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Robin Williams TV appreciation, from 'Mork & Mindy' to 'The Crazy Ones'

Actor Robin Williams on the set of

Actor Robin Williams on the set of "Mork and Mindy" in April 1978. Credit: AP / ABC

Mork materialized after "Happy Days" had literally jumped the shark -- or the Fonz had at least -- when the idea of an alien life form kidnapping Richie Cunningham, even in a dream, became just another way to keep an ABC franchise either fresh or alive.

Mork -- or Robin Williams -- was instantly popular, and of course it occurred to ABC that it could go either one of two ways here: Add a real live "alien" to the cast of "Happy Days" or create a spin-off. ABC needed something against the hugely popular "The Waltons" on Thursday, so spin-off it was.

Williams arrived on ABC at a time in the history of the tube when it had no idea what to do with a talent as big or as unrestrained or as outrageously original as Williams.' Fred Silverman was running ABC at the time -- just before his disastrous jump to NBC -- and had built a primetime full of junk and "jiggle" with even a sporadic burst of quality ("Barney Miller").

But mostly he had learned how to beat CBS, with shows that appealed to youth long before there were whole networks devoted to that mission. "Mork & Mindy" helped lead that charge.

The history of Williams' arrival at the show and conquest of it is the stuff of legend. He stood on his head during the audition for Garry Marshall (which of course was to become a running gag in the show.) He improvised so frenetically, and with such abandon, that to write dialogue for the character was essentially to throw paper away.

Williams dashed off ideas in the moment faster than writers could -- so fast that "Mork" at least in the first season was to become a flow of free-form comedic ideas mostly abetted by Pam Dawber, who deserved her own special Emmy for not laughing out loud every time he veered off in some direction only he could envision, in about half a second of time. ABC didn't know quite what to do with this or him.

The show was huge hit; Silverman had gone off to NBC where he tried to recapture lightning in a bottle (did not) and ABC moved "Mork" from Thursdays to Sundays where it fell off a cliff. Then the show jumped its own shark a few seasons later when Jonathan Winters was added to the cast -- as the son of Mork and Mindy. Funny idea...but still.The show was canned.

Still, an enduring (and endearing) legend was born, and you would see -- and continue to see elements of -- Mork and his manic, nerd-soaked sensibility for years to come: From Urkel even through to Sheldon Cooper, who in some vague hard-to-define sense is the real son of Mork...

 But Williams could never quite escape Mork - he once called it an "akashic memory" that the culture at large jjust couldn't quite expunge, and that just a week after winning the Oscar (for "Good Will Hunting") people in the street were back to calling out "Mork" when he walked by. (If you have not yet done so, listen to this fascinating encounter - "interview" doesn't quite seem the right word - with Marc Maron on "WTF" back in 2010. Talk of Mork comes up at the 22 minute mark.)  

For decades Williams stayed away from TV for many reasons, certainly some known only to him and because, of course, he had a spectacular career in film, so no real reason to come back. Then, the prodigal son finally came back for "The Crazy Ones." At the TV critics' tour conference for "Ones," Williams -- who I believe had never been to one of these things before -- instantly fell into form, entertaining 200 critics and TV writers who all had variations of same question: Why? (Everyone of course knew the short answer - money - but that's often the short answer for many many other actors as well.)

Williams was elusive, and hilarious: (In a Russian accent.) "We’d like to thank everyone for coming here today to raise money to send to Edward Snowden in the Kim Philby Lounge at the Moscow Airport. Thank you very much."

Or this: "Robin, I was just wondering, there’s a lot of pressure. You come into a room, and people are going, “He’s going to be funny. He’s going to do something.” What kind of pressure is that like all the time?

ROBIN WILLIAMS: Well, I think, now that I have a moral GPS on my phone, it’s been lovely because the girl you are texting is the same age as your daughter. Reroute. But I think the pressure to be funny all the time, it’s like dance, you know, dance funny, man. I think sometimes there’s that pressure. Other times it’s like, with this room, good luck. (Laughter.) Do I have ideas for new shows? Yes. I have an idea for a vampire rehab called “Dark Meadows,” Type AAAA. I mean, the idea of just playing, for me, that’s what David set me up with, the idea of, in this thing with an ad agency, the idea of getting an idea, pursuing it, seeing what you can come up with, pushing the envelope, but also talking about, with the real ads, talking to the guys about when, really, we are dealing with sponsors where one time they were telling me a story where they were talking to this sponsor, and they said, “In this ad, we are going to have a unicorn.” And the sponsor on the end of the line said, “Will it be a real unicorn?” And, then, at that point, he said, “No. I think it will be a pony with a prosthesis,” which, for me, I went, “I just want to see that.” There you go. But the idea of being funny, yeah, I love it, and this is for me, it’s great to have a steady gig after so long. It’s wonderful."

Then, here's Williams on the difference between TV then -- 1978 -- and  2013:

"Well, I mean last time I was on TV, wired meant a gram and a bottle of Jack Daniels. (Laughter.) But it was weird. Like, with “Mork & Mindy,” the same idea of, you know, open field. They would just say literally they would put in the script “Mork does his thing here,” which was just like “Riff, riff little white boy, here we go.” So, I mean, in a weird way that’s kind of the same thing here, but the idea now is that there’s a great, there’s a lot more to talk about just in terms of products, the world, the technology. When we went to see the ad agency it was based in Chicago, the upper floors were all the older executives. And as you got down towards the social network floors, it literally was like a Habitrail. It was like all these guys own phones. Everyone’s doing everything. The new technology was incredible. And this, the idea of competing on that level makes this exciting for me. I’m kind of new to this. I mean, I’m new in terms of like now, all of you are like this is going out live, for better or worse. And that’s why it’s like okay, good luck; can we make it work? And that’s why when you say with the show, if we can kick it out and make it funny and make it topical, talk about products for even, like you said, what can you get away with. For me I want to see if we can use a real product like Apple and make up a new product for them, like the New Apple iEye, which is beyond Google Glasses. They actually deposit it behind your frontal lobe. And eventually you’re, what are you doing? (Slapping head) Reboot! But the idea of way beyond attention deficit disorder digital attention deficit disorder, or DAD. (Laughter.) See, this is good, because this is where you realize that idea didn’t work. (Pretending to write in notebook) Work on that one. (Laughter.) This is the process we’ll be doing on the show."

CBS cancelled "The Crazy Ones" after just one season. That's routine in television, but not for Robin Williams or the people who ran this show -- some of the best in the business, Bill D'Elia and David E. Kelley. It had to be crushing for everyone connected to "The Crazy Ones," especially after so many people -- critics included -- believed it had begun to find its creative footing.

I also remember speaking to D'Elia -- now one of the showrunners on ABC's "How to Get Away with Murder" -- at the most recent press tour. He was rueful about the end of "The Crazy Ones" but like all veterans in this business, pragmatic too. Yes, certainly very sorry it ended, but that's TV; things end....

His last words, however, stayed with me:  "What a great joy it was to have worked with Robin Williams, a comedic genius.."

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