next episode, however, Shirley was gone, having disappeared while Laverne and Carmine were out at a dance contest. The plot noted that Shirley had packed up all her things and left in the space of a couple of hours under the guise of her new husband being transferred overseas, leaving only a note to say goodbye. It was an ignominious ending to Williams’ long run on the show, but one that reflected the climate for working mothers at the time.
Laverne & Shirley wasn’t renewed at the end of its eighth season, and the show quietly faded from ABC’s schedule after its season finale in May 1983. Meanwhile, Williams continued to have a long and successful acting career, appearing in a variety of other TV shows and films. In 2017, she released the memoir Shirley: I Jest!: A Storied Life, which chronicled her life on the classic sitcom and elsewhere in Hollywood.
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