Robin Williams launched his career on “Happy Days,” where he famously did such a great job that the network offered him his own show after just one episode. But Williams almost missed out on the part of Mork because originally, “Happy Days” creator Garry Marshall had a different comedian in mind for the space alien.
Marshall wanted John Byner, an impressionist who had appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Get Smart.” Byner’s impressions included Johnny Mathis, John Wayne and Lyndon Johnson.
In his memoir, “My Happy Days in Hollywood,” Marshall wrote that he wanted Byner for Mork because of the “wild look in his eyes and [his] off-beat wit.”
How Robin Williams Wound Up on ‘Happy Days’
According to Marshall’s account, it all started when he noticed that one of his children was decidedly less enthusiastic about “Happy Days” than the rest. While Marshall’s daughters loved the show, his son, Scott, could not have cared less. Scott was a “Star Wars” buff. The first movie of the original trilogy had just hit theatres, and at 8 years old, Scott was a big fan of George Lucas.
Jealous, Marshall asked Scott why he wouldn’t watch “Happy Days.” Scott replied that there were no space aliens on Marshall’s show. Marshall said he couldn’t see how a space alien would fit into a 1950s-era sitcom. Scott calmly replied that Fonzie could have a dream about one.
Thus was the Mork character born. He was a perfect foil to Fonzie: “We’d created Fonzie as a gangster with a heart of gold, and Mork was crafted as an alien with a heart of gold,” Marshall wrote.
At first, Marshall thought he had everything lined up. He had made a deal with CBS to have Byner play Mork. But then, the same week the episode was supposed to air, Byner backed out. He just didn’t want to play an alien on TV.
Next up for the role were comedians Jeff Altman and Richard Lewis. The William Morris Agency was really hounding Marshall to use them. But Marshall didn’t feel they were the right fit for “Happy Days.”
Finally, someone suggested Williams. He was at that point performing on street corners for money.
“You want me to build a major network sitcom around a man who passes the hat for tips?” Marshall asked incredulously.
“It is a VERY full hat,” was the reply.
How Marshall Met Williams
After hearing from multiple people that Williams was special, Marshall reluctantly agreed to meet the comedian himself. When Marshall walked into his office, Williams was waiting for him… perched upside down on his head on the sofa. Seeing Marshall, the comedian stood up and began pretending to drink a glass of water with his finger.
Marshall recognized Williams’s talent and began mulling the possibility of building a show around him. But first, he had to prove himself on “Happy Days.”
“Ron Howard and Henry Winkler were two of the more generous actors working in television,” Marshall explained. “So when Robin guest-starred on the show, they gave him not only the support he needed but also the room to shine on his own.”
And shine he did. Once the episode ended, the live studio audience gave Williams a standing ovation.
Sure enough, no sooner had that episode aired than Marshall got a call from his boss, Michael Eisner, who told him to launch a sitcom for Williams. Thus was “Mork and Mindy” created, and with it, Williams’s career. And the rest is television history.