Pam Dawber: From alien sidekick to the sexiest man alive’s better half (1970s-1980s)

About Pam Dawber - Actress and model

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During a time when sitcoms ruled TV and shoulder pads were the height of fashion, television viewers could watch an alien named Mork bantering with a girl from Colorado. This was the peak career era of Pam Dawber, an actress who brought charm, wit, and comedy to our screens with apparent ease.

Dawber, formerly a model and well known for her role as Mindy on the beloved sitcom, “Mork & Mindy,” was a beacon of comedic light in an era where laugh tracks and slapstick humor reigned supreme. She had this magical ability to make us believe in an extraterrestrial’s quest for understanding human behavior (and who knew we would need a suspension of disbelief for a concept like that?).

Young Pam Dawber for vintage 70s Butterick clothing patterns

Below, along with many vintage ads with young Pam Dawber, we’ve collected some nostalgic personality profiles from back in the day, charting her rise to stardom, exploring her memorable roles, and taking a look at Pam’s romance with the then “Sexiest Man Alive,” Mark Harmon — the NCIS star who is still her husband — as well as a look at how she managed to stay grounded despite the rollercoaster world of Hollywood.

It’s a bit like stepping into a time capsule, except we promise there won’t be any unexpected encounters with aliens… well, probably. -BB

Pam Dawber finding success as Mindy (1979)

Excerpted from an article by Marian Christy – Minneapolis Star (Minnesota) July 10, 1979

She pushes away overgrown bangs so that you get a good look at a fabulous face. The gesture almost contradicts the words. “People,” she is saying, “don’t really recognize me. They’re always telling me I look like somebody else.” She smiles the kind of million-dollar smile that lights up a room, a studio, a screen.

Young Pam Dawber for Sealy Mattresses (c1977)
Young Pam Dawber for Sealy Mattresses (c1977)

At the very instant that she’s denying her familiarity in a charming gee-whiz, aw-shucks tone, several people, men sitting together in a restaurant, are ogling pretty Pam Dawber, the ex-model who plays Mindy in the runaway ABC-TV hit series “Mork and Mindy.”

They know who she is. She knows that they know who she is. “Oh,” she concedes with a wave of a hand, “I don’t take all this stuff seriously.” She pushes the bangs back on her forehead and they flirt with her long eyelashes.

Pam Dawber is in an identity crisis, and those bangs are an inconsequential shield behind which she hides occasionally. Dawber, you see, hates being remembered for those Neet, Under-alls and Tupperware television commercials that made up her $60,000-a-year modeling career.

YouTube video

She drives a Jeep, spends weekends in a no-telephone Catskills cabin, and deliberately wears casual sportswear as opposed to “fashion.” If there’s anything she covets, it’s being just plain Pam. She isn’t.

Now, as Mindy, Pam Dawber reportedly is getting close to $15,000 a week. She has business agents, managers and promoters. She is a business. It’s a thought that makes her both nervous and happy.

“Being famous is being hassled,” she says, while more people stare at her. “I like it. And I don’t.” The word “success” is the pivot around which her life has always revolved. She has dissected the word and looked at it from up and down, in and out.

Pam Dawber for Ultra Ban anti-perspirant (1975)

“Let me tell you the God’s honest truth,” she says. “I’ve discovered that success isn’t having lots of money and being treated like a star. You can have all that and be perfectly miserable.”

She smiles. “Success,” she says, “is something you feel inside.” She puts the palm of her left hand over her heart. “I used to think that being a somebody was important. I used to think success was a mansion and a Mercedes. I thought money and happiness meant the same thing….”

Pam Dawber has done a lot of living in a short time, and it is the quality of that living that has made her re-evaluate herself. She’s somewhere in the shadow of 30 — some say she’s 27, and she won’t say at all.

Pam Dawber (right) modeling dresses for Sears in 1975
Pam Dawber (right in top photo, middle in lower photo) modeling dresses for Sears in 1975

Pam Dawber, who “barely” graduated from high school, came to New York from Farmington, Michigan, and, as a lark, went straight to the offices of the Wilhelmina Agency in New York. She was signed up and on modeling assignment within 24 hours.

