The death of comedy legend Robin Williams on Monday was so unexpected, so unbelievable that like so many others I wasn’t able to process it at first. Celebrities die all the time and we non-celebrities read about it and watch the news on television and go on with our lives. Lauren Bacall died yesterday, Peyton Place star Ed Nelson last Saturday. Hopefully, they die of old age or due to illness. Those deaths make sense somehow because we can understand old or sick people dying. It’s the shocking deaths of celebrities, both young and old, in accidents, due to violence, by overdosing and, yes, sometimes even suicide, that stick with us.
I didn’t know Robin Williams. I doubt I was ever in the same state as him. I only watched him on TV and saw some of his movies. And yet on Monday after hearing the news I was more upset than I can remember being about a celebrity’s death, at least in the recent past. I haven’t seen all of his movies or even all of Mork and Mindy. He was of course hilarious on that show (and even more hilarious in the outtakes). But I also enjoyed his work on The Crazy Ones on CBS last season, once it got its footing, and was disappointed when it was cancelled. Dead Poet’s Society, Awakenings and Good Will Hunting all feature incredible dramatic performances from Williams, as does Insomnia even though I didn’t like it very much. I’ve probably seen Mrs. Doubtfire at least a half-dozen times.
In years past, I used to write about TV actors, actresses, writers and directors when they died, trying to focus on their lesser known small screen work. For the most part I stopped doing that in 2012 because it was too depressing. I sometimes make exceptions if the person in question had a connection to obscure or short-lived television, or if there’s something a little more interesting to be explored, as was the case yesterday with Lauren Bacall and her limited television work.
It’s odd to think that there’s anything obscure about Robin Williams. He burst onto the sitcom scene in February 1978 with a guest role on Happy Days playing Mork from Ork. That led to Mork and Mindy and overnight Williams was a household name known for his manic performances, amazing improvisational skills and his outrageous suspenders. But he didn’t really come out of nowhere.
Williams spent years on the comedy club circuit before hitting it big and he was a regular on two failed and all-but-forgotten comedy-variety shows prior to Mork and Mindy. The first was a new version of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In that aired as a series of six specials on NBC during the 1977-1978 season. Williams was one of 12 regular cast members. Special guest stars included Bea Arthur, Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Joan Rivers and many others.
The first special aired on Monday, September 5th, 1977. In it, Williams appeared in a skit opposite Bette Davis in which they portrayed an elderly couple at the mercy of a credit card company. The specials were unable to recapture the critical success or popularity of the original version. Additional specials were broadcast in October, November and December 1977 with the final two airing in February 1978.
NBC repeated all six specials weekly from June 6th to July 4th, 1979 in an attempt to capitalize on the incredible popularity of Williams. The revamped version of Laugh-In has never been released commercially. Here’s an excerpt from the November 2nd, 1977 installment (Williams appears at approximately (at 1:43 and and 5:36):
A week after the first Laugh-In special aired, NBC premiered another new comedy-variety series called The Richard Pryor Show. Williams was again a regular cast member. Pryor and the series were both controversial and only four episodes were produced. The first three aired weekly from September 13th to September 27th, 1977 with the final episode airing almost a month later on October 20th. It featured a lengthy segment in which members of the cast roasted Pryor.
Here’s a sketch from the second episode lampooning To Kill a Mockingbird in which Williams plays an Atticus Finch-like character:
In March 2004, Image Entertainment released all four episodes plus Pryor’s May 1977 NBC special that led to the short-lived weekly series. Included was an uncut version of the roast as well as another sketch, plus deleted scenes. A review can be found at DVD Talk.
Williams also made a November 1977 guest appearance on Eight Is Enough. Could there be a story behind that? After his Happy Days episode aired in February 1978 but before Mork and Mindy premiered, Williams appeared in two episodes of American 2-Night (the first aired in April 1978 and the second in June 1978).
Mork and Mindy premiered on September 14th, 1978 and the rest is history.