Groundbreaking sitcom Mork and Mindy was always doomed to fail. This weird comedy about an alien and his human pal reached a U.S. audience of 60 million viewers every week, and launched Robin Williams’ career. And then, it tanked. We talked to the show’s writers and director, who told us the fascinating story of the making—and unmaking—of Mork and Mindy.
Robin Williams took a one-off joke character on Happy Days, the alien Mork from Ork, and created something unforgettable. His insane routines spawned a spinoff, which became one of the most popular science fiction shows of all time. But in season two, network execs at ABC and the show’s producers made a series of famously terrible decisions that squandered Mork and Mindy’s popularity. Every attempt to restore the sitcom to its former glory only made its fatal flaw more obvious: You can’t build an entire show around one virtuoso performance.
In the process of researching this article, I talked to six former writers/producers, and the show’s main director, Howard Storm. There was way too much material for a single article, so you can also read a much longer “oral history” version, made up of just their own words.
“The most horrible idea I’ve ever heard”
In 1977, everybody was watching Happy Days’ folksy portrayal of 1950s middle America. And then one day, show creator Garry Marshall’s eight-year-old son had a brainwave: What if a spaceman visited the Cunningham family and met Fonzie, the show’s popular “greaser” character? When Marshall brought his son’s idea to the Happy Days writers’ room, everybody was sure they had an epic disaster on their hands.
“We looked at each other like, ‘God, that’s the most horrible idea I’ve ever heard,’” recalls Brian Levant, who had just joined Happy Days as a writer and story editor. “We drew straws to see who drew the short straw and had to write the script.”
To make matters worse, the episode was due to film in two days and they couldn’t find anybody to play Mork, the alien from Ork who wants to take Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) back to his home planet for study. Roger Rees, who played the Sheriff of Nottingham in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, took the role, but had to drop out. They tried to get Dom DeLuise, but he said no. Then a third actor read the script, and also said no.
At last, Garry Marshall’s older sister Ronny Hallin, who was an associate producer on Happy Days, had an idea. She remembered seeing a comedian named Robin Williams do a “spaceman” bit as part of his stand-up routine. They got in touch with Williams just in time for the Wednesday afternoon run-through, with the show set to film that Friday.
That’s when something amazing happened. “They called us down for the most amazing run-through in the world,” remembers Levant. “We saw one guy who embodied all three Marx Brothers, Chaplin, the Three Stooges, and William F. Buckley in the same body.” Afterwards, at the weekly post-run-through meeting, [Happy Days star] Tom Bosley “gave a speech about discovering a great comedic talent,” Levant says.
Suddenly, this disposable, embarrassing one-off episode had become something special–entirely because of what Robin Williams brought to the role. Williams’ creativity and quick wit inspired the Happy Days writers, who rushed to rewrite their script to capitalize on Williams’ performance. At that point, the Happy Days staff started coming up with a lot of Mork’s defining traits, like drinking with his finger. Or the idea that he would sit in a chair with his head, instead of his butt.
“Everyone was firing on all cylinders that night, believe me,” says Levant. “It was just sensational. The guy was on fire.”
All the writers and producers on Mork and Mindy say the same thing: Robin Williams took their material and made it immeasurably better. He challenged them to push their own limits in the scripts, to live up to what they knew he could do. These creators struggled to build a lasting edifice out of Williams’ spontaneous, random inventions—and over time, that edifice would come to constrain Williams. But at first, it lifted him up.
There was no pilot
Even before the audience phone calls started coming in after that Happy Days episode, everybody knew that Mork from Ork deserved his own TV show. So Garry Marshall didn’t even bother to shoot a pilot for the spin-off, or even write a treatment. Instead, Marshall just took footage of Mork from Happy Days, and edited in footage from a pilot where Pam Dawber had starred as a nun in civilian clothing. The pitch, says Levant, was a single question: “What happens when this wacky spaceman meets this down-to-Earth girl?”
Williams and Dawber didn’t meet until they were in Boulder, filming the opening credits of the TV show. And there was no script until the show was ready to launch.