“At the beginning,” she says, “I loved modeling. It opened up the doors of the world. It put me in touch with swinging people.” She locks glances. “It was a dead end.” Modeling is not, and probably never will be, synonymous with security. When you approach 30, you’re over the hill.

Pam Dawber (right) modeling clothing for Sears in 1975

“Models come and go,” she says plaintively. Pam Dawber wanted to act, so she went to all kinds of auditions for movie roles. All she landed was a small role as Desi Arnaz’s jilted girlfriend in “A Wedding.”

“I learned,” she says, “not to take rejections personally. Sometimes it’s only because the color of your eyes is wrong.” She is speaking from hindsight and now she is starring in a hit. “Oh yes, at first I was depressed,” she admits.

During the upheavals in her life, she was deeply into analysis and feeling, she says, like the pieces of a puzzle that needed to be put together. Eighteen months later, after two sessions a week, the point of her pain focused. “All of my feelings were related to my concept of success,” she says. “Success doesn’t make you happy. You make yourself happy.”

Pam Dawber modeling long dresses for Sears (1973)

It was on the brink of these self-revelations that Pam’s career took a big turn for the better. The Mindy role was hers without ever having auditioned for it. A network editor spliced a piece of a Dawber film to one made by Robin Williams, who plays Mork, the spaceman from Ork. One personality seemed to balance the other, and the team was born.

Variety carried the story. That’s how Pam Dawber found out she got the winning part. Now she’s in demand for movies but she’s not grabbing whatever comes along. “I was offered a role opposite Joe Namath,” she says and grimaces. “Ugh.”

Pam Dawber looks like a young Jane Fonda, and she wants to be “another Jane Fonda.” Her confidence is at an all-time high. Still, there is that hate-love of fame that stalks her.

More and more people are recognizing her in the restaurant and suddenly she says that she can’t stand still. She squirms, gets up and disappears into the Fifth Avenue throngs. Somebody stops to ask: “Aren’t you… ?”

Pam Dawber for Noxema (1982)

Pam Dawber & Robin Williams: ‘Mork’ looks like a big hit (1978)

Excerpted from the Detroit Free Press (Michigan) September 14, 1978

Thursday, September 14th, is probably the last day two unknowns from the Detroit area will remain two unknowns from Detroit. At 8 p.m. Thursday on ABC, Robin Williams and Pam Dawber co-star in “Mork and Mindy,” a new comedy series produced by Garry (“Happy Days“) Marshall.

Pam Dawber, Robin Williams
Pam Dawber and Robin Williams on Mork and Mindy (1981)

The two are not much short of marvelous, and the hour premiere episode is extraordinary in both its high and low comedy. There is scarcely a 15-second stretch that passes without a joke that gets laughs, which figures out to about 200 during the hour. There may be more. The thing moves with amphetamine-like speed. ABC seems to have another hit comedy on its hands.

Robin Williams, once of Birmingham, pulls down at least 150 of the good lines, sight gags, and offhand gestures as an alien from the planet Ork. Sent here as the ultimate foreign correspondent, he has a few problems blending in, speaking at first in a high, fast, mechanical voice that he manages to modify by imitating TV announcers.

Mork and Mindy - Nanu nanu

He gets earth idioms slightly wrong, like “no sweat off my front,” and when he tries to impersonate an earth person, he puts his tie, shirt, and jacket on backwards, looking remotely like a deranged priest. His most natural sitting position is on his face, mooning everyone present. When he’s told it’s not nice to sit on his face, he asks, “Then why did God put it there?”

He’s informed about his voice, the lapels down his back and the unacceptable projection of his rear end by Mindy, played with grace and expertise by Pam Dawber of Farmington. She more than holds her own as the wholesome single woman who discovers Mork, when he arrives on earth, one bag misrouted in transit. (There are universal truths.)…

You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the winds of TV comedy blow. It should blow Williams and Dawber to good places for years to come.

Pam modeling leotards in the 1970s

Young Pam Dawber, on the upper right, was featured in this photo from the 1973 Sears catalog

Retro 70s leotards (Pam Dawber on upper right)

Pam Dawber Hits the Mark! (1987)

Excerpted from an article by Fred Bernstein & James Grant – People (March 2, 1987)

My Sister Sam’s Pam Dawber lands the Sexiest Man Alive — Moonlighting‘s Mark Harmon

pam dawber mark harmon 1987 (2)

Sister Sam’s star covets TV success and her secret life with the Sexiest Man Alive

There is an undeniable camaraderie on Warner’s Soundstage 29 in Burbank, where My Sister Sam is taped.

