‘Mork and Mindy’ star Robin Williams lights up screen (1978)
The Odessa American (Texas) November 13, 1978
Thursdays just about kill Robin Williams.
The impish, jelly-limbed star of “Mork and Mindy” is a bundle of hyper-kinetic energy bound only briefly by any single form. He is a thousand voices and personae in search of a momentary character. Creative abandon flows out of him like water from a sponge.
But on Thursdays, he must be patient and mature and endure tedious hours of enforced inactivity. He has got to be on his best behavior, like a squeamish kid in church.
Thursday is the day “Mork and Mindy” gets blocked out at Paramount in Los Angeles. The show is actually shot on Friday before an audience, but the production mechanics are plotted the day before.
The show is filmed using a technique that employs three cameras simultaneously. One does a full-set, ”master shot” encompassing the entire Stage, another conversational “two-shots” focusing on two actors, the third, single-face close-ups.
This is done for the sake of efficiency. Television series are ground out on an assembly line, and this method of filming allows for rapid editing.
But it requires elaborate, detailed preparation. Each scene must be composed so that one camera, as it moves on the periphery of the action, doesn’t inadvertently shoot another. And the camera angles for the one and two-shots must be the same, lest the viewer be jolted by abrupt cuts. Focal lengths have to be constant.
Hence Thursday is a long day on the set. The actors are on constant call. Again and again, they must repeat their lines and movements as camera placements are methodically checked and the stage marked.
Midway through one Thursday, Williams, wearing baggy pleated pants held up by rainbow suspenders and a floppy, short-sleeved shirt with a Japanese dragon embroidered on the from, started getting fidgety.
He and costar Pam Dawber, bored with having done the same scene and having stood in the same space too long, got lost in a private fantasy game they were playing.
Director Howard Storm called for attention. They didn’t hear. He raised his voice a little louder, a little sterner: “Robin, hold your spot!”
Suddenly Williams thrust himself up ramrod straight and smartly saluted: “Jawohl, mein kapitan. You men there, back, in line. I know you’ve been at sea nine years without women, but you must learn to do without small pleasures.”
The whole crew broke up in laughter.
A few minutes later, the action had shifted to a scene in which Williams was not involved. He stretched out on the couch in Mindy’s fictional Boulder, Colorado, apartment. One moment he was staring at his script, the next he had passed out.
For a half-hour, he slept like the proverbial baby, oblivious to the organized chaos surrounding him and the fact that, overnight, he had become one of the hottest acts on television.
Three months ago Robin Williams was an obscure if promising stand-up comedian with a minor reputation in California. Today he is a national celebrity.
When ABC included “Mork and Mindy” in its fall schedule the announcement was greeted in the industry with yawns and indifference.
An alien being lands on earth and sets up a platonic menage with a rosy-cheeked, all-American girl in a Colorado college town. Ho-hum — shades of “My Favorite Martian” and “I Dream of Jeannie,” more gloppy electronic bubble gum to goo up the brain.
Late in the summer, though, word started drifting east that something special was cooking. The audiences at “Mork and Mindy” filmings were giving the show standing ovations. ABC invited advertisers to fly out to California at network expense so they could see for themselves.
Sure enough, the show burst on the scene with a bang. Two weeks after its debut, it was solidly entrenched as one of the top 10-rated shows on the air.
The reason: Robin Williams.
Williams lights it up
In a medium that seems to demand bland monotones, Williams lights up the screen like a Roman candle at a July 4th picnic. Not since Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason has such raw talent of enormous potential come to television.
That’s high praise, to be sure, and only time will tell what kind of staying power Williams has. Television can drain off a performer’s creative juices, leaving him prematurely played out at the moment his novelty wears off.
“It absolutely consumes,” says Williams. “Material that took you six months to develop is gone in six minutes — whoosh!” But in his case, there’s more than enough left over.
And the crest he is riding looks certain to swell into a tidal wave.
Williams is able to play to both pre-pubescents and adults, youngsters who delight in his childlike antics (nanu nanu) and sophisticates able to appreciate the cut of his irony (“Hello, I want to be your friend for life”).
On stage, he is a whirling dervish one second; a morose, lovelorn puppy the next. He can take the most banal line and, through timing and intimation and the slightest facial contortion, milk it for a laugh that few others could get.
He is outrageous yet disciplined, a performer who can stretch material farther than it deserves to go without overwhelming a scene by destroying its integrity.
“What keeps surprising you about Robin,” says veteran Conrad Janis (who plays Mindy’s father), “is that he’s not only a comedian but also a very well-tuned actor. He’ll do a spontaneous improvisation as we’re filming, something none of us have seen before in rehearsal, and he’ll be able to put the perfect button on it without missing a step.
“And he can be almost Chaplinesque. Once we had to redo a scene after the audience left. The script called for Mork to cry for the first time — that’s not done on Ork.
“It was around 11:30 at night, everybody was beat and wanted to go home. The camera rolled, Robin gathered himself up and got out real tears. It was stunning, we all started applauding.”
The real Robin Williams
The real-world Williams, as opposed to the extraterrestial Mork, is 26 and surprisingly shy. He buys his clothes in second-hand stores, drives a Land Rover with a tape deck, jogs, does yoga, and has a pet parrot named Cora whom he trained to say “birds can’t talk.” Also, since last June, a wife.
“Most comedians are self-obsessed,” says Dawber, who was a model in New York before coming to Los Angeles to do “Mork and Mindy.” “But Robin is the most giving, considerate, concerned person.”
It sounds like fan magazine slop and slobber, but with Williams it has a ring of truth.