Weren’t they worried that Williams might not be able to replicate the magic of his Happy Days routine? That Mork was a one-off? “Nobody worries about that,” says April Kelly, who wrote the first-ever Mork and Mindy script. “If people worried about [things like] that, there’d be no television.”
But for Mork to carry his own TV show, he needed to be more sympathetic than the alien interloper trying to experiment on Richie Cunningham. In the spinoff, we get a version of Mork who is more curious and childlike. Ed Scharlach, one of the show’s main producers, says the writers built on the idea that Mork “came here to learn about Earth and the people who live here, and wound up learning about himself.”
A big part of what made Mork adorable was his relationship with Mindy, played by Dawber. “Pam Dawber never got her due,” says Howard Storm, who directed 59 episodes in the show’s first three seasons. To Storm, Dawber’s ability to provide something to ground Williams’ flights of fancy was vital—and so was her patience in waiting out his “tantrums,” so she could then feed him the next line of dialogue. “She was the life of the show,” says Storm.
In addition to Mindy, the first season introduced Mindy’s father, Fred (Conrad Janis) and her maternal grandmother Cora (Elizabeth Kerr). And one of the show’s main sets in the first season was Fred’s music store.
Once the writers realized what a versatile actor Williams was, in both comedy and drama, they went out of their way to give him “ticker moments,” or heart-warming bits, in every episode. Kelly, who went on to create the show Boy Meets World, became known in the writer’s room as the “Queen of Ticker,” because she was so good at crafting those scenes.
“They’d say, ‘Hey, could you throw some lines in here that sound like people should give a shit?’ And I would say, ‘Okay, I’ll try,’” Kelly recalls. “It pissed me off. I always associated that with [the idea] that, ‘Oh, the girl writes that.’ And I know they didn’t mean that—they just knew [that] I could maybe access my humanity a little better than them, or something.”
In an early episode written by Kelly, Mindy’s grandmother Cora is sad because all her friends have died. So Mork turns himself into an old man and “dates” her. In the end, she confesses she knew it was Mork all along.
Williams also got to show off his more serious side at the end of every show, when Mork would use telepathy to report back to his Orkan superior, Orson, about what he’d learned on Earth that week. This bit, called the Black Box sequence because it was filmed in the blackness of Mork’s mind, were frequently used as vehicles for summing up the moral of the episode. The lesson “either came naturally out of the episode, or we would have to cram it in,” says David Misch, who was a producer on the first two seasons.
At that time, most sitcoms ended with the characters having learned a lesson, or with “group-hug points,” says Jeff Reno, who was a writer on the third season. The difference with Mork and Mindy was that they actually came out and said what the lesson was.
“He would climb the walls”
While the writers tried to build a structure where Mork had ticker moments and learned a lesson each week, Robin Williams was eager to push the show in more challenging directions. Producer Misch, who shared an agent with Williams, met with the actor before the show even started filming. “He was very ambitious, and he wanted it to be a hip show. He wanted it to reflect who he was,” says Misch.
“Something within me told me that I should tamp down his expectations,” Misch adds. “I said, ‘You know, I’m not sure how much of the hip comedy that you love so much is going to get in the show. I’m sure you’ll be able to inject some, but it is going to be, for the most part, a standard sitcom.’ And I think I was right.”
In the end, Mork and Mindy really was “a conventional sitcom, with lines that we knew Robin could do better than anyone else,” says Misch. “A lot of that show could have been done by other actors—the show would not have been successful, but they could have done it.” The only thing that elevated Mork and Mindy above a regular sitcom, according to Misch, was the little bit of edgy humor that Williams was able to inject here and there.
There was a pervasive myth at the time that Williams ad-libbed all his lines on Mork and Mindy. This drove the writers nuts, because Williams always followed the script. Misch says their standard response was, “We’re up until four in the morning, writing Robin’s ad-libs.” The writers worked incredibly long hours, going over every line in a script as a group, trying to come up with funnier jokes.
The only time Williams would ad-lib like crazy was when he wasn’t on camera.
