From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
There's a fancy old French term explaining the implausible success of ABC's Laverne and Shirley—nostalgie de la boue or, roughly, romanticization of primitives. But Alan Arkin put it better to Cindy Williams, who plays Shirley: "You dare to be dumb." She and co-star Penny Marshall are cast as roommates toiling on the assembly line of Milwaukee's "Schotz" brewery. It's the second highest rated series on television. Except, that is, for the weeks it ranks first, meaning ahead of Happy Days, from which these Fonzie's Angels were originally spun off.

Cindy herself was appalled—"being a Christian"—the week her sitcom out-drew the NBC spectacular Jesus of Nazareth. Ratings aside, Williams has also gained press notice from her succession of off-camera connections, including Richard (Jaws) Dreyfuss; a three-year live-in relationship with writer-producer Harry Gittes (Jack Nicholson's pal and namesake in Chinatown); "a very short romance" with Barry (Petrocelli) Newman; a longer run with Henry Winkler himself (his autographed picture still sits in a pile of clutter beside her brass bed); then an office romance with David Lander, who plays "Squiggy" in her series; and now pop sculptor Larry Shapiro. ("We're still good friends," reports Lander gamely. "I'm so glad she's not going with a schmuck.") In the process of all that turnover, the winning innocent who plays Shirley also tried to clear her head with a year and a half of therapy.

At 29, Williams admits she's "pushing it trying to portray a 22-year-old" and acknowledges the competition with her series co-star, Marshall. One need not be paranoid to blame any disproportion in the two roles on the fact that Penny's brother and father happen to be co-producers of the show. Observes Cindy's agent, Pat McQueeney: "Working in a family situation like that, there's bound to be nepotism." And when the static builds, Cindy confesses that she "gets cranky. I can get riled and flare. I yelled a couple of times on the set and felt terrible." At one point last season she stomped off for good until she was guaranteed equal air time. "I'll blow up for one minute, but then I want to know what we're having for lunch," Williams laughs. She attributes her temper to "being part Italian," but so is Penny (whose own original family name was Marscharelli).

In spite of her complaints, Williams is a trouper and convincingly loyal to the show. "If I weren't on it, I'd watch it," she says. "It's a terrific physical comedy—like a good Daffy Duck cartoon. People tune in to see us both," she maintains, "because it is rare to have two women comedians play so well against each other."

Before Laverne and Shirley, Williams often felt her career "was in the toilet." She recalls going out into the California desert and praying, "Oh, Lord, will this ever end?" Her first movie role was a two-liner in The Blob, followed by longer parts in Travels with My Aunt, Francis Coppola's The Conversation and, most notably, as Ron Howard's sock-hop honey in American Graffiti. Though initially she balked at being boxed into a TV series and shot down a dozen flyers, she now realizes that Laverne and Shirley was "the best move I ever made. It turned my career around"—which is not to say she's parlayed TV superstardom into anything more than one queasily released R-rated picture titled The First Nudie Musical.

Cindy was born in the San Fernando Valley. Then her dad, an electronics technician, moved the family to a Dallas suburb. "Growing up in the country, you're left to the wilds of your imagination," Cindy reflects. "I remember being alone a lot as a child, and I still love to be alone." Upon her return to California her dramatic career, premiering with self-scripted commercials in front of the mirror at home, was encouraged at Birmingham High in Van Nuys by an inspiring drama teacher and a dazzling upperclassman, actress Sally Field. Next came two years at Los Angeles City College ("What they should teach is a course in how to pick yourself up again after you've been knocked down," Williams grumps) and emotional enlistment in the antiwar movement. "I was enraged that our nation could napalm villages and children," she recalls.

Baptized a Roman Catholic, she describes herself as "spiritual" and lately is intrigued by reincarnation. "Sometimes I light incense and a candle. It's so peaceful and quiet. The steadiness of the energy and the reliability of the warmth have a calming effect," she says. The same might be said for Cindy's present love, Shapiro, a 30-year-old she met on a blind date arranged by a psychologist friend. "I've never felt so close to anybody so quickly," remarks divorcé Shapiro, a sculptor of whimsical, bulbous-faced pottery. He has given Cindy his high school pin (a joke—their schools were fierce enemies), but has made no commitments. Not into housewifey types, he admires Cindy "for keeping things together." "Little does he know," she laughs.

Once worried about being an old maid "if I wasn't married by 25," Cindy now thinks differently. "Part of me wants to be married and have everybody around the table for Christmas. But, "she adds, "when you're married your life becomes integrated solely with that person. There are too many characters running around inside me. Maybe they should all be married to somebody different." She's considered single-parent adoption, but "with a child one must have a stable home—a male and female figure that will help them grow," she concedes, adding, "I couldn't call up my mother and scream, 'Come over and take care of little Eddie.' I would have to be strong and steady myself. Right now my career is my baby."

Home is an L.A. pad four minutes from the Paramount studio where she works. Conservative despite her more than $10,000 a week salary, she's bought herself a Ford Granada (and two small cars for her mom and sister), but sticks with her old friends and wardrobe. Just five years ago she was 30 pounds heavier on her mother's Italian cuisine. ("A real pudgeola," she says.) Today she's a wiry 5'4", 104 lbs. and rides, fences, swims and has taken up tennis.

Cindy's just completed season on the series was strained and exhausting. At one point she suffered from hypoglycemia and an intractable case of bronchitis. "I was so tired that I cried when I had to wake up," she recalls, and for a while she required a daily shot of antibiotics on the lunch break. So this spring she again fled to the desert. "No phones, no TV and no pressures around you," she exults. "I just looked at the stars and listened to the wind blow. Before, I'd gone there wanting work. This time I went there to get away from work." It was the quiet little country girl reliving her childhood. "In the end it will be just like that. I'll want to be free—to sit somewhere and look out at the trees and be alone. I know that about myself."