Much has been said since Robin Williams' death on Monday of his contribution to movies. Certainly, his performances in such films as "Aladdin," "Mrs. Doubtfire," and "Good Will Hunting" are likely to endear him to new fans among moviegoers for generations to come. But it's easy to forget that he also made indelible contributions to the world of TV throughout his four-decade career. Older viewers remember his starmaking turn as a lovable alien on "Mork and Mindy," but that was only one instance of many where he changed the medium in ways large and small that will continue to be felt for a long time to come. Here are some of those ways.
"The Richard Pryor Show." Imagine an era when you could have seen Richard Pryor and Robin Williams doing sketch comedy together every week in primetime. That era really happened; it lasted just four weeks in 1977. That's how long NBC aired the groundbreaking "Richard Pryor Show," a sketch comedy series whose cast not only included Pryor and then-TV-newbie Williams, but also such future comedy stars as Sandra Bernhard, Edie McClurg, Tim Reid, Marsha Warfield, and John Witherspoon. Clashes between Pryor and the network over censorship, scheduling, and other issues convinced the cast and crew that the show was doomed from the start, which only further inflamed their go-for-broke attitude. By most accounts, the show was ahead of its time, both in its eye for young talent and in its edgy material. (Here's a representative sketch, featuring Pryor and Williams, below.) After four episodes' worth of internal squabbling and low ratings, NBC pulled the plug. Still, casting directors noticed Pryor's sketch team. In fact, Williams was the first of them to get a break, just a few months later, courtesy of the rival TV show that had killed "Richard Pryor" on Tuesday nights.
"Mork." That show was the long-running hit "Happy Days," which, in early 1978, cast Williams in a guest spot as a wacky alien whose plot for earthly domination is thwarted by Fonzie and his powers of cool. The one-shot character drew so much fan response that "Happy Days" creator Garry Marshall built a spinoff show around him. Only this version of Mork wasn't a hostile invader; rather, he was a childlike naïf, curious to learn about Earth and its strange ways and eager to report back what he'd learned each week in a telepathic mesage to his leader Orson on planet Ork.
In practice, Mork wasn't too different from the stand-up persona Williams showcased on his hit album "Reality... What a Concept." The catchphrases, the impersonations, the ability to improvise comic riffs at lightining speed and to free-associate endlessly from one idea to another, and even the rainbow suspenders – all these found their way onto the show Unlike Pryor, Williams had proved that TV shows built around idiosyncratic comics and their stage material could be successful. It's not too big a stretch, then, to suggest that he created a space for all the stand-up-comics-turned-sitcom-stars who followed with shows tailored to their own personas, from "The Cosby Show" to "Roseanne" to "Seinfeld" to Tim Allen's "Home Improvement," all the way to "Louie."
More important, perhaps, Williams also created a space in primetime for weirdos and freaks. After all, the premise of "Mork and Mindy" made sense only as long as Mork remained a fish-out-of-water, whose repeated efforts to assimilate ended in comic frustration. (Once he and Mindy married and had a child in the fourth and final season, the show jumped the shark.) And yet, viewers rooted for Mork to fail, to remain his eccentric self. He was a freak, but a lovable freak, and that was OK. Even his friends (like mad prophet Exidor) were freaks. (It was fitting that the show was set in Boulder, Colorado, then a hippie/ski bum/college town that had embraced oddball visitors from Allen Ginsberg to Roger Ebert.) Williams' Mork made the TV comedy space safe for other alien visitors (from "ALF" to "3rd Rock From the Sun" to the recent "Neighbors"), but also for earthbound weirdos and geeks from Pee-wee Herman to Steve Urkel to the "Big Bang Theory" septet to the Bluths of "Arrested Development" (a show narrated, to come full circle, by "Happy Days" icon of normalcy Ron Howard). Not coincidentally, Williams made a lot of kids watching at home who felt alienated or awkward feel like they had a champion on TV.
