Mork form Ork wasn’t Robin Williams’ first role, but it was certainly the one that made him a household name. So, as we mourn the passing of a man whose life’s work was to bring joy to others, I thought I’d take a look at the pilot of Mork and Mindy. It premiered in 1978, after the character earned raves in a dream sequence on Happy Days.
Mork’s story is told in linear fashion, with one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment. The show opens with him being called into the principal’s office, so to speak, as he appears before the shadowy Orson, his boss. Orson (named for Orson Welles?) reprimands Mork for his constant joke-making. Humor has no place on their planet, so Mork is being sent on assignment to Earth.
His ship lands in the woods near Boulder, Colorado, where Mindy (Pam Dawber) is being sexually assaulted by a date, who then steals her Jeep. This is an interesting scene, because in a more clichéd show, Mork would have rescued her from the douchebag, and then she would have fallen for Mork romantically. Instead, in the show’s emblematic fashion, she mistakes Mork for a priest because he’s wearing a suit backwards and the collar looks vaguely like a priest’s. He walks her home, where she offers him some iced tea, and his true identity comes out.
The role was perfect for Williams, as it provided ample opportunity to showcase his skill with impersonations and physical comedy while also allowing room for his serious side. His extraterrestrial perspective offers a platform to comment on human society.
Mindy’s reaction to discovering she’s brought home an alien is delightful. Her pure wonder overrides any fear she should probably be feeling. Mork’s antics, from his strange handshake to “sitting” on his head come with such charm that she just goes along for the ride. One can image that what we’re seeing is actually Pam Dawber, the actress, just reacting in wonder at working in the presence of such charisma and energy.
An extended cutaway — lasting 15 minutes — that manages to work in Happy Days‘ The Fonz and Laverne and Shirley‘s Laverne almost kills this pilot. It neither forwards the plot nor enhances Mindy’s understanding of Mork’s background. It’s not even that funny. Mork’s ineptness with human interaction in Milwaukee far eclipses the skills he demonstrates in Boulder. If I had to guess, I’d say the scene on the Happy Days set was shot well before the Mork and Mindy pilot script was even completed.
The difference in timeline presents questions, which are not addressed about travel between Ork and Earth, since 20 or so years have passed between Mork’s two visits. Did he travel through time, or do Orkans not show their age as Earthlings do? Or did a fold in the space-time-continuum allow him to move directly between 1950-something and 1978? (As a sci-fi fan, I need to know these things.)
Mindy’s dad (Conrad Janis) and grandmother (Elizabeth Kerr) also appear as characters and the former’s interactions with Robin Williams really sparkle. Dad mistakes Mork for a live-in love interest, and while he’s angry, you can almost see him wanting to laugh at Williams’ antics. In the end, he helps Mindy save Mork from a trip to a mental institution. We’ll leave the paternalism/sexism, a 21-year-old living with a man making her a “loose woman,” for another discussion.
It’s nice that the show doesn’t push a romantic link between its two leads, although it would go down that road in later seasons. The budding relationship between the two is interesting enough as it is.
Mork closes the episode by checking in, psychically, with Orson, as we would come to do weekly. This is where the show dips its toe into social commentary. Mork asks, “If everyone’s different, how can a society function”? In a way it’s a celebration of the messed up human condition. That’s probably why the show was so loved, and why we’ll always remember Mork emerging from his glowing egg to light up our living rooms.