Robin Williams Remembered: Tim Goodman on How the Actor "Popped" on TV
This story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Although he perfected his comic chops comic chops in the stand-up clubs of San Francisco and later had a long, varied career in film, it was television that made Robin Williams.
He'll always be remembered as Mork, first on Happy Days and then as co-star of Mork & Mindy, because, playing an alien who comes to Earth, he showed viewers what it looked like when an actor "popped" onscreen. The role seemed to fit his oddball, hyper personality — or, at the very least, gave him the confidence to turn his quirks up a dozen or so notches. Here was a larger-than-life performer exploding out of his character's skin.
He would go on to tackle a number of TV roles, many of them comic, some of them against-type in such dramas as Homicide: Life on the Street or Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He did cameos on Friends, The Larry Sanders Show and Louie. For the 2013-14 television season, CBS built The Crazy Ones around his outsize talent. The series, in which Williams played a zany advertising genius alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar as his daughter, was intended as a return to form. It was a fine idea, and it had its moments, but CBS canceled it after the first season.
Television had a unique way of tapping into Williams' immediacy, his vivacity and his improvisational genius. Late-night talk shows would exploit those talents for years; if you needed a ratings boost — or an adrenaline boost — you could always book Williams to come on and either try out some new bits or just completely take over. Talk shows run best on unpredictability, and Williams had an unrivaled knack for wedging his brand of verbal daredevilry between commercial breaks. He was the easy fix, the shot of "uh-oh" or "this should be good" that yawning late-night viewers wanted before sinking into their pillows.
It's why Johnny Carson had him on his penultimate episode. It's why everybody else wanted him on, as well: David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Conan O'Brien, Charlie Rose, Jimmy Fallon, Graham Norton, Rosie O'Donnell, Dennis Miller, Whoopi Goldberg, Larry King and Oprah all clamored to get him on their couches.
Williams' gift boiled down to talking. Whether he was cracking jokes in interviews or stand-up routines, hosting the Academy Awards, appearing in sitcoms or darker fare, or headlining countless specials, all Williams needed to enthrall was his words. Whatever came into his head, he said. He said it fast, he plowed ahead and he never stopped to see if he was supposed to stop.
That's how you pop on television. That's how you stand out. And that's how you get invited — over and over, through the years and around the world — to come back and talk again.
To read more tributes to Williams, click here.