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The Untold Truth Of Mork And Mindy

Mork and Mindy ran for four seasons on ABC from 1978-1982. It was a cultural phenomenon that launched the career of Robin Williams, who starred as Mork, the childlike alien from Ork sent to Earth to observe humans. Its first season averaged 60 million viewers per episode, airing in the family-friendly 8:30 PM slot and even outpacing the show it spun off from, Happy Days. It finished in third place overall, compared to a fourth-place tie for Happy Days

The show also starred Pam Dawber as Mindy, the woman who took Mork in once she realized that he was an alien. Their relationship began as a friendship and transformed into a romance. The first season also featured Conrad Janis as Mindy's uptight dad Fred and Elizabeth Kerr as Mindy's hip grandma Cora. The other characters were there for Williams to react against, as he unleashed a tidal wave of manic energy as Mork that captivated the country. Williams appeared on the cover of Time and Rolling Stone and ABC capitalized with posters, T-shirts, lunchboxes, and other ephemera.

The show was moved to Sundays to go up against All In The Family for its second season, while the writers and producers continually kept tinkering with its formula. When the ratings plummeted, they kept introducing new supporting characters, ramped the romance up and down, and finally had Mork give birth to a child. The show was eventually cancelled on a cliffhanger. Let's take a look at the details of this quirky comedy.

Casting Robin Williams

Garry Marshall went to his Happy Days writer's room and told them that his eight-year-old son Scotty had a great idea: put an alien on the show! Star Wars mania was in the air, so it's no surprise that young Scotty would want something like that on his dad's show. The writers were not enthused by this idea, and they drew straws to see who'd have to write it. 

Meanwhile, they offered the role of the alien to Dom DeLuise (a major movie star at the time) and Roger Rees; the former turned it down and the latter quit after initially taking it. Marshall's sister told him that she had seen a comedian do an alien as part of his stand-up routine and that he'd be perfect in this role. Williams came in, and upon being asked to take a seat, he sat on his head. He was hired on the spot

The veteran Happy Days cast was impressed and more than happy to give him a spotlight. Story editor and future Mork and Mindy producer Brian Levant said of him, "We saw one guy who embodied all three Marx Brothers, Chaplin, the Three Stooges, and William F. Buckley in the same body." Amazingly, there wasn't a formal pilot for the show. Marshall re-edited the episode to have Mork talking about going to the future, spliced together footage of Williams with Dawber from a different, failed series, and told ABC this should be their next show!


One of the few characters on the show to match Mork's manic energy was Exidor, the eccentric man who believed himself to be a prophet. He was a play on the various cults and New Age groups that arose in the 1970s. In the episode "Mork Runs Away," Mork left Mindy because he thought he was ruining her love life. He wound up in a flop house where he met Exidor, who was the leader and sole member of The Friends Of Venus. After the Venusians failed to destroy Earth on Labor Day as they had promised him, he took up a new religion: the Church Of OJ Simpson. He was one of the few humans who knew that Mork was an alien, and while he was often paranoid and delusional, he regarded Mork as a friend.

Exidor's tag line upon hearing his friend was yelling out, "Mork! Is that you?", because his vision was always obscured by his many invisible followers. In later episodes, he tried to become Emperor of Earth and believed himself to be the reincarnation of Julius Caesar. He took lessons at Mindy's dad's music shop because he thought he'd be a rock star. Robert Donner, the actor who played him, was best known for his television roles on westerns and in movies like Cool Hand Luke

Mork vs. The Fonz

The episode of Happy Days where Mork made his debut was titled "My Favorite Orkan," a reference to the 60s comedy "My Favorite Martian," which was about a young man who dropped everything to host an alien visitor. In the episode, Richie Cunningham told his friends that he saw a flying saucer (UFO-mania was a hallmark of both 1950s culture and 1970s culture), but no one believed him. Then Mork from Ork showed up at the Cunningham home, telling him he wanted to take him back to his home planet. When Richie was confused as to why Mork picked him, he was told that he wanted an average, "humdrum" human being. 

Mork froze Richie's family using his finger when they came home, and Mork revealed that they'd be gone for 2,000 years. Richie escaped and turned to the world's coolest man for help: Arthur "the Fonz" Fonzarelli. They dueled for the fate of Richie, with Fonzie's thumbs battling Mork's finger. When Mork threatened to bring down the roof, Fonzie surrendered, but Mork decided to take him instead. 

