The arrival of 2023 brought the departure of so many noted names to an unwelcome milestone to start the new year.
Actor Adam Rich and guitarist Jeff Beck, along with actress Carole Cook and singer Lisa Marie Presley, are among some who died in January 2023.
The death of Cindy Williams at age 75, and forever associated with her title role of ABC’s “Laverne & Shirley,” was announced on Monday, although her family later reported the actress had died earlier in the month on Jan. 25 “following a brief illness.”
I met and interviewed Williams a few times and she was always kind, forthright and never refused any questions. Our first encounter was in 2000 backstage at Star Plaza Theater in Merrillville, when she was appearing in a national touring production of the musical “Grease,” cast as high school principal Miss Lynch, opposite her former love interest TV co-star Eddie Mekka as the radio DJ character. Mecca, who died in 2021 at age 69, played Carmine Ragusa in “Laverne & Shirley.”
In 2007, cable network TV Land toyed with the idea of a reality show with the pilot series called “Penny and Cindy,” which planned to have Williams reunited with her “Laverne & Shirley” co-star Penny Marshall living in a LA mansion. Marshall, like Williams, died at age 75 but five years prior in December 2018. Most intriguing about the planned reality series project was the uneasy idea of having the two actresses paired together once again on the small screen, after what was reportedly a feuding relationship 25 years earlier during the final seasons of “Laverne & Shirley,” which boasted 150 episodes before it was canceled in 1983.
“Laverne & Shirley” was a spin-off series launched in 1976 from the hit show “Happy Days.” Produced by Marshall’s brother Garry Marshall, by the final seasons of the show, Williams and Marshall barely spoke to one another on the set when not filming, as Williams once told me. Mecca also told me in an interview: “I always just tried to stay out of the line of fire.”
Both actresses already had successful careers prior to their shared series legacy playing their title roommate characters, which seemed to be a true on-screen chemistry. Williams had even been considered as one of the actresses George Lucas envisioned for the role of Princess Leia for the “Star Wars” film franchise, before Carrie Fisher was cast as the character.
As for the strife on the set of “Laverne & Shirley,” Williams and Marshall competed about everything from the size of their dressing rooms to counting how many lines each actress had in the script of each weekly episode. Williams blamed Garry Marshall for preferential treatment of his sister, and Penny Marshall blamed Williams’ husband at the time, singer and producer Bill Hudson (the couple divorced in 2000), for interfering with contract negotiations in hopes he would be given position as a co – producer for the series.
Reader Evelyn LaHaie, the Gary talent producer who The Jackson Family acknowledges as the clever show biz promoter who named their group the Jackson Five, wrote to me after the death of Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida at age 95 on Jan. 16.
“So many people forget Gina Lollobrigida not only gave us all of her great films, about also a popular hair-do craze in the 1950s called ‘the poodle cut’ which every gal had to have, including myself,” LaHaie said.
LaHaie included newspaper clippings of herself sporting the Gina-inspired hairstyle on the cover of Sept. 7, 1958 “Panorama” Sunday lifestyles features section of The Post-Tribune. LaHaie’s pictorial was published to promote “The Gary Artists League Annual Masquerade Ball” which was set to be held on Sept. 27 that year as the Hotel Gary.
Actress Mary Zentmyer, in the habit guise of snarky stage nun Sister Mary for a 30th Anniversary performance of the long-running Chicago hit “Late Nite Catechism,” hit the stage for a sold-out audience at Theater at the Center in Munster on Jan 29. She also used her final bow and a curtain speech to raise money for a wonderful cause.
Following the performance, Zentmyer asked the audience for “loose cash” donations for the retired nuns at St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Terre Haute, where Zentmyer’s great aunt lived as one of the Sisters of Providence. I’m pleased to report that more than $1,000 was raised from the audience generosity and the funds have already been mailed of this worthy cause. By the way, Zentmyer has been performing as a “Late Nite Catechism” stage now for 27 of the 30 years the show has been in existence, and was trained by the show’s co-creators Vicki Quade and Maripat Donovan.
Philip Potempa is a journalist, published author and the director of marketing at Theater at the Center. He can be reached at [email protected]
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