Directing the first episode of Mork and Mindy, Storm started to panic because Williams was doing non-stop improv in rehearsals. On Thursday night, with filming due to happen on Friday, Storm had no idea whether Williams knew any of his lines, or what they were going to get on camera. Then on Friday morning at 9 AM, Williams walked in knowing every line in the script and all of his marks.
“Robin could read the script once, and just about swallow it. He had that kind of a mind,” says Storm.
After that, Storm and Williams had an understanding. Williams could “climb the walls” in rehearsals and do whatever he felt like. When it got close to filming, Storm would “peel back,” and they would do the episode exactly as written.
The word that comes to mind watching Williams’ early performances in the role of Mork is “subversive.” You can’t always tell if he’s really innocent, or if he’s just playing innocent to troll people. This ambiguous quality was something that Kelly says the writers were keen to capitalize on. He’s dropped into the cozy world of late 1970s Boulder, and he causes mayhem and disruption wherever he goes.
Mork and Mindy was filmed with four cameras, though most TV shows in the 1970s used three. Watching any episode, you can see why that extra camera was needed—we’re constantly cutting from one angle to another, as each camera strives to follow all of Williams’ frenetic, physical routines.
To some extent, the character of Mork is pure schtick. He’s best known for saying “nanu nanu” instead of hello, using “shazbot” as an expletive, and greeting everyone with his funny sideways handshake. But in the early episodes, Mork has a giddy sensuousness that seems like it could turn explosively weird at any moment. He spends a lot of the first episode wearing a business suit backwards, so he looks like a priest from the front and a drunken yuppie from behind. Nobody understands why Mindy is letting this strange man live in her house, and the question of where Mork is going to sleep is a huge issue. He’s sleeping in her closet, but when she objects to that, he wonders if he can sleep with her in bed. Ultimately, they put him in the attic, at a safe remove.
Any joke you gave Williams, he would go “balls to the wall” with, says Kelly. Even if he didn’t personally understand a joke, “instead of holding back or giving it a half-assed toss,” he would commit to it.
And every now and then, says Storm, the writers would work with Williams to refine a scene they’d written. In one episode, Mork was supposed to be playing poker, and doing the voices of all five poker players. Williams couldn’t see a way to make five unique characters stand out in a two-minute scene, so Storm suggested changing it to “an old Jew and an old WASP playing chess.” When Williams acted that out, it was hilarious and the writers ran with it. Misch says that the writers would also watch Williams do stand-up–which he did every night–and borrow stuff from his act to put in the show, says Misch.
“She’s the alien”
The show was called Mork and Mindy, but Mork was always the center of attention. In fact, Misch says he and Kelly pushed for an episode that would develop Mindy’s character further, in which she agonizes over what to do with her life. But “the word from on high” was that “Mindy’s got to be the normal American girl, ‘cause that’s how Mork can play off her.”
We were thinking: She’s the alien. She has no job, she has no ambition, she has no friends. She evidently never thinks about sex—or anything, other than saying the line, ‘Mork, what are you doing?’ We thought, if we give her an actual character with neuroses and things like that, that would be more fun for Robin to play off. But they didn’t think so.
In fact, says Storm, because the character of Mork was so naive and innocent, it was as if Mindy “was taking care of a child.” Mindy “was always finding a way to make sure [Mork] didn’t do the wrong thing—to protect him from the outside world, and to try and make him understand what life was really about.”
In effect, Mindy is the “straight man” of Mork and Mindy. This is “a thankless role,” but it’s important, says Kelly. “Look at Richie Cunningham on Happy Days... They even wrote a show one time where Richie was afraid he was a dull guy. And he was wonderful. And everybody loved him.”
Even when the writers came up with funny material for Dawber, she was reluctant to commit to it, says Kelly. A former model, Dawber needed a lot of convincing that it was okay to look foolish or a little disheveled for the sake of comedy. They wrote scenes where Mork walks in on Dawber in a ratty bathrobe with a mudpack on her face, or ruins her manicure, and they “had to persuade her that looking foolish doesn’t make people hate you.”
“They took a hit show, and they ruined it.”