Richie then woke up at home and realized it was all a dream. However, a man knocked at the door asking for directions who looked an awful lot like Mork. The episode was later edited to show that it actually was Mork, and that he was headed to 1978 for his next assignment. Mork would later return, as Fonzie tried to set him up on a date with Laverne

David Letterman: cult leader

David Letterman started his career as a stand-up comic, working with the likes of Jay Leno and Elayne Boosler at L.A.'s The Comedy Store. He noted that the first time he saw Robin Williams perform live in the 70s, Williams was billed as being from Scotland for some reason. Then he actually saw Williams perform; the manic energy of his act made Letterman think, "There goes my chance in show business because of this guy," and that he'd have to go back to Indiana.

However, when Williams got his big break on television, he tried to spread the success around a little and got Letterman a role on an episode called "Mork Goes ERK." Mindy and her curmudgeonly neighbor Mr. Bickley got severely depressed, and Mindy' friend Susan encouraged them to try ERK: Ellsworth Revitalization Konditioning. Susan then added that for her guru Ellsworth, spelling was just another hang-up.

Letterman played Ellsworth as a swaggering, money-grubbing, con man, complete with open shirt and huge medallion. His technique was yelling at anyone who disagreed with him, dismissing their concerns as "just a concept." Mork stood up to him and gave an impassioned speech about trusting yourself as Ellsworth had his Rolls-Royce stolen.

Letterman didn't act much in his career and said that the director of the episode, Howard Storm, told him at the final rehearsal, "Well, you've been at it all week. This is your last chance." Not exactly the most encouraging of words!

Leaning into science fiction

While Mork's identity as an alien was usually played for gentle, fish-out-of-water laughs, Mork and Mindy did occasionally lean on its science fiction foundations. The two-part season two premiere, "Mork In Wonderland," referenced both Lewis Carroll and the sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man. This episode had a lot of special effects and was one of the few not performed in front of an audience as a result. When Mork got a cold, Mindy gave him an antihistamine, only to discover to her horror that Orkans were entirely composed of membranes. He kept shrinking until he fell into a parallel world on Mindy's tablecloth, where he met a parallel version of Mindy named Mandy who was leading a rebellion against the laughter-hating Exidon (a more sane but meaner version of Exidor.)

In "Mork Vs. The Necrotons," Mork had to deal with an ancient Orkan enemy coming to Earth to get him. Led by Captain Nirvana (played by Raquel Welch) and her sexy sidekicks Kama and Sutra, they captured Mork and tortured him by giving him a massage in a hot tub and tickling him with a feather. He was only able to defeat them by using slapstick, as violence was considered to be humiliating on Ork.

The series concluded with Mork and Mindy meeting Kalnik, an alien from Neptune. His intentions were sinister and he bombed their home, forcing them to go on the run and eventually back in time. 


In another effort to revive the show, comedy legend Jonathan Winters was brought in to play Mork and Mindy's son, Mearth, in the fourth season. Orkans had babies via hatching eggs, but it was the males who gave birth. There were even publicity shots taken of Williams sitting on a giant egg and knitting. Orkans also aged in reverse, so it made perfect sense for the infant Mearth to be played by Winters. 

Williams said that hiring Winters "woke me out of a two-year slump. The cavalry was on the way." Unsurprisingly, having one of the greatest improvisers of all time meant that Winters' improvs on set were "legendary." Williams added "Sometimes I would join in, but I felt like a kazoo player sitting in with Coltrane." Williams downplayed his own genius. An observer who watched Williams, Winters and Ralph James (the voice of Mork's boss Orson) noted that during delays, the trio would bounce jokes off each other. He said, "The one bit that stands out in my mind was a routine in which they improvised a session at the United Nations, each playing the part of a foreign diplomat and each switching fake languages and personalities on a dime. It was mercurial, hysterical and brilliant. It was also aggravating to the director who kept pleading unsuccessfully, 'Gentlemen, gentlemen, please...we'd all like to go home tonight.'"

Winters struggled with bipolar disorder and had trouble with his lines and staying in character, but he still made a huge impression.

