I’m old enough to remember Robin Williams’ first TV appearance as Mork, in an episode of Happy Days. My dad said when it was over: “That guy is going to be a huge star.”
You didn’t have to be psychic to know right away that Robin Williams was a major find. Clearly, the people in charge of Happy Days recognized it as well and set out to create a vehicle to showcase his unique talents.
Not surprisingly, they kept the character of Mork, the alien from Ork who was sent to Earth as an observer. (Supposedly, Happy Days producer Gary Marshall’s young daughter came up with the name “Mork from Ork.”) The fish out of water concept was perfect for Williams to let loose with his improvisational brand of comedy, which seemed totally chaotic and random but almost always landed brilliantly.
The original inspiration for the Mork character was the classic sitcom My Favorite Martian, as well as the producers of Happy Days wanting to get in on the Star Wars phenomenon. Williams was cast when Marshall asked him to sit down and he sat on his face, which became a signature joke on Mork & Mindy.
Mork & Mindy co-stars Pam Dawber as Mindy McConnell, a young woman from Boulder, Colorado who takes him in when she finds him after he lands on Earth in his egg-shaped spaceship. As the Season 1 episode “Mork Runs Away” opens, Mindy gets a call from an old boyfriend who asks her on a date. She persuades her father Fred (Conrad Janis) to take Mork to a basketball game so she will have the apartment to herself and her date.
Mork’s erratic behavior gets them kicked out of the stadium, so Mork returns in the middle of Mindy’s date. Her date misunderstands her relationship with Mork and leaves. Seeing Mindy crying because of the disastrous ending of her date, Mork decides to run away so he will no longer be in her way.
After talking with his young friend Eugene (Jeffrey Jacquet), Mork seeks out a flophouse when Eugene tells him that’s all he can afford with the six dollars he has earned babysitting.
At the flophouse lives Exidor (Richard Donner) who runs a cult (comprised of himself and imaginary people) called The Friends of Venus. He is recruiting people to go to Venus on Labor Day before the Venusians destroy Earth. Excited to meet someone who believes Venusians actually exist, Exidor trains Mork to become one of his recruiters.
Although Mork does a brilliant job showing Exidor how good he would be as a recruiter, Exidor is angry when Mork tells him Venusians don’t have the technology to destroy Earth and kicks him out of the group.
Mindy tracks Mork down when she sees The Friends of Venus signs. She tells Mork that all she needs to be happy is a hug once in a while. After teaching Mork how to hug, Mork is delighted to find he likes it, too. He reports to his superior Orson (Ralph James) the advantages of hugging.
The reason I picked this episode is because I adore Exidor. This was the first of several appearances he made throughout the life of the series. Donner and Williams play off each other perfectly as a deluded man who believes aliens exist and an actual alien. The scene where Mork channels a TV evangelical preacher when demonstrating to Exidor how he would recruit people into the cult is one of the funniest moments in the series, in my opinion.
Exidor became extremely popular with viewers. Donner elicited loud applause with the live audience every time he appeared. Luckily, the producers knew a little Exidor went a long way and avoided over exposure with the character. Nearly every appearance by him is a gem.
The other reason I like this episode so much is because it’s the first real hint of the eventual romantic relationship between Mork and Mindy, and it’s handled in such a sweet and poignant way.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Mork & Mindy would have a relatively short run. The concept is an odd one (trying to be educational to children with the “lessons” Mork learns each week while using the adult brand of Williams’ comedy). The second and third seasons were badly botched when they tried to appeal to a younger audience and then frantically tried to correct their mistake when it bombed. The fourth season, which had Mork and Mindy marry and have a “baby,” played by Williams’ comedy idol Jonathan Winters, was good but many of the initial viewers had moved on.
Williams moved on quickly to a hugely successful movie career. But I will always have a special place in my heart for Mork, and his discovery of the advantages of hugging.