By ELLEN ENDO, Rafu Contributing Writer
For nearly three years, between 1978 and 1981, I worked with Williams—although “worked with” is not exactly the right term. More accurately, I stood on the sidelines in awe, watching his genius unfold.
In the summer of 1977, I had been serving as Rafu Shimpo’s English section editor since college and decided the time had come to venture out into the world beyond Little Tokyo. After all, I was still a young woman and had only held one job. It was time to venture out into the world beyond Third and San Pedro streets.
I managed to land a job with the ABC Television Network as, of all things, editor of broadcast standards and practices. That meant I hunted down and eliminated words like “hell” and “damn” and other words deemed objectionable, made sure costumes covered all the strategic parts of the body, and generally tried to prevent scriptwriters from offending viewers with rude humor and excessive violence.
The job, as it turned out, was fairly straightforward, but then along came Robin Williams, with an energy, a wit, an astute intelligence I’d never seen before—at least not in an actor. I was assigned to “Happy Days,” ABC’s hit series shooting at Paramount Studios. While sitting at the studio commissary, “Happy Days” cast member Al Molinaro, who had just replaced Pat Morita as proprietor of the diner. (Morita left to star in his own series, the short-lived “Mr. T and Tina”).
Molinaro took me aside and said, “You know, Ellen, someone at your network should take a look at this kid on the show this week.” And so, at that afternoon’s rehearsal, I saw the “kid,” Robin Williams, for the first time.
This was Williams’ first major TV guest-starring role, and he was holding his own with seasoned stars like Ron Howard and Henry “Fonzie” Winkler. I asked if I could have a tape of the episode to show to my bosses at the time, ABC Entertainment chiefs Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner. I delivered the tape with a note echoing Molinaro’s admonition: “Al Molinaro wants you to take a look at this week’s (“Happy Days”) guest star.”
I heard nothing after that. That is, until the new fall schedule was announced. “Mork & Mindy” was listed among the new shows. There had been no pilot, no advance hype, nothing.
“What the hell is ‘Mork & Mindy’?” brass at competing TV networks, other ABC executives, and high-powered agents were asking. Carsey responded, “That’s a show starring this guy that Ellen Endo found.”
To which the mucky-mucks reacted, “Who the hell is Ellen Endo?!”
“Mork & Mindy” defied convention and made it onto ABC’s 1978 schedule solely on the strength of Williams’ one performance—and, without a pilot. Apparently, the deal was struck during a phone call between then ABC Entertainment president Tony Thomopoulos and Happy Days creator-executive producer Garry Marshall.
When the pilot was eventually produced, Williams seemed to forget, or perhaps chose to ignore, where he was. After all, this was a soundstage where conventional sitcoms were produced. There were sound technicians and multiple cameras synchronized by camera coordinator Eric Emi to capture the actors’ rehearsed movements. Their years of experience had not prepared them for the whirlwind that was Robin Williams.
Williams unleashed his frenetic energy, bounded across the stage, jumped on the furniture, and spewed a barrage of ad libs that stunned everyone, especially co-star Pam Dawber. His humor was then, as it continued to be throughout his career, sharp, erudite, topical, and risqué. “Mork” had landed, and Robin Williams would set a new standard for television.
The in-studio audience gave Williams a standing ovation. I’d never seen that happen before and neither had the ABC brass on hand for the filming of that first episode. Emi’s camera crew was out of breath from chasing this firebrand across the stage. The writers were scratching their heads. Williams was getting nonstop laughs, but not necessarily with the words they’d written for him.
Thomopoulos and Marshall were congratulating each other. ABC, which had dominated Tuesday night with its powerhouse comedies— ”Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” and “Three’s Company”—was now looking to grab Thursdays away from the competition. And grab it did, often landing at the top of the TV ratings.
Soon, Williams became a media must-have. He appeared on the covers of Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Time, People, GQ, and of course, TV Guide. In interviews, Williams was often asked how he was able to get away with many of the double entendre, he often credited the censor—that would be me—with a liberal attitude toward bawdy humor. He never gave out my name and would describe me differently in each interview as Hispanic or Filipina, even though he knew my ethnicity was Japanese-Italian.
Truth is, much of his humor simply went over my head. I’m sure he and the show’s producers liked that about me, which is not a good sign when you are supposed to be the network watchdog. During the “Mork & Mindy” filmings, Williams would often make jokes about the ABC censor. I was always there, sitting in a booth about 10 feet above the audience. But he never gave me away. I always felt that he was protecting me even though a cutting-edge comedian and a by-the-book censor are destined to be natural enemies.
Having worked most of my adult life at The Rafu, a six-day-a-week job at the time, I was rather inexperienced and naive and the perfect foil for an entertainer who frankly knew a lot more than me.
Needless to say, “Mork & Mindy” was an immediate hit, finishing number three overall among all series that season. Word of mouth on the show spread rapidly and, remarkably, ratings for reruns were significantly higher than the original airings— something that almost never happens. Marshall joked that the ratings were higher because people were sitting closer to the TV so they could catch all of Williams’ witty ad libs.
Williams and I became good friends despite our edgy perpetrator-censor relationship. We would run into each other occasionally over the years and, no matter where he saw me, his face would light up and he’d shout, “There she is!” as if he’d been looking for me. Then he’d ask about my daughter, Stephanie, and tell me to send her his love.
I still have the “Mork & Mindy” poster he signed for me in 1978. “To Ellen. Love and other special things we can’t say.”
Throughout his career, he made us laugh, think, and feel in a way no one else could. It’s time now to send the love back to him. Thank you, Robin. What a ride!