Too many cooks

The problem with Mork and Mindy was trying to find a way to sustain what was lightning in a bottle. When creator Garry Marshall had a strong hand in the show's creation process, he was able to balance its wacky humor with his trademark warmth and sincerity. Mork engaged in all sorts of zany fish-out-of-water antics, like falling in love with a mannequin and regressing to the age of three so he could experience what it would be like to have a mother. 

The producers of the show fired the actors who played Mindy's family and had Mork hang out in a deli owned by two younger actors. The changes were done without even consulting Williams. One writer said that while the supporting cast in the first season was weak, that was because the writers were concentrating entirely on Williams. The problem was that if Williams didn't have anyone to react to, the show would continue to be a solo spotlight.

Williams became tired of playing Mork as a childish character and referred to him as "Morko, the pin-headed boy." The show got racier in the second season and then tried to go back to a more innocent tone in the third season, but the ratings dropped. A new fourth season producer went much broader in terms of humor while tying the entire season around Mork and Mindy being parents. No changes they made could recreate the initial phenomenon, especially with Williams unhappy in the role. 

Pam Dawber: straight woman

Pam Dawber once described her career as "faking her way to the top," and she was grateful to Williams for taking her along for the ride. However, she had no illusions about what her role on the show was, as she noted when she agreed to do a reunion with him on Williams' later show The Crazy Ones: "As long as I'm not just setting up Robin like I did for four years on Mork and Mindy!...As long as there's actually something to do, I'm in!" 

The truth is, Mindy rarely had her own storylines. Writer David Misch revealed that when they wanted to write about Mindy trying to figure out what to do with her life, the show's producers said, "No, no. Mindy's got to be the normal American girl, 'cause that's how Mork can play off her." Director Howard Storm said she was the heart of the show, because "without her, Robin had no one to work off of." 

Mindy got a career as a news anchor in the third season, which created new storylines where Mork lost his own sense of purpose. It created a different dynamic between the characters. However, that was all thrown out in the fourth season when they became parents, although Mindy being forced to adjust to Mork being the "mother" was definitely something new for television. Ultimately, Dawber said that the show was a hit because "he and I really liked each other, so we had chemistry."

Danny Thomas?

One of the classic episodes of the legendary sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show was 1963's "It May Look Like A Walnut." In this episode, Rob (Van Dyke) and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) watched a scary movie on TV about an alien from Twilo named Kolak. His mission was to use alien walnuts that transformed humans into Twiloites, taking away their thumbs and giving them eyes on the back of their heads. The alien looked a great deal like popular actor Danny Thomas. When Rob woke up, the floor was covered in walnuts, and he was suddenly paranoid that this was real — especially when Danny Thomas was guest starring on the TV show he wrote for! It all turned out to be a dream, of course.

The show's creator, comedy giant Carl Reiner, based the episode on the film Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, replacing pods with walnuts. Danny Thomas was one of the show's producers. The director of the episode, Jerry Paris, was an occasional guest star on the show as well, playing Rob's neighbor. Fifteen years later, Paris was directing the episode of Happy Days that introduced Mork. Integrating Garry Williams' son's request to put an alien on his dad's show with the classic episode from his old series, Paris duplicated much of its structure. Richie was in the Rob role, and Mork was in the Danny Thomas/Kolak role. And of course, it all turned out to be a dream...


Not surprisingly, there were a variety of strange spin-offs from Mork and Mindy. In England, a weekly television magazine aimed at kids called Look-In featured a Mork and Mindy comic strip, written by Chas Pemberton and drawn by Edgar Hodges. Hodges also drew adaptations of Star Trek and Doctor Who. The strips were collected in two volumes

Following animated spin-offs of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, an animated version of Mork and Mindy ran from 1982-1983. Voiced by original actors Robin Williams, Pam Dawber, Conrad Janis, and Ralph James, it changed the premise of the show to make Mork a teenager visiting Earth when Mindy was still in high school. She and her dad take him and his pink dog-like creature Doing (pronounced like "boing") into their home. Observing Earth's teens, the show even featured a regular from the first season of the original show, Eugene (played by Shavar Ross). 

Perhaps the most bizarre, entirely unauthorized spin-off of Mork and Mindy was Brazil's Superbronco. It starred a comedian named Ronald Golias and the actress Liza Vieira. The show was cancelled after a single season. Interestingly, Mork and Mindy itself wasn't aired in Brazil until 2006