In its first season, Mork and Mindy was an immense cultural force. Buddy Hackett went on the Tonight Show and talked about going to China and being greeted with Mork’s catchphrase “Nanu Nanu” and the Orkan salute, because Chinese people thought that’s how Americans greeted each other. Ginger Rogers attended rehearsals of the show. Tons of American fraternities and sororities had “Mork and Mindy nights,” where college students would gather to watch the show.
The terrible decisions that wrecked the second season of Mork and Mindy are legendary. ABC moved the series from Thursdays to Sundays, putting it up against the mega-popular All in the Family. The show also ditched most of its supporting cast, including Mindy’s family, and replaced them with Remo and Jeannie, a brother-and-sister duo who ran a deli. The idea was that they would appeal to younger audiences. Also joining the cast as a semi-regular character was legendary character actor Tom Poston, who played curmudgeonly neighbor Mr. Bickley.
“I don’t know what they were thinking. I just thought it was total madness,” says Storm.
Misch says everybody was worried about Williams having to be a “one-man band” and carry the whole show himself, so they hoped a new supporting cast would take some of the pressure off Williams. But according to Storm, nobody talked to Williams before they decided to change the whole supporting cast on him. “Knowing Robin, Robin would have fought for them,” he adds.
Mixing up the cast didn’t solve the underlying problem. Mindy’s father and grandmother had become weak characters because the writers put all their energy into writing for Mork. The more they did this, the less those characters were able to help carry the show, and the more they had to focus on Mork. The exact same problem plagued season two, with its new cast.
In the end, the combination of the Sunday time slot and the revamped format drove the show’s ratings down dramatically. “They took a hit show and [ruined it],” says Storm.
“Morko the Pin-Headed Boy”
By season two, Robin Williams had also gotten tired of playing Mork as a wide-eyed visitor to Earth who doesn’t understand our customs. “Robin was losing faith in the character, and was afraid it made him look stupid,” says Kelly. “He started thinking that instead of being childlike, Mork was childish. And he resented it.”
Adds Misch, “What he would say, especially in the second season, was, ‘You know, in the first year, it’s naive. In the second year, it’s stupid.’ But our response to that was, ‘You may be right—but if Mork learns about sex, there’s no show. If Mork knows what Earth is like, we got nothing. Then it’s just you being goofy, and there’s no context for it.’”
Kelly says Williams started referring to Mork as “Morko the Pin-Headed Boy.” “He had no respect for the character by then,” she says. “When you start hating the character you’re playing, or second-guessing it, the role suffers.”
Misch went to see Williams in his first HBO comedy special, and it was like watching a man throw off a straitjacket. “He just swore up a blue streak, and grabbed his crotch, and did all the things he enjoyed doing. He just loved that freedom,” says Misch. “He was this brilliant comic actor, and he was being limited to one overall characterization, which was ‘naive.’”
Meanwhile, says Storm, Williams started refusing to say any of Mork’s catch-phrases, like “nanu nanu” or “shazbot.” Storm tried to explain he needed to do these things, “to keep the character alive, [but] he was just hellbent on not doing it.” Storm tried to rationalize it to him: “Look, in reality, if you came from Italy, and Italian was your first language, you would use it when you got excited or frightened, and would also be comfortable using it around Mindy, who knows where you came from.” But this didn’t sway Williams.
Williams also started inserting more and more ironic pop-culture references into the show. The writers tried to rationalize it by saying that he might have seen this stuff on Mindy’s TV set, but the jokes felt jarring coming from the clueless alien that audiences had gotten to know in season one. Williams also started to “do relatively innocent lines, and put a sort of sexual smirk on them—which got a huge laugh from the audience, but undermined the character,” says Misch.
“What I saw happening was, the show was becoming a thing about a stand-up comic snorting coke in Boulder and being political,” says Storm. “Without the sweetness and the naive, childlike human being, it didn’t work.”
The Raquel Welch episode
With the show’s ratings on their way down, ABC decided to boost the show with “jiggle,” a term that 1970s network execs used for T&A. At the time, ABC was having huge success with so-called jiggle shows like Three’s Company and Charlie’s Angels. So they recruited Raquel Welch to play an alien “Necroton,” who captures Mork.
