What the Hell Happened to Robin Williams?

Robin Williams 2014

Robin Williams

Note: This article was written prior to Robin Williams’ death on August 11, 2014.  At present, Williams’ death is believed to be suicide.  The purpose of this article is to review Williams’ career as an entertainer.  My sympathy goes out to Williams’ friends and family.  I am personally saddened by his passing.  I will update this article as information becomes available.  In the meanwhile, please view this as a celebration of William’s work.

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 and reeve

Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve

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.  According to Williams, Reeve showed him kindness that he would one day repay.  When asked for his favorite memory of Reeve, Williams replied:

“Him being such a great friend to me at Juillard, literally feeding me because I don’t think I literally had money for food or my student loan hadn’t come in yet, and he would share his food with me.  And then later after the accident, just seeing him beaming and just, seeing what he meant to so many people.”

williams - laugh in

Robin Williams – Laugh-In – 1977

Williams left Julliard in 1976.  In 1977, he started appearing on TV shows like Laugh-In (pictured) and Eight is Enough.  He was a regular on the Richard Pryor Show which last only four episodes.  Here’s a clip:

And here is a clip of Williams’ stand-up from 1977:

williams - happy days

Robin Williams – Happy Days – 1978-1979

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 - mork and mindy

Robin Williams – Mork & Mindy – 1978-1982

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.

There was an episode in which the character of Mork met Robin Williams the comedian.  Williams portrayed himself as a desperately needy person who could never say “no” to anyone.  He was extremely sad and vulnerable.

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.


Mork Halloween Costume

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 (along with his name and catch phrase) on his chest.


Robin Williams – Mork & Mindy – 1978-1982

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 apartment 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.)

32 years later, here’s a clip of Williams and Dawber reflecting on Mork and Mindy.

Next: Popeye and The World According to Garp

Posted on April 25, 2013, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 275 Comments.

  1. 15 Most Critically Hated Films From 2015


    Absolutely Anything

    Rotten Tomatoes Score: 8% (3.2/10)

    Why Critics Hated It: “Embarrassingly awful” feels like one of the few apt ways to describe this cinematic bowel movement from Monty Python alum Terry Jones.

    Simon Pegg again proves that he seems to flounder in starring roles away from Edgar Wright or big Hollywood franchises, but critics were more crestfallen that this is the movie the late Robin Williams’ career ended on, voicing a profane dog (with an admirable level of enthusiasm, at least).

    The genuine laughs can be counted on one hand, it feels like a terrible skit show pilot that goes on about an hour too long, and somehow the lovely Kate Beckinsale also got roped into it (as Pegg’s rather implausible romantic interest, no less).

    American critics should count their blessings that they didn’t have to sit through it.


  2. Holy Crap, These Recently Surfaced ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’ Deleted Scenes Are Depressing As Hell


    Most of us haven’t watched Mrs. Doubtfire since we were kids, but when you think of the movie today, what comes to mind? Cake to the face? Fake breasts on fire? Music montage to “Dude Looks Like a Lady?” Sure, at the movie’s heart there are some serious issues going on, like how a divorce can affect a family, but who remembers that stuff? Well, if these recently surfaced deleted scenes from Matthew Keys had been included, Mrs. Doubtfire may have been a significantly more depressing movie.

    In the first one, Robin Williams’ character Daniel shows up to his daughter Lydie’s spelling bee, only to find out that some lady had taken the seat that his other kids had tried to save for him. (Side note: what kind of monster tells some kids they can’t save a seat for their father?) As such, Daniel proceeds to get in an argument with his estranged wife Miranda in the middle of the spelling bee, causing Lydie to bungle her word on stage while she looks on at her fighting parents, heartbroken.

    As if that’s not bad enough, he later tries to make good with his daughter outside, who tells him, “Why can’t you just pretend? You pretend to be Mrs. Doubtfire. You pretend to be Pudgy the Bird, and all those other things. Why can’t you and mom just pretend to be happy?”

    Okay. Seems a little heavy for a kid’s movie. Until the next scene that is, when Daniel shows up at the family home only to get in a screaming match with Miranda while the traumatized, crying kids listen on in the background. After each parent yells at the other that the kids love them more, the kids materialize behind them to tell them that they hate them both, as Robin Williams’ face crumples into despair.

    So yeah. Having seen this, it’s pretty easy to understand why they went with more fake boobs on fire and not a version that might literally have put kids in therapy someday.


