How Robin Williams Became Mork From Ork: That Happy Days Episode Was Supposed to Be the "Biggest Piece of S--t"

Former Happy Days and Mork & Mindy writer-producer explains how what was supposed to be a terrible plot point instead led to a spin-off

By Natalie Finn, Baker Machado Aug 13, 2014 4:19 AMTags
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Happy Days was a huge hit show that had everything—family values; a golden-boy high school student with awesome parents, a cute little sister and goofy high school pals; the Fonz...

But apparently what the sitcom really needed was an alien.

TV and filmmaker Brian Levant, who joined Happy Days as a writer-producer in its fifth season, recalls being in the writers room one day when series creator Gary Marshall came in and announced that his 8-year-old son Scott had suggested to him, "Let's put a space man on Happy Days."

Sure, why not?!

"And everyone looked around at each other thinking there was no way he could be serious and, strangely enough, he was," Levant told E! News today while talking about the sudden passing of Robin Williams, whose breakout role as Mork from the planet Ork originated on Happy Days before the character scored his own classic series.

"Dom DeLuise booked it and he backed out," Levant said. "Then we got another guy, the Sheriff of Nottingham from Mel Brook's Robin Hood movie [Roger Rees] and he backed out, saying he doesn't want to be Mork. We shoot on Friday and it's Wednesday. One of our associate producers said that she had seen a guy at a showcase once, and he did an alien act and she was going to see if she could find him. They got him in there."

And the rest became relentlessly entertaining history.

"This is around noon," Levant continued. "It is 3:30, we have a run-through of this episode, which is considered to be the biggest piece of s--t in the history of the show and it was brilliant. The run-through lasted an hour and fifteen minutes of a 22-minute show. And it was Robin Williams' literal birth as an entertainer."

Some of those who recall seeing Williams' pre-fame stand-up may have begged to differ, but playing Mork definitely took him to the next level of fame, from which he only climbed ever higher.

"Even though he had been on Laugh-In, nobody had noticed him," Levant, who also was a producer on Mork & Mindy, said. "He was an unqualified genius in that rehearsal and the cast of Happy Days was tremendously generous ceding the stage to him and everybody walked out of that show saying 'spin-off, spin-off, spin-off.' And we walked upstairs and wrote a bunch of great stuff."

Mork first "nanu-nanu'd" his way into the zeitgeist on Feb. 28, 1978, in the Happy Days episode "My Favorite Orkan" and then Mork & Mindy premiered on Sept. 14, 1978.

Mork & Mindy, costarring Pam Dawber as the human half of the adorably odd couple, subsequently became a huge hit for ABC, averaging 55 million to 60 million viewers per week. It lasted four seasons.

"It's very sad what happened in light of being such an incredible talent," Levant, also known for directing family-friendly feature fare such as Beethoven and Jingle All the Way, told E! News. "I'm so sorry for what happened. He is the most creative person I have ever come across and that includes Jonathan Winters. He was just a brilliant guy. It was an honor and a privilege to work with him."

Fans instantly turned the Boulder, Colo., house used for the outside images of Mork and Mindy's home into a memorial shrine, leaving flowers, candles and messages in honor of the late Oscar winner and comedy icon.

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