Unfortunately, this episode was farmed out to a freelancer, who turned in a script that was both sleazy and deeply unfunny. The writers had two days to turn this impending disaster into “funny sleaze,” according to Misch.
Meanwhile, “Raquel Welch was any director’s nightmare,” according to Storm. Her two lieutenants were played by Broadway dancer Vicki Frederick and former Playboy Playmate of the Year Debra Jo Fondren, and Welch was threatened by having to share the stage with them. First she objected to having them enter before her. Then she suggested that they wear dog masks; she could lead them around on leashes.
Storm says he told her, “Raquel, your character is too strong. You don’t need to have them in dog masks or leashes. All you need to do is snap your fingers. Those girls will drop to their knees.” Welch liked that idea.
At one point, Robin Williams was talking to Raquel Welch about her concerns about the other two Necrotons. Pam Dawber stepped in and agreed with Williams. “Honey, please,” said Welch. Then stepped right in front of Dawber, cutting her off, and kept talking to Williams.
“Pam made a fist and made believe she was hitting [Raquel Welch] in the back of the head, and walked away,” says Storm. After that, “Pam would do that every time she came on stage. She’d sneak up behind Raquel, and make believe she was punching her in the head.”
According to Misch, the episode included one scene where Welch was supposed to “torture” Robin Williams, but “the ‘joke’ was that all her tortures were sexy.” She would put Mork in a hot tub, and “torture” him by rubbing him. The sets had already been ordered based on the freelancer’s awful script, so they had to use the hot tub. “We had no way to not do that scene. So we tried to write it funny, and I think we did,” says Misch.
Once the scene was over, everybody was supposed to get out of the hot tub and go on to the next scene. But Williams said, “I’m afraid I’m not going to be getting out of the hot tub.” As Misch puts it, he had “a piece of physical anatomy that had gotten not appropriate for the audience to see at that point. Raquel Welch had been rubbing him all over.”
“Putting the Ork back in Mork”
By the end of season two, Kelly says, she was desperate to leave Mork and Mindy. She told her agent, “If they make an offer, don’t tell me the amount, because I’m afraid it’ll tempt me.” At that point, says Kelly, it was clear: “[Williams is] doing drugs. The show’s going down in flames. And I ain’t going to be here for the big fall.”
By the time season three started, everyone who remained on the writing staff agreed the show had huge problems. Mork and Mindy’s original concept of an alien coming to Earth and learning about humanity had gotten lost in Robin Williams’ wisecracks and a slew of gimmicky stories like the Welch episode.
“The producers, and the people who created the show, had decided they sort of needed a rebirth,” says Jeff Reno, who joined the show as a writer for its third season.
The season three opener is called “Putting the Ork back in Mork,” and it’s a two-part episode about Mork regaining his innocence. Which is just as weird and metafictional as it sounds. Mork shows up in a leisure suit with a pipe, talking about income taxes and pretending that he and Mindy are a suburban couple. Mindy complains to her father that Mork doesn’t do Orkan things any more, like drinking with his finger and speaking Orkan.
Mork’s boss Orson sends down an Orkan “elder,” who is a small child because Orkans age backwards. After a lot of “cute kid playing old” gags, the elder says that Mork has been infected with “Earth spirits,” and he needs to be purged. So they do an “eggsorcism” (because everything on Ork is egg-based), complete with some seriously bizarre riffs on Linda Blair from Mork.
To make the show feel more like the first season again, the writers also brought back Conrad Janis as Mindy’s father, Fred. “The show’s writers were trying to get it back on track,” says Storm. “But unless Robin was willing to do that, they were hopeless.”
“I know you’re two people, and I don’t like the other guy.”
In the break between seasons two and three, Robin Williams had filmed Robert Altman’s musical Popeye, which was such a lavish production that its sets remain a tourist attraction in Malta to this day.
This was such a mind-blowing experience that it left its mark on Williams. Now, when Storm tried to give Williams a note, even one as simple as asking him to say a particular line louder, he wouldn’t accept the feedback. He would walk away and mutter things in a “Popeye” voice out of the corner of his mouth: “Ehhh, bullshit note,” and “Gehhhh, what do they know?”