For example: A visitor on the set found himself out of cigarettes and asked where he could bum a smoke. His companion couldn’t help, but Williams had overheard the conversation. “Nicotine alert, nicotine alert” he shrieked and trotted off, to return with a cigarette.
“I guess maybe I’m innocent,” he says, when asked whether he is too guileless to survive amidst the sharks of Hollywood. “A lot of people are trying to hit on me. Commercials and stuff. If it were up to me, I’d say ‘yes’ to anything, but my management keeps me in line.”
What are they telling him? “Mostly take it slow, build towards film, do a minimum of television other than the series.”
The series has him pretty near the edge of exhaustion most of the time, but he revives himself by playing his old L.A. comedy haunt almost every night on his way home from the studio.
“There’s a tremendous rush of energy I get by doing live improvisation. You have to act on inspiration, ‘Here’s the moment, run with it.'”
“That’s how I mellow out and keep my juices flowing.”
Williams has been keeping his personal batteries charged through acting ever since he was an overweight boy the other kids called “dwarf” and “leprechaun.”
An only child, he amused himself in the attic of the family’s rented mansion outside Detroit with imaginary playmates. His father, a vice-president with Ford, he describes as “a very elegant man, like the Lord Governor of India”; his mother he calls “a crazy Southern belle.”
Against family advice he sought to make his living on the stage. His trek took him to Manhattan where he studied on scholarship at the Julliard School and worked the streets as a sidewalk mime. Then to California. First San Francisco (‘I was naive enough to think you could earn your living in San Francisco as an actor’). Then Los Angeles.
‘Mork, Mindy’ resembles ‘My Favorite Martian’
By Bill Hayden – Poughkeepsie Journal (New York) August 22, 1978
Back in 1963, Bill Bixby was saddled with an uninvited house guest for several television seasons — a conceited, highly advanced alien with special powers, portrayed by Ray Walston.
The show, “My Favorite Martian,” was the first in a line of situation comedies in which a character has extraordinary powers.
This season, actress Pam Dawber is saddled with an uninvited house guest, a highly advanced alien with special powers portrayed by young comic Robin Williams.
This show — “Mork and Mindy” — is the latest in a line of situation comedies that has grown to include such series as “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Bewitched” and “Tabitha.” None of the others, however, bears such a close resemblance to “My Favorite Martian” as does “Mork and Mindy.”
“Mork” producer Garry Marshall is well aware of the similarities. He also points out his indebtedness for the concept to Gore Vidal’s “Visit to a Small Planet” by noting that he originally wanted to call the series “Visit to a Dumb Planet.”
“We’re going for wilder comedy,” he says in pointing out differences between the two shows, “more social and emotional comment than was possible with ‘My Favorite Martian.'”
As a producer, Marshall has been able to fashion solid hits out of derivative concepts. His “Happy Days” is loosely based on “American Graffiti.” His “Laverne and Shirley” has many elements of the old “I Love Lucy” series.
And his “Mork” has Williams, whose skill as an off-the-wall improvisational comedian may well be the key to the show’s survival chances.
After studying drama at The Julliard School in New York, Williams returned home to San Francisco to find a scarcity of acting opportunities. He became a stand-up comedian, he says, as a “creative release,” appearing in San Francisco and Los Angeles clubs, and quickly building an avid corps of fans.
He’s had almost no national television exposure: an appearance on “Laugh-In“; another late-night NBC special, “The Great American Laugh Off”; a chance to do his routine on a Home Box Office show featuring a group on new comic talents.
Then, he auditioned for the part of an alien on a “Happy Days” episode last season.
“It was only going to be a small part. I had no idea it would become a series and I’d have to go to work every day and become rich and famous,” Williams says.
That small part — Mork sent to Earth from the planet Ork and winding up in the Cunningham’s living room with Ron Howard — grew a lot as Williams added extemporaneous touches to the character.
The show resulted in Williams getting more fan mail than anyone on the series since Henry Winkler first showed up as the Fonz.
It also resulted in ABC deciding — without benefit of pilot, series proposal or sales pitch — that it wanted Williams and Mork on this fall’s schedule.
Of which Williams comments, “I wasn’t that unhappy starving.”
Marshall plans to make the best use of Williams’ style of comedy. “The series is going to have a lot of room for improvisation.”
In Marshall’s mind, Mork is an innocent abroad, sent by his fellow Orkans to investigate Earth as a possible place to relocate sometime far in the future. It’s crucial to his mission that he blend in and function as a member of Earth society.
Fortunately, to help him keep his cover, he has Mindy, played by Dawber, as his human friend and confidant.
“On the show,” Dawber says, “we first meet after I’ve had a fight with my boyfriend. I’m sitting alone in my car near a lonely spot where Robin has landed his spaceship. Not being familiar with Earth customs, he’s put his clothes on backwards, and when I see him, I think he’s a priest and begin telling him all my troubles.”
Which are nothing compared to the troubles Mork finds himself in. Being literal-minded to the extreme, if someone told him to get lost, he’d try to.
Mindy becomes his teacher and guide through human society, and he becomes an occupant of her home.
“It’s a mother-son, teacher-pupil relationship,” Dawber says. “Mindy is going to teach him emotions.”
Williams sees the relationship as an opportunity to do comedy with several levels of meaning.
“In one episode, Mork will fall in love with a mannequin. When Mindy tells him it’s impossible to love an inanimate object, there’s a very touching five-minute goodbye scene.”
Williams’ Mork also plans conversations with a toaster, jump-starting a dead man, and drinking water through his finger.