Talk Shows. It's no wonder that Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon, and other late-night hosts have paid tearful tribute to Williams this week. It's not just solidarity with a fellow comic, but also recognition that he was, as O'Brien noted, the best talk show guest ever. He was certainly the easiest. One question from the host, and Williams could be counted on to riff brilliantly for several minutes. But even while making fun of countless other targets, he didn't spare himself; he was always candid about his own struggles, whether with addiction, cardiovascular health, or even the depression that ultimately led to his suicide. He made dozens, perhaps hundreds of such appearances over the past 36 years, so many that audiences may have come to take them for granted or to find Williams' shtick more exhausting than amusing. Still, he set a high bar for other talk show guests to reach, both in terms of candor and sheer entertainment value.
Stunt Casting. When Williams returned to TV full-time last year with "The Crazy Ones," his first regular sitcom gig since "Mork and Mindy" had left the air 31 years earlier, some might have seen it as a comedown or step backwards; after all, he'd established himself as an Oscar-winning movie star. Then again, lots of other big film stars had already done the same thing in recent years (Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Dennis Quaid), not coincidentally, around the time that they reached their 50s and 60s and were no longer landing A-list leading roles in films. But it also bears reminding that, for all his film success, Williams had never really left TV. In fact, he'd been one of the first to leverage his then white-hot movie fame to help a struggling TV show via the process now referred to as stunt casting.
These days, it's not seen as a big deal when a show stunt-casts a popular movie star for a one-shot guest role in order to boost ratings. But the practice was virtually unheard of 20 years ago, when Williams, then at the height of his "Aladdin"-"Mrs. Doubtfire"-era movie fame, agreed to appear on the little-seen NBC police drama "Homicide: Life on the Street." He did so as a favor to Barry Levinson, the show's producer, who had directed Williams' breakthrough film, 1987's "Good Morning, Vietnam." The part was a comedy-free turn as the grief-stricken husband of a murder victim. Williams played it brilliantly and poignantly, earned an Emmy nomination, and drew enough viewers to save the show from cancellation and keep it running for another five seasons. Series co-creator David Simon, who recalls his brief encounter with Williams in a lovely anecdote on his blog, credits the actor not only with saving the series but also with saving the writer from spending the rest of his career as a newspaper reporter; in other words, without Williams, we wouldn't have Simon's "The Wire" or "Treme."
Over the years, Williams would lend his movie fame to other series as a stunt-guest, including "Friends," "L.A. Doctors," "Law & Order: SVU," and "Louie." That last one, a particularly darkly-comic bit from just two years ago that seems especially eerie now, has Louis C.K. and Williams meeting at the funeral of an otherwise unmourned comedy club owner that they both hated. Recalling the dead man's fondness for a particular strip club, they pay a visit there in his honor, only to have the dancers and other staffers there become genuinely distraught upon news of the frequent customer's death. The sequence ends with Louie and Williams cracking up over the strippers' unexpected grief – proof that no one dies without touching the lives of others in a meaningful way – and the pair agreeing to attend each other's funerals, depending on who dies first. (You can watch the key moments of the episode here.) A behind-the-scenes anecdote from this episode claims that Williams was so impressed by how much C.K. was able to accomplish with such a tiny, low-budget production crew that he promptly returned his guest-star fee and had C.K. divide it among the crew.
Whether or not that anecdote is true, Williams' appearance on the show seems an acknowledgement of the notion widely endorsed by critics and many viewers at home: that we're now in the midst of a golden age of television, brought to us by top-notch writers and actors. If so, that golden age has been made possible in part by the support (financial, or at least moral) of movie stars like Williams lending the long-maligned medium some of their credibility.
"The Crazy Ones" may not have been a great show worthy of mention alongside "Louie" or other modern-day golden-age peers. Maybe Williams took it as a paycheck job, but even so, he needn't have been ashamed of returning full-time to the medium he'd done so much to improve. The show did give him some space for his improvisational gifts; maybe he thought that he could use that space to expand the boundaries of what television is capable of, just one more time.