The second time this happened, Storm says he told Williams: “Robin, I know you’re two people. And I don’t like the other guy.” Williams agreed to stop doing the snarky “Popeye” commentary.
Williams never challenged people directly. According to Storm, he avoided conflict at all costs.
Storm remembers one occasion, when “Robin was ad-libbing, and he did something that [Pam Dawber] felt was insulting to her. I don’t know exactly what it was. But they walked off, and Pam said to him, ‘If you ever do anything like that again to me, I will just slap you in the face,’ or whatever. She was just furious at him.” Williams immediately “melted,” says Storm. “Cause he loved her. And she loved him. They were just such good friends. And had such respect for each other.”
Wendy Kout, who joined the show in season three as a writer, had an impression of Williams as a “shy man,” who would show his appreciation for her writing by going and giving her a hug. “He definitely kept to himself, and he couldn’t really look you in the eye,” says Kout. But still, he was getting harder and harder to control.
Mindy gets a career
Eventually, the writers were allowed to develop the character of Mindy. The third season has a whole arc where Mindy gets a job in broadcasting. There were a handful of episodes about Mindy trying to interview celebrities (including Robin Williams), and starting a gossip show. “Oh, so we’re paying attention to Mindy now,” Kout remembers saying. “That was good for the character.”
As Mindy becomes more successful in her career, Mork becomes more insecure about possibly getting left behind. “That was a good aspect to play,” says Brian Levant, who joined the show in the third season as a creative consultant. “That comes from something real.”
At the same time, the romance between Mork and Mindy, which had been played up in season two, was downplayed in the third season. Reno, who wrote for the show during this season, believed the show should be about “a very unique male-female friendship,” rather than a courtship.
But when the show entered its fourth and final season, the relationship between the two main characters was suddenly pushed forward again.
ABC only allowed Mork and Mindy to return for a fourth season on the condition that the show get completely revamped. Again. That’s why Mork and Mindy suddenly get married, Mork becomes pregnant, and they have a baby played by Jonathan Winters (remember: Orkans age backwards).
“I thought that the stuff between Robin and Pam leading up to the wedding was just wonderful,” says Levant, who was executive producer of the final season. “Honeymooning on Ork, you know? It didn’t ever come out exactly the way we wanted it to, but it was fun.”
The sitcom got a lot of publicity out of the wedding, Mork’s pregnancy, and Winters joining the cast. They had a national contest to name Mork’s baby, and then waited until someone chose the name they had already picked out: Mearth.
Jonathan Winters was Williams’ hero, so bringing him into the cast helped reinvigorate Williams’ interest in the show. But unfortunately Winters was incapable of learning his lines, had a hard time staying in character, and struggled with depression. Storm, who directed Winters in a third-season episode, said they had to give Winters cue cards so he could recall his lines.
Still, says Kout, “it was a lot of fun to work on a whole other part of Mork and Mindy’s relationship.” She enjoyed writing some of the key episodes, including one where Mindy has a hard time bonding with her “baby,” who looks like an older man. Kout also liked the way their baby opened up more opportunities for Mork to talk about the Orkan customs he wants to raise his child with.
“A little more ‘sitcom’”
By the fourth season, most of the show’s original writing staff were gone. Brian Levant, who had worked on Happy Days, was brought in as a new top producer. When I interviewed Levant, he asked who else I’d talked to about the show. He laughed nervously when I told him the names: “Oh, all the people I got rid of.”
Reno and his writing partner Ron Osborn left after season three because they didn’t want to work with Levant, whose “sensibilities didn’t match” with the existing writing staff. Levant “was coming from the Laverne and Happy Days camp, and I think his sensibilities were probably a little broader, and a little more zany,” says Reno. “A little more ‘sitcom.’” He adds, “It wasn’t a good mix of people on [the writing staff], in terms of the kinds of shows we wanted to do.”
Then Scharlach and his writing partner Tom Tenowich left to start another series. They had been the bedrock of the show, and without them, things changed.
Kout, who stayed for that final year, says the show was “less heartfelt” under Levant. “Comedy was his priority… I don’t know why that change happened, and for me, it was a very disappointing change. It’s joke, joke, joke, without really [being] character-driven.”
