Living with Mork

Originally published on October 29, 1979 | People Magazine | Written by Lois Armstrong

Robin Williams may put on the dog, but his wife keeps him on terra firma

"It's not the work but the social life that drained me."

I was bordering on exhaustion. I got so frenetic I scared myself. There was no time to recover, no time to go home and say 'Screw you' to a wall. I was starting to go through the roof. You have to say 'No' or else you go slowly bozo."

Fast fame can be orkward, Robin Williams discovered at 27. When Mork & Mindy's lovable--and brilliant--alien splashed down on ABC last year, the backwash rocked Robin as well as the industry. None of television's breakthrough comedies, from The Honeymooners to All in the Family, had ever been so dominated by one top banana. The previously small-time comic suddenly could sell out the Copa or the Universal Amphitheatre in the blink of a bleem. His very first LP, Reality... What a Concept!, went platinum. He was stampeded everywhere by Mork's 55 million na-noing viewers. Paramount tied him up in a $3 million plus, five-year contract. He became a national craze. "It was so much fun," says Williams. "My golden age."

But a crazy time of nonstop work and play had left Williams drained. He would often leave the Mork set and head straight for L.A.'s Comedy Store, where he gigged free to keep his insanity fresh. As for the discoing and parties, he now realizes: "I was just being silly." Word began to circulate that his marriage to modern dancer Valerie Velardi, 29, was disintegrating. The rumors peaked this summer when Robin was reported with model Molly Madden, while Valerie took off for a few weeks solo in Italy. The gossip stung. "The rumors are completely false," Valerie comments icily. Robin snaps that "the press was like a big fly buzzing around. They print those things because it sells. It's scary."

The scare jolted the couple into a new modus Vivendi. He is slowing down, and she is making the scene a little more. Williams now quotes old baseball legend Satchel Paige: "The social ramble ain't restful." Then he adds, "They should give courses in Hollywood parties, A and B. Valerie would bristle, 'Get me out of here.' But now she's learned a certain diplomacy." As for himself, Robin says, "It's like slowly turning off an engine. When you've been going at high speed, it'll keep idling." The bottom line: "We're not becoming monks."

That's not the royal "we" but includes the lady he calls "Pooky," "Miss V" and "Venus." It was less than a year and a half ago that Valerie married an improv nobody on a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay. By last fall, when the couple had a second wedding party with her East Coast Italian relatives, a separate receiving line had to be formed for autographs. With the sudden limelight, Valerie "found herself being frazzled too," Williams says.

A longtime family pal, actor Stan Wilson, says, "Those false reports of philandering are hard on Valerie." But she says, "When it comes to women, they've always liked Robin." He is an incorrigible flirt on set, swatting Pam (Mindy) Dawber's bottom or ogling the ever-present lovelies. "Do I get jealous?" asks Valerie, who now teaches dance at a local college. "There are some people in this world who belong to everyone. Of course, most of them are responding to Robin's talent or to 'Mork.' I love Robin the person. He is a joy to live with." When the two meet they often run toward each other in slow motion to embrace. "She's very special," he says. "Basically an artistic, gutsy down-home woman."

The externals of the Williams' lifestyle have changed surprisingly little since Mork. True, they moved from their rented beach apartment to a modest (by Hollywood standards) under $200,000 canyon home. Robin describes it as "rustic bordering on funk." Since his old Austin-Healey was stolen, he's bought a silver BMW. He also acquired a malamute, Sam, who visits the neighbors to watch TV (about all Williams watches is Taxi). On their acre of land, Robin and Valerie plan to add two dwarf goats to a burgeoning menagerie that now includes Polish chickens, Cora the parrot and Mr