In A Roundabout Way, Star Wars Gave Robin Williams His Big Break

If you were a kid around when the original "Star Wars" trilogy first came out, that period between "A New Hope" and "Return of the Jedi" was a golden era. Not only did you have three great movies to rave about, there were copious amounts of merchandise to beg your parents for: Could you really call yourself a fan if you didn't have the action figures, bedspread, comic books, and matching lunchbox? Possibly the greatest tie-in from that time was the brilliant "Star Wars" video game with its sit-down cabinet, which put you right in the cockpit of an X-wing fighter. The vector graphics look incredibly primitive now, but it was a battle even getting near the thing when it first landed in arcades in the UK.

Not only did you have the official "Star Wars" films and gear, there were also a whole bunch of spinoffs and ripoffs attempting to cash in on the phenomenon. Most of it was pretty bad, but you're not all that discerning as a kid; "Krull" remains a guilty pleasure, and I even watched those dumb Ewok movies a few times. On the small screen, even "Happy Days" got in on the action.

A nostalgic comedy show about life in 1950s Milwaukee might not seem the likeliest place for anything space-related, but then, people were seeing UFOs all over the place back in those days. Either way, audiences went wild for the friendly alien who rocked up on the Cunningham family's doorstep in one episode, played by a mostly unheard-of comedian named Robin Williams.

Why did an alien end up in Happy Days?

The son of "Happy Days" producer Garry Marshall asked for an episode featuring an alien after they watched "Star Wars" together. He duly obliged, but the script was not to the cast's liking. Anson Williams, who played Potsie in the show, said (via The Hollywood Reporter):

"It was unreadable, it was so bad ... Henry [Winkler] is the most calm, civilized man on Earth, but that script went against the wall."

Things got worse when the actor originally hired to play Mork quit two days before filming the episode in front of a live studio audience. In desperation, Marshall asked if anyone knew somebody funny who could step in, and luckily Al Molinaro (who played diner owner Al) knew just the guy from a comedy workshop he was taking. Robin Williams had been working the stand-up circuit for a few years before he came in and improvised Mork's whole character in his unique style. He remembered:

"The day I went in for my audition, Richard Lewis, who's a great Jewish comic, is coming out going, 'I don't speak Norwegian...' and I went, 'What does that mean?' And then I went in and basically just started talking in a weird kind of helium voice and sat on my head and, you know, just started off just playing. And then just because I went, 'What've you got to lose?' and they went, 'Yes!' and were serious, and so I got the gig."

The executives were thrilled with their find, and within four days Williams was offered a contract to star in a spinoff show called "Mork & Mindy."

Mork & Mindy and beyond

"Mork & Mindy" was Robin Williams' first full-time acting gig, and it gave him a great chance to showcase his improvisational talents; scripts were often shorter than "Happy Days" to allow plenty of space for his ad-libbing (via The Hollywood Reporter). The show expanded on the premise of his popular guest appearance, with Mork once again sent to Earth in his egg-shaped spacecraft to observe human behavior by his grumpy boss, Orson. This time he lands in Boulder, Colorado, where he becomes housemates with Mindy (Pam Dawber), a young college dropout who works in a music store.

The first show links to "Happy Days" via a flashback, with an extended scene where Fonzie (Henry Winkler) reluctantly sets Mork up on a date. Winkler later said of Williams:

"You knew you were in the presence of somebody very special, of greatness ... it was not chutzpah, it was not nerve, he needed it, it was his soul, it was the way he was put on the Earth. You said something to him, he sucked it in, and he blew it out, and it came out with [such] originality and so powerfully and so funny that your jaw dropped."

"Mork & Mindy" was a hit, and the small screen couldn't contain Williams' talent for long. Robert Altman gave him his first starring role in the misconceived "Popeye," where he was well cast as the muttering sailor alongside Shelley Duvall as his girlfriend, Olive Oyl. Within a decade, Williams received his first Oscar nomination for "Good Morning, Vietnam" on his way to becoming one of our best-loved actors. And it all started because a young lad loved "Star Wars" and wanted to see an alien in his dad's TV show.