Levant, for his part, says that the writers were “exhausted and beaten” when he joined the show as a creative consultant in season three. Adds Levant: “I was brought in to quarterback somebody’s else’s team, and they had loyalties to other people. But they couldn’t handle the network. They couldn’t keep the show from declining. I couldn’t keep the show from declining either—but you know, Garry [Marshall] trusted me.” The other writers “were from a different organization and a different methodology,” says Levant. “And yeah, I had to kick ass.”
Levant felt like adding the storyline about Mork’s baby was a way to “make the shows about something. To continue to learn and explore and discover.” After Mork, Levant went back to Happy Days in a more senior role, and later directed successful movies like Beethoven, The Flintstones and Jingle All the Way.
“Robin would get fun, get loosened up”
With the departure of Howard Storm, the main person Williams trusted on set, the process of filming Mork and Mindy was becoming ever more chaotic. “It would constantly take an hour to shoot the first four-or-five page scene,” says Levant about filming in the final season. “Robin would get fun, get loosened up. He’d make mistakes, he’d talk to the crowd, he’d break up Pam. It took a while to get rolling, for him to really get in the groove.”
“Sometimes, the studio audience would be so exhausted from laughing so hard at Robin’s performance to the crowd, and having fun, that a lot of things in the episode itself never got the response that [they] should have,” adds Levant. “People were literally worn out from laughing for two hours, before you got to the big scene.”
By this time, Williams was fully “living it up,” recalls Levant. “There was this dark side that was always operating. He was up at three AM with John Belushi and Robert De Niro the night Belushi died, [and then] he’s entering the studio at nine AM for rehearsal. It was burning the candle at both ends.”
“In hindsight, it’s pretty sad that everyone just kind of let it go, cause this was the 80’s. I guess that was expected behavior.” Williams showed up for the final wrap party for Mork and Mindy with Mick Jagger in tow. “He was a different person than we’d met on Happy Days.”
Mork and Mindy more or less ends on a cliffhanger. In the final episode, Mork and Mindy discover that Mork’s new alien friend, Kalnik, is evil and wants to kill Mork. To save himself, Mork reveals to the public that he’s an alien. Then, inexplicably, Mork and Mindy use magic shoes to travel through time. In the final scene, Mork and Mindy appear to be stranded in prehistoric times, and are seen in a cave painting. (This episode actually aired second-to-last, because the network rearranged the episode order.)
According to Levant, the producers had pitched a fifth season, in which Mork and Mindy traveled through time. “It was going to be a semi-educational show,” in which they’d meet historical figures. They actually did a photoshoot to promote this never-made season, showing Mork and Mindy standing next to Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin.
“It was a gimmick show”
“I’m a little ambivalent today about Mork,” says Levant. “It had such incredible promise, and we didn’t always deliver on that promise. We tried hard, but it was a gimmick show. Like Bewitched. Or Gilligan, or The Munsters, or The Addams Family.” None of those shows managed to last more than a few years, either. “The story of the series, to me, really is continuing to try and recreate that freshness and inventiveness that you saw the first time, every time,” adds Levant. “And really, you can’t do that.”
“No one had ever heard of Robin Williams before, and this guy was a skyrocket,” says Misch. “He was doing things no one had ever done on TV.” But after the first season, people had gotten used to the show. “Robin was just as brilliant, but he wasn’t as new. And I think that level of excitement [was gone]. And I don’t think the show came up to support him in the ways it could have, and so it sort of drifted away.”
Very few actors have been able to portray a convincing, compelling alien without the aid of a lot of prosthetics or VFX—Michael Rennie, Leonard Nimoy and some of the Doctors from Doctor Who come to mind. In his early appearances, Mork from Ork had such a strange blend of soulful mania, punctuated by such uncanny comic timing, that he truly felt alien.
But the more fully realized Mork from Ork became, the less he allowed the comic brilliance of Robin Williams to shine through. In the end, that tension may have been the main reason the show couldn’t last.
Transcription by Gordon Jackson. Top image: Art by Jim Cooke.