Question: I was just using your search function and read about how Jonathan Winters played Mork's son on Mork & Mindy. My next question is... why? Colleen C., Ansonia, Conn.
Televisionary: To be perfectly frank? The network and producers were desperate because they'd managed to ruin a show that was wildly successful in its first season, driving it into the ground with ill-advised creative and scheduling changes.
So in the final season, they went for broke. Mork (Robin Williams) and Mindy (Pam Dawber) got hitched, and Mork became a proud papa by popping out an egg, which grew larger and, when it cracked open, revealed the happy couple's new baby, Mearth, played by the 6-foot-1, 220-pound, middle-aged Winters. (The gag was that Orkan babies aged backwards, appearing younger as they grew older.)
Sounds like a bad idea, no? It was. But by that point they were ready to try anything, not to mention that Winters had previously appeared as another character and had worked well with Williams, who idolized him. "He was the influence on my work," Williams told TV Guide in 1981. "He is after all the major comic talent of our time.... Then he guest-starred at the end of last season as Mindy's Eastern uncle: a wonderfully mad, harrumphy millionaire. We had a great time exhausting each other. In June, the producers asked if I'd like to work with him as a regular. I leaped at the chance. I made a special visit to the ABC brass in New York while I was filming Garp. They liked the idea, and I was a kid in a new toy store."
They figured it was worth a shot since things couldn't have gotten much worse at that point, as producer Garry Marshall admitted early in the season. "We were dead in the water at the end of last season," he said. "We cut our audience by tinkering, almost lost it completely when the network put us up against Archie Bunker on Sunday nights. We decided to marry Mork and Mindy; and when the chance to involve Jon appeared, we snapped at it."
The sad part was, they never should have had to snap at anything at that point. They should've been enjoying a successful show, but they weren't and as I said, Marshall and the network had only themselves to blame. In the beginning Mork, a Happy Days spinoff, was a smash. Debuting in September 1978, it finished its first season tied with its sire for third place. So the network and the producers decided to move it from Thursdays to Sundays and then monkeyed around with the formula that had worked so well in the first place.
ABC execs wanted to sex the show up for the second season so they, among other things, hired Raquel Welch to appear and take things in that direction. Dawber called that move "the low point" and Marshall agreed. "That's when we realized that we had fallen into the world of competition and greed," he said. "With the Raquel show we went down the sewer."
Furthermore, in a 1980 interview Dawber said she didn't hold Williams responsible for the show's decline... and then proceeded to blame him a little just the same. "[H]e did insist that Mork be changed and become more sophisticated," she said. "So, that was a big mistake. But I think Robin and I were both innocent bystanders. The ideal formula for Mork & Mindy is to make Mork the little buffoon who messes up the situation and then, out of naïveté, saves the day. Mork is a Chaplinesque character. He is simple. When Robin decided that Mork should be more sophisticated, the producers and writers went along with him. Robin was too close to the character to see it. They weren't. Then they added all those other crazy characters [among them, Exidor, leader of an invisible cult] and the show lost all sense of reality and balance. It just stopped being funny."
That it did. And audiences noticed. By the end of the second season, the show dropped to 27th place, and it fell out of the top 30 altogether after the 1980-81 season.
And I have to point out here that some of the disastrous changes came as an attempt to appeal to a younger demographic, one of my pet peeves, as regular readers know. After the big first season, network execs said studies showed the Mork audience was youthful and only wanted to look at young people. So they ousted poor Conrad Janis, who did such a great job of playing Mindy's dad when the show launched. Bad move.
"We got a tremendous amount of protest mail," producer Bruce Johnson said in 1981. "They wanted Pam to have a father."
So in the spring of 1980, the executives and producers begged Janis to come back and the actor and his agent did the right thing they demanded a better deal.
Alas, it was too late to save the show. And the odd choice of casting Winters as Williams's son didn't help at all, so June of 1982 saw the last new Mork episode.
"ABC got greedy," Johnson said of the changes. "They fiddled with success."
Yes, indeed. And as we all know, they learned their lesson and never got greedy again, which is why when Who Wants to be a Millionaire became a hit, they blitzed their schedule with it, cut back on new development and threw themselves into a ratings pit they still haven't climbed out of.