Robin Williams: Inside His Time On A Not-Memorable CBS Sitcom

There are better ways to remember Williams than "The Crazy Ones."
Robin Williams: Inside His Time On A Not-Memorable CBS Sitcom

Robin Williams’s career was bookended by his lead appearances in two sitcoms. The first, Mork and Mindy, was a monster hit, launching Robin’s career as a comedy superstar.  The last, The Crazy Ones, was little seen and soon forgotten, a sad ending to a brilliant career.

The Crazy Ones seemed promising enough, casting Robin as the aging-but-still-got-it creative force behind a Chicago advertising agency that he runs with Sarah Michelle Geller, playing his uptight daughter. The show was created by David E. Kelly, the man behind hits like Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Big Little Lies. So far, so good, right?

Robin remembered meeting with Kelly, who pitched Williams the show concept:  “Father-daughter advertising firm, father’s kind of an idea man, but he’s had an interesting life. Multiple marriages and rehab …”

To which Robin replied, “I’ve done the research.” 

Geller would be the straight-laced daughter whom Robin tries to loosen up, building in plenty of opportunities for the comic’s trademark improvisation. Given CBS’s track record for giving new blood to old TV stars and the pedigree of his cast, Williams signed on.  

Of course, there was one more reason to return to his TV comedy roots. “I’m doing it for the money, I need the money,” he told friend and fellow comic Steven Pearl.

Unfortunately, the show was not a hit, despite a promising start. The show’s premiere brought in more than 15 million viewers, a great performance if The Crazy Ones could keep it up. It couldn’t.  

Ratings declined and the critics weren’t kind. “Williams’ greatest roles came when he had a director who could contain him enough to balance the drama with the wackiness,” said The Guardian. “Since The Crazy Ones was supposed to be a showcase (for Robin’s madcap improv skills), no one ever bothered to do that, and the show suffered for it.”

The New York Times was less kind“Watching Mr. Williams return to the kind of improvisation-style routines that made him famous in the 1970s is bittersweet, like watching Jimmy Connors play tennis again,” said critic Alessandra Stanley. “They are still impressive, but audiences can’t help recalling how much more elastic and powerful they were at their peak.”

Ratings continued to fall and show producers resorted to stunt casting, enlisting Pam Dawber, Mindy to Robin’s Mork, to appear as his new girlfriend. 

I did that show only because I wanted to see Robin,” she said. “Not because I thought it was a great show. I thought it was such the wrong show for Robin, and he was working as hard as he could. The couple episodes I saw, I felt so sorry for him, because he was just sweating bullets. He was sweet and wonderful and loving and sensitive. But I would come home and say to my husband, ‘Something’s wrong. He’s flat. He’s lost the spark. I don’t know what it is.’”

In large part, the “something wrong” was the illness that would eventually take Williams’s life. But the show was wrong as well -- the wrong vehicle at the wrong time for a comic artist who needed a different kind of showcase. By the show’s 22nd and final episode, viewers had dwindled to about half of the number who’d tuned in for the premiere.

But that doesn’t mean Williams thought the Crazy Ones experience was a disaster. Instead, he found simple pleasures in its routines.  “It’s a regular job. Day to day, you go to the plant, you put your punch card in, you get out. That’s a good job.”

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