What the Hell Happened to Robin Williams?
At the peak of his career, Robin Williams was one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood. He made the extremely rare transition from comedian to dramatic actor. What’s more, he was able to alternate between popular comedies and dramatic roles while winning awards for both. But eventually, Williams’ popularity waned. While Williams remains busy, his last starring role in a mainstream movie was in 2009.
What the hell happened?
Williams was a quiet kid who came out of his shell when he became involved in his high school drama department. In 1973, at the age of 22, Williams was one of only twenty students accepted into the Julliard School. He and Christopher Reeve were the only two students accepted by John Houseman into the Advanced Program at the school that year.
Williams left Julliard in 1976. In 1977, he started appearing on TV shows like Laugh-In and Eight is Enough. He was a regular on the Richard Pryor Show which last only four episodes. Here’s a clip:
Williams had a guest spot on the popular 50′s sit-com, Happy Days. Williams played an alien named Mork who came to Earth looking for a human specimen. He chose Richie Cunningham to take back to his home planet of Ork. It fell to the Fonz to save his friend from a bizarre alien abduction. In the end, the entire episode turned out to be a dream.
The story goes that Williams was cast as Mork after meeting with producer Gary Marshall. Marshall asked Williams to take a seat and Williams immediately sat on his head. Marshall later commented that Williams was the only alien to audition for the role.
Williams’ guest spot on Happy Days was popular enough for Marshall to launch a spin-off show, Mork and Mindy in 1978.
(This was an exceptionally common practice at the time. Happy Days was a spin-off from Love American Style. In addition to Mork and Mindy, Happy Days launched six other shows: Laverne & Shirley, Blansky’s Beauties, Out of the Blue, Joanie Loves Chachi, and two cartoons.)
The new show had Mork landing on Earth in the present day of the 70s. Instead of abducting a human specimen, Mork’s mission was to study humans and report back to his boss on Ork. Mork was taken in by the beautiful and kind-hearted Mindy played by Pam Dawber. Hi-jinks ensued.
The Mork character was extremely popular with kids. It launched a slew of Mork-themed merchandise. Williams’ grinning face was everywhere. Speaking as a kid who was part of the show’s target demographic, I loved the broad humor. I even went as Mork for Halloween one year.
The pictures isn’t of me. But I had this exact costume right down to the creepy Williams mask. Although I didn’t wear the mask. Those things were extremely uncomfortable. And what do you need the mask for? Batman, sure. But Mork? Especially when they put his face on your chest as well. What was the point of that? It’s not like Mork had a picture of his face (long with his name and catch phrase) on his chest.
Mork and Mindy ran through 1982. In the final season, a number of gimmicks were used to try to save the show. Mork and Mindy got married and had a son. Because of his alien physiology, their son aged backwards which allowed them to cast comedy legend Jonathan Winters as a child in the body of an old man.
The gimmicks did not result in increased ratings. The show ended on a cliff-hanger. In the first two parts of a three-part story, Mindy’s apparent was destroyed and the family was on the run from a hostile alien. The conclusion to the story was never filmed.
The final episode of the show to air was filmed before the cliff-hanger and did not resolve the dangling plot thread – much to the chagrin this particular Mork and Mindy fan. (I spent years trying to figure out whether or not I had missed the conclusion. Turns out, I hadn’t.)
While Mork and Mindy was still on the air, Williams was also working as a stand-up comic. He filmed an his first HBO special, Off the Wall, in 1978.
In 1980, Williams made the jump to the big screen in Robert Altman’s musical take on the popular cartoon strip, Popeye.
Popeye is an odd an uneven mix of adult sensibilities with what is ostensibly a children’s film. Williams, with cartoonishly bulging forearms, makes a great live-action Popeye. He mumbles all of his lines, but when you can understand him he is genuinely funny. And Olive Oyl is surely the role Shelley Duvall was born to play. But anyone expecting a brightly colored live-action cartoon was likely disappointed by the dirty, realistic look of the film.
Originally, the roles of Popeye and Olive Oyl were intended to be played by Dustin Hoffman and Gilda Radner. Hoffman left over a dispute over the hiring of Jules Feiffer as the scriptwriter. Radner was the studio choice, but Altman held out for Duvall.
Popeye was co-produced by Paramount and Disney. Their intent was to duplicate the success Warner Brothers had with Superman (starring Williams’ former classmate and close friend, Reeve). At the time, the studios saw cartoon and comic strip characters as more or less equal. So the thought was that Popeye should be a Superman-sized hit.
Reviews were mixed and the movie was considered a flop. In reality, it earned back its $20 million dollar budget and then some. But its domestic gross of just under $50 million was a disappointment to the studios involved.
Posted on April 25, 2013, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged aladdin, dead poets society, entertainment, Flubber, good morning, Good Will Hunting, Hook, Jumanji, Mork & Mindy, movies, Mrs. Doubtfire, Night at the Museum, popeye, Robin Williams, The Birdcage, The Fisher King, the world according to garp, vietnam. Bookmark the permalink. 85 Comments.