On TV, Robin Williams Broke Out of a Small Box
By Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times
- Aug. 12, 2014
In 1978, when “Saturday Night Live” still had almost all of its original cast and prime time offered “All in The Family,” “M*A*S*H,” “WKRP in Cincinnati, “Taxi” and “Rhoda,” there didn’t seem to be any room — or need — for something fresh and different on television.
Back then, a sitcom about a single girl and her roommate from outer space sounded regressive, a reconstituted “My Favorite Martian” or “I Dream of Jeannie.” But of course, “Mork and Mindy” starred Robin Williams: a volcanic eruption of funny voices and manic, mumbled asides with free associations that were quite often out of character (How could a naïve alien tell Jimmy Carter jokes?), yet never completely off base.
Mr. Williams’s inspired nonsense was elastic, stretching a joke way out of shape before snapping it back neatly into place — a little like the rainbow-colored suspenders he wore on the show, which became a fad and, almost overnight, a popular Halloween costume.
Television was his cradle, and in some ways it was his true home. It allowed for the looseness and spontaneity that sometimes gets squeezed out of movies. Television was also the place he shot to fame and, in recent years, it was where he returned to seek a steady mooring.
Mr. Williams created the Mork persona for a guest appearance on “Happy Days” that was so dazzling it won him his own show. Long before TV got in the habit of giving great stand-up comics like Jerry Seinfeld or Louis C.K. a sitcom, ABC did that with Mr. Williams, leaving room for his flights of semantic fancy that were comedy solos thinly disguised as dialogue. “Mork and Mindy” worked because it let stand-up stay in the picture.
At its peak, 60 million people watched Mr. Williams riff on his own rhythms while other television sitcoms still worked on a steady metronome of punch line —beat —capper. (Now, seen on YouTube, much of “Mork and Mindy” seems quite tame, but that is because television comedy has sped up while dramas have slowed down.)
He was coiled even when calm, but always lovable; he idolized and championed Jonathan Winters, but he was so much sweeter and easier to like than his mentor — or Jim Carrey, a younger comedian who is sometimes likened to Mr. Williams. Mr. Carrey likewise has manic energy and a rubbery versatility, but his comic persona is a lot less charming.
Mr. Williams, who had a jagged history of drug and alcohol abuse (he was at the Chateau Marmont with John Belushi hours before the comedian died of an overdose), did not burn out or peak with “Mork and Mindy,” even though the show too quickly lost momentum and eventually its following.
He was funny again after that, particularly on “The Tonight Show” and in comedy specials. More remarkably, he also proved he could settle down and be serious and even take chances as an actor: He was the spinach-eating sailorman in Robert Altman’s movie, “Popeye,” and a Soviet defector in “Moscow on the Hudson.”
But oddly enough, the comedian who made his mark by being so original may be best remembered for movie roles that were adaptations rather than innovations.
He was amazingly winning as a man impersonating a woman in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” but not quite as amazing as Dustin Hoffman had been in “Tootsie.” The caring therapist he portrayed in “Good Will Hunting,” seemed a lot like the one Judd Hirsch played in “Ordinary People.”
There were other roles that were better showcases for his unique gifts, notably “Good Morning, Vietnam.” He played troubled lunatics in “The Fisher King” and “One Hour Photo,” but he played the caretaker to the troubled just as often, including in “Dead Poets Society,” “Awakenings” and “The World According to Garp.” Even when Mr. Williams was cast as an authority figure, he often played it as the guy who was so unorthodox, the establishment considered him bonkers.
So it makes sense that he tried to blend those two sides for his 2013 comeback, “The Crazy Ones,” a CBS sitcom created by David E. Kelley that cast him as a brilliant, unhinged ad executive, Simon Roberts, who has to be watched like a wayward child, but is also a caretaker for his strait-laced daughter and business partner, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and her team of eager, young ad executives.
Television is no longer assisted living for retired movie stars. It’s become a far more creative and in some ways more challenging arena than the film industry. Mr. Williams won an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting,” but never an Emmy for his signature role, and so he may have had some unfinished business on network television.
The role of Simon was created for him with the same loving deference that Mr. Williams showed Mr. Winters, who was cast as his son in season four of “Mork and Mindy.” And like Mr. Winters then, Mr. Williams in “The Crazy Ones” seemed to be gamely but a little creakily doing an impersonation of himself.
It wasn’t a great show, and CBS canceled it after one season, but for Mr. Williams, there was no loss of face. So many comedians past their prime try to revive their careers by doing impressions of other performers. Mr. Williams, who was always a brilliant impersonator, took a chance on television and tried to play himself again.
The impression was close enough because nobody else came any closer.