Five months ago he was what Hollywood likes to call a complete nobody. A struggling comic, he had passed virtually unnoticed through improvisational clubs and two flop TV series (the revived Laugh-In, the Richard Pryor Show). Then, last fall, ABC unveiled its new offerings for the 1978-79 season. Robin Williams, 26, was given the lead in Mork & Mindy, a spacy sitcom, and he became what the moguls love to call an overnight star. For once the Hollywood hyperbole is actually appropriate; Mork & Mindy is often at the top of the charts and is seen by an average of 60 million viewers each week. To be the star of TV's No. 1 hit is to be the most highly visible show-biz personality in the country.
Mork & Mindy seems an unlikely bet for such exaltation: the program is fundamentally a retread of such tired sitcoms as My Favorite Martian and Bewitched. It tells the story of Mork (Williams), an alien eggplanted, so to speak, from the planet Ork, who settles in Boulder, Colo., with a winsome ingenue, Mindy (Pam Dawber). The secret of the program's runaway success is Williams. He is not only an inspired clown but also a perfect entertainer for TV's mass audience. Mork has the innocence and enthusiasm of a toddler discovering the world. But he is one toddler who can talk. Artless, gullible, endearing, he lets the audience in on every transparent thought that whirls through his head. His rambling is wildly unpredictable, in part because Mork talks not only to himself but to three or four parts of himselfand they talk back.
Children love him because his daffy repertoire of Ork language can be mimicked endlessly. Already Mork's "nano, nano" (translation: hello) has replaced the Fonz's "aaaayyy" as the catchword of the nation's kids. Adults like his spontaneous riffs. On one program he launched into a singsong: "Shah, Shah, Ayatollah [I tol' yuh], Shah, Shah, Ayatollah so."
People on Ork do not have emotions. Though he can be possessive about Mindy, sex is a mystery to Mork (he did once get a crush on a department store dummy). "He has the cootchycoo quality," says a casting director at NBC."You want to go up to him and pinch his cheeks."
It could be argued that Williams landed in the right role in the right time slot (8 p.m., when children control the nation's sets). But Williams is not so much lucky as talented. In his stand-up nightclub act, which he does for free, to keep in touch with live audiences and to try out new material, he displays a range that encompasses Jonathan Winters, Danny Kaye, Steve Martin and Daffy Duck. Though always wearing the same costumebaggy pants, loud shirts, suspendershe whips in and out of a multitude of comic characterizations. He can mimic the cadences of Shakespeare, many foreign languages, an ark of animals, various machines. His act includes a redneck used-car salesman, a Russian comic, a gay director, a touchingly mad grandpa.