  3. Name Some Of The Worst Hollywood Collapses


    Robin Williams is one of the saddest collapses: Oscar-winning, former A-list movie star comes crawling back to series television (to help pay for his medical bills, as it turned out), only to have it flop, triggering depression/ suicide.


    reply 525 12 hours ago


  4. I highly recommend that people watch all of Williams serious roles. He was a better actor then comedian and he was a pretty good comedian. His original stand up for the 70s and 80s is amazing stuff.


  5. Celebrate Earth Day by watching this insane, all-star TV special from 1990


    On April 22, 1990, the 20th anniversary of the original Earth Day, ABC marked the occasion the best way it knew how: with a two-hour, star-studded primetime special featuring Robin Williams, the Muppets, Bette Midler, several Looney Tunes characters, and an absolutely flabbergasting lineup of guest stars from the worlds of film, television, music, and comedy. Titled simply The Earth Day Special and credited to 10 different directors, including Jim Henson and James Burrows, the show is a free-associative, almost dreamlike collection of vignettes, all centered around a central narrative: the near death of Mother Earth (portrayed by a mournful, maternal Midler). Seemingly, just about anybody who was anybody in 1990 was in this show. There are crossovers with (among others) The Cosby Show, The Golden Girls, Murphy Brown, Cheers, and Doogie Howser, M.D., all featuring actors from those series in character. Vintage NPH, anyone?

    And that’s just the tip of the ever-melting iceberg. Dennis Miller from Saturday Night Live stops by to do a “Weekend Update”-style monologue. Christopher Lloyd reprises his Doc Brown character from Back To The Future. Harold Ramis turns up as Elon Spengler, the brother of his Ghostbusters character. Carl Sagan stops by to deliver a mini lesson about global warming. There’s even a Jeopardy! crossover with Alex Trebek himself. Want more? Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Danny DeVito, Chevy Chase, Kevin Costner, and Dan Aykroyd appear in on this special, too. Even viewers who don’t have time to watch this entire thing will want to give at least three minutes of their day to this rap number, featuring Will Smith, Quincy Jones, Tone Loc, Queen Latifah, Ice-T, and E.T. No, E.T. doesn’t actually rap. That might be gilding the lily just a bit. How much more could anyone want from a single TV special?


  6. “SNL” Just Served Up The Darkest Parody Of “Dead Poets Society” You’ll Ever See



  7. my friend passed away from suicide today is his 3 year anniversary his unfortunate death. He was big fan of robin williams. He reminded me so much of robin full of energy humor. He even had same mental illness as robin. I think of my buddy death when i think of robin


  8. Robin Williams’ Widow Wrote A Heartbreaking Essay About His Battle With Parkinson’s



    • Re: Robin’s widow’s essay in “Neurology”


      That was a really sad read.

      For a man who very much lived inside his own head, could rattle off vast amounts of memorized material that he had sponged from everywhere, thought very fast and was quite obviously highly intelligent, LBD would have been devastating.

      It seems he didn’t want the world to watch him deteriorate, to the point where he didn’t even want his own family and doctors to know about the hallucination symptom. This is besides the fact that LBD-induced paranoia and anxiety symptoms were eating at him on top of his lifelong struggles with depression.

      The fact that his ability to perform at all would soon end, given he could no longer remember lines by the time he did Night at the Museum 3, probably was a tipping point. Was that his last filmed role? Films are usually filmed a year in advance and that’s actually rather close to the holiday release date for such an effects-heavy film. In tribute videos I’ve seen, “Smile, my boy, it’s sunrise.” has already risen to become one of his saddest movie lines and it seems this is his posthumously released film that has most stuck as his last memorable performance. It also couldn’t have helped that his last attempt at television went so poorly. I happen to be a big fan of both Robin from my childhood and SMG since her Buffy days, so that was sad to see (I haven’t watched The Crazy Ones, but I was pulling for both of them in their career slumps). That career blow had horrible timing. The discovery of his illness was happening while making that show.

      One thing that also pops out at me is that he aged pretty rapidly in his last years after having an appearance that was pretty consistent for a long time (IMO, he started off looking older than he was–certainly not looking only 27 as Mork!). He didn’t radically change in appearance from the ’80s to early ’00s (or maybe we all got used to him looking roughly 40 and his hirsuteness aged him in earlier roles), so that sort made his rapid catch-up at the end stand out. He looked older than 63 at the end. And people have noted he looks thinner/not well as Teddy in retrospect.

      And if he hadn’t killed himself, the disease would have and it was going to be a miserable end where the real person would have barely existed. And it seems his case was a severe and rapid one given that the Lewy Bodies were so diffuse in his brain after only beginning symptoms in October 2013.

      It’s a shame he was misdiagnosed and some of the wrong treatments could have done more damage than good. There was no cure, though.


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