Series star Pam Dawber, whose pixieish beauty actually seems to have grown rather than diminished with age, is sitting with the rest of the cast, listening to actor David Naughton read horoscopes from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

He saves Dawber, a Libra (10/18/52), for last. Among other pronouncements, Naughton reads that “trips can develop suddenly.”

mark harmon and pam dawber

This merits a crack from co-star Jenny O’Hara. “Hey,” she tells Dawber, “maybe that means you’ll get out early and go cook dinner for what’s-his-name.”

You don’t have to be psychic to know what’s-his-name’s name. It’s Dawber’s fiancé, Mark Harmon, 35, dubbed the Sexiest Man Alive by this magazine in 1986 (and still the reigning champ until you, the readers, clamor for a replacement). Her colleagues don’t have to rub any New Age crystals to know what Harmon (and My Sister Sam) means to Dawber.

ALSO SEE: Mork & Mindy: About the TV show, the intro & Mork calling Orson (1978-1982)

After emotional problems, a post-Mork & Mindy career slide and what she calls “a bad love affair here and there,” Dawber, at 34, has reached a threshold in life, and she’s damned glad to get there. Of course, it’s a little hard to tell that from her public comments, because few exist.

Young Pam Dawber modeling for Corn Silk makeup (1973)
Young Pam Dawber modeling for Corn Silk makeup (1973)

Since Dawber and Harmon met last March at a party given by a mutual friend, neither has discussed their relationship. But even the most discreet lady can slip once in a while, and a woman in love can be forgiven. Their silence, says Dawber, is a protective strategy. “We’re not trying to keep something secret, but if you don’t want it totally exploited by the press, you have to.”

She also acknowledges that silence has a price. Because she and Harmon are one of Hollywood’s most reclusive couples, rumors about them are rife. For example: They just broke up. “You mean there’s a story that we broke up?” she asks. “You’re kidding! It’s hysterical how starved people are for poop.”

Pam Dawber - Mork and Mindy vintage TV show

How about the one that says they’re secretly married? “It must have been a slow news week,” she remarks. “Why would we be secretly married? What would be the point?”

You can make a case for Dawber and Harmon being TV’s most-ogled twosome of late. Harmon, formerly St. Elsewhere’s philandering plastic surgeon, is finishing a month-long stint romancing Cybill Shepherd on Moonlighting; he plays an astronaut whose shirt takes off more than he does.

Meanwhile, Dawber has held her popularity with TV viewers: My Sister Sam, in which she plays a freelance photographer whose teenage sister moves in unexpectedly, has hovered around the Top-20 mark since its debut on CBS last October. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Sam is sandwiched between Kate & Allie and Newhart on Monday nights.

Though she already keeps more than a toothbrush at Mark’s nine-room rustic Pacific Palisades retreat, Pam is a bit misty-eyed about moving. Fetching a drink from her fridge, she looks at her vintage radio and collection of salt and pepper shakers and sighs, “I’m going to hate leaving my kitchen.”

As she downs a glass of fruit punch, Dawber is reminded of a list of requirements she once said she wanted in a man, including strength, intelligence, independence, sensitivity, sensuousness, warmth, and a sense of humor to top it off.

Guys fitting that description aren’t exactly falling off the trees like ripe avocados, so does Harmon come close to filling the bill? “Well, I guess so,” she laughs, then delivers her fruit-punch line. “He’s fabulous.”

Pam Dawber in 2012 with her son, Sean Harmon
at the Mark Harmon Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Ceremony, Hollywood, CA 10-01-12
Sean Harmon & his mother Pam Dawber (Photo by s_bukley/Deposit Photos)
at the Mark Harmon Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Ceremony, Hollywood, CA 10-01-12

Mark Harmon and Pam Dawber in 2011
USA - TV Guide Magazine Hot List Party - Los Angeles
Mark Harmon at the TV Guide Magazine Hot List Party at the Greystone Manor on November 7, 2011 in Los Angeles, CA (Jean_Nelson/Deposit Photos)

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