Living in Milwaukee in the 50’s could be pretty boring for a young teenager. Even with the occasional excitement of Fonzie jumping his motorcycle over a bunch of garbage cans and water-skiing over sharks, Ritchie’s life remained, in a word, humdrum. That is, until one fateful night, when he received a visit from a quick-witted extraterrestrial named Mork from the faraway planet of Ork.
This particular episode of the iconic sitcom Happy Days was a huge crowd-pleaser and made a relatively unknown stand-up comedian named Robin Williams into an instant star. A spin-off series was a no-brainer for television execs and in 1978, Mork and Mindy made its debut on ABC.
After landing in Milwaukee, circa the 1950s, Mork returned to earth decades later, crashing his egg-shaped spacecraft into the quiet mountain resort town of Boulder, Colorado. Directed to observe human activity, Mork set out to fit in with the locals and soon befriended a woman named Mindy, who, enamored with his kind demeanor, takes Mork home with her. Even upon learning his true identity, Mindy vows to help her new friend keep it a secret and offers him residence in the attic of her apartment.
This doesn’t sit too well with her father, Fred who is less than pleased to find that she has a man living with her. Much less conservative, however, is Fred’s mother-in-law, Cora, a kindly old lady who takes a liking to the strange but ever-friendly Mork. Mindy and Cora both work at her father’s record store, while Mork spends his time hanging upside down, sitting backwards in chairs, and trying to figure out the strange behavior of the inhabitants of Earth. At the end of each show, he would dutifully report back to his unseen superior, Orson, and tell him what he learned about his fellow earthlings.
The show was an instant hit, delighting audiences and making Mork’s greeting, “Na-nu, Na-nu,” and Orkan swear word “Shazbot” popular catchphrases. But, never quite learning not to fix what isn’t broken, show producers decided to “improve” the series for the second season. Cora and Fred were dropped from the cast, in favor of two young and hip siblings from New York City, Remo and Jean DeVinci, who owned a local deli, and a grumpy old curmudgeon who wrote greeting cards named Mr. Bickley (played by Newhart star, Tom Poston.) With the focus less on Mork’s crazy antics, and more on his blossoming relationship with Mindy, audience enthusiasm began to wane. Realizing their mistake, producers tried to return to the earlier premise in the third season, bringing back Fred and Cora and trying to emphasize the wackiness that had made the show a success in the first place.
When that didn’t work, they decided that Mork and Mindy should finally tie the knot and have a baby (played by a fully-grown Jonathan Winters and explained by the fact that Orkans age backwards.) While Williams and his longtime idol, Winters, shared some wonderful on-air chemistry, none of these changes were able to recapture the charm of the first season, and after four years, Mork and Mindy was cancelled.
Mork would return in animated form a year later in the Saturday morning show, The Mork & Mindy/Laverne and Shirley/Fonz Hour on ABC, which lasted for a single season.
And, although audiences would never get another glimpse of the uproarious alien on television, they would have plenty of opportunity to see Robin Williams take his unique brand of comedy to the big screen in films like The World According To Garp, Moscow on the Hudson, Good Morning Vietnam and Mrs. Doubtfire, to name but a few. Robin Williams made his television debut as a visitor from a distant star, and thanks to Mork, went on to become one of the biggest stars in the galaxy. Only in Hollywood.
If you have fond memories of watching Mork and Mindy in your youth, we would love to hear all of your recollections in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this unforgettable 70s sitcom.