Robin Williams was many things to many people: he was a stand-up comedian, a family-favorite comedy actor, a serious thespian who tore into the depths of human depravity, and so much more. Williams’ career really kicked off with “Mork & Mindy,” a spin-off of the highly successful series “Happy Days.” He starred as the alien Mork from the planet Ork, and was joined in his weekly misadventures by his roommate and friend, Mindy (Pam Dawber). The series ran for four seasons before being unceremoniously canceled in 1982.
Williams would go on to have an incredibly successful career in acting, but that moment of having your television show canceled out from under you always stuck with him. In an interview with Edward Norton discussing their 2002 dark comedy “Death to Smoochy,” the late comedian revealed that “Mork & Mindy” and its cancellation had a profound influence on how he played his character, fallen kids’ show host Rainbow Randolph.
The terrifying truth of children’s television
If you’ve never seen or heard of “Death to Smoochy,” it is a vastly underrated cult comedy about a greasy slimeball of a children’s TV show host (Williams) who gets replaced by a squeaky-clean doofus in a rhino costume (Norton). Catherine Keener stars as the network executive who works with (and falls for) them both, and Danny DeVito’s direction is about as pitch-perfect as can be for this twisted little gem. Norton’s character is a pure, sweet goofball (inspired by Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), while Williams gets to be truly horrible. For fans who had grown up watching the actor on “Mork & Mindy,” the voice of the Genie in “Aladdin,” or even as the cross-dressing “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the vulgarity, cruelty, and pure villainy of Rainbow Randolph was pretty shocking.
In his interview with Norton, Williams explained that he was working pretty heavily in children’s and family television early in his career, and he didn’t even get told “Mork & Mindy” was canceled, instead reading about it while working on another children’s production:
“They didn’t call. I was doing this thing, ‘The Tale of the Frog Prince’, with Eric Idle, and bingo! The trades basically said, “Mork & Mindy cancelled.” I was so angry and hurt, and I was dressed as a frog. [both laugh] It hit me hard. So I have experienced that, I have lived that part.”
While Williams didn’t try to kidnap the stars of whatever show replaced his, the cancelation did give him some insight into the mind of Randolph. As he said in the same interview, “Well, having done television and having known the other side of the business — the backstabbing — it’s full of sociopaths, who try to kill their rivals, like Randolph.”
His unhinged performance is one of his most magnetic, balancing mania with a surprising touch of heart. We don’t just laugh at and hate Randolph, we also feel sorry for him. Williams’ experiences helped give weight to those moments and cemented Randolph as a truly complex and fascinating figure and not just another pop-culture parody.
If you have a library card, you can rent “Death to Smoochy” on Hoopla, and you should, because this cinematic classic deserves way more love.