Remembering ''Mork & Mindy'' -- How the sitcom launched Robin Williams' career

He sat on his head and drank with his finger. He pinballed from one wild impersonation to another — from a benignly crazy old man to a bawling child. Mork, the cosmic tourist from the planet Ork, ranks right up there with the most brilliantly conceived characters ever to be (barely) contained on the small screen. And if he hadn’t emerged from his egg-shaped space vessel to explore planet Earth (in the neighborhood of Boulder, Colo.) on the Sept. 14, 1978, premiere of ABC’s Mork & Mindy, the astonishing energies of a then unknown 26-year-old former Juilliard drama student named Robin Williams might never have been harnessed for mass appreciation.

Williams made his first appearance as Mork in a one-shot stint on Happy Days, after executive producer Garry Marshall’s 9-year-old son suggested that a space creature should visit the Cunningham family. So great was viewer response that a Morkan spin-off was whipped up within months. The premise: Since emotions had been bred out of the highly evolved Orkan race, Mork’s mission was to learn about human feeling from his roommate, a rosy Colorado lass named Mindy (former model Pam Dawber). At the show’s peak, 60 million viewers tuned in each week to see what Mork would discover about love, happiness, sadness, and other earthly foibles. Orkan phrases stuck to schoolchildren’s lips: ”Nanu nanu” (hello and goodbye). ”Shazbat” (damn!). ”I wouldn’t harm a harf on your choley-cho-cho” (you figure it out).

Each week the visitor reported back to his Orkan boss, Orson, but it was blundering network bosses who did Mork in: They moved M&M from its first-season Thursday time slot to Sunday the next fall. Ratings never recovered, even when Mork and Mindy married and, well, hatched a baby, played by Williams’ real-life idol Jonathan Winters. In June 1982, after four seasons, the show crash-landed 60th in the ratings and was canceled. Nanu nanu, network. Nanu nanu, syndication.

Sept. 14, 1978

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