Robin Williams, who was found dead on Monday in a suspected suicide, was discovered by much of America on TV through his attention-grabbing guest appearances as the alien Mork on the hit sitcom “Happy Days.” He returned to TV again for his last major role before his death on the CBS comedy “The Crazy Ones.” During the years between, Williams continually returned to the small screen for guest spots, even as his big screen career took off.
Williams’ TV career began inauspiciously as a writer and performer on “The Richard Pryor Show,” which lasted just four episodes on NBC in 1977. Look carefully in the background of this presidential press conference sketch from the first episode; Williams stands against the back wall but has no lines as a White House photographer. Williams had no lines and no featured action, but it was a TV start.
He attracted considerably more attention the next year when he guest starred as an alien in the fifth season of the hit nostalgia sitcom “Happy Days.” In the episode, “My Favorite Orkan,” Williams played Mork, an alien from the planet Ork, who attempts to take Ron Howard’s character, Richie, back to his home planet. In this clip from the episode, Mork demonstrated some of his alien powers, which included being able to freeze the teens at Arnold’s in time.
Instead of being a creative low point for the series (that came earlier that same season when Fonzie literally jumped a shark), the Mork episode proved so successful that he came back the next season before spinning off into his own starring role in “Mork & Mindy.”
“Mork & Mindy” aired on ABC from 1978 to 1982. It gave Williams an opportunity to show off his quick wit and improvisational skills in prime time and made him a household name as well as popularizing his catchphrases, “Na-Nu Na-Nu” and “Shazbot.” The series also gave Williams a chance to perform with his comic idol, Jonathan Winters, who played Mork’s child in the fourth and final season.
The first episode expanded the character from the odd joke of his “Happy Days” appearance and established his new world, contemporary Boulder, Colo. Though the show’s popularity was not as long-lived as “Happy Days” -- it ended after four seasons -- it did grab Williams his first Emmy nomination for lead actor in a comedy series.
As Williams’ big screen career took off in the 1980s, he continued to appear on TV, whether it was a small role in Shelley Duvall’s anthology series “Faerie Tale Theatre” or an appearance on stand-up friend Billy Crystal’s short-lived comedy series “The Billy Crystal Comedy Hour,” which lasted five episodes in 1982.
He also continued to perform stand-up specials on TV, including arguably his most iconic, “An Evening at the Met,” which aired in 1986. He won two Emmys for performances in the variety specials “Carol, Carl, Whoopi and Robin” in 1987 and “ABC Presents: A Royal Gala” in 1988.
Williams held the distinction of being one of Johnny Carson’s final two guests on “The Tonight Show,” (Bette Midler was the last). His final appearance with Johnny in 1992 was typical of his many appearances on talk shows over the years.
He returned to acting on TV in a major way in 1994 for a special episode of the NBC drama “Homicide: Life on the Street,” executive produced by his “Good Morning America” director, Barry Levinson. Rather than going for laughs, Williams played a tourist in mourning after his wife was murdered in front of him and his children during a robbery. The appearance earned Williams another Emmy nomination for guest actor in a drama series.
The next year, he was back to creating laughs, albeit the awkward kind, playing a version of himself on HBO’s show business comedy “The Larry Sanders Show.”
Williams and Crystal made unexpected cameos in 1997 on the sitcom hit “Friends” just before the release of their movie, “Father’s Day.”
In the last year of his life, Williams made a guest appearance on Louis CK’s acclaimed series “Louie,” playing himself, and starred in “The Crazy Ones” opposite Sarah Michelle Gellar.
“The Crazy Ones” was a comedy series that aired on CBS in 2013 and featured Williams as an eccentric ad exec. The series, created by David E. Kelley, was designed to give Williams a showcase for his comedy after his big screen career had slowed down. Unfortunately, the series never lifted off with viewers and was canceled after one season.
Follow me on Twitter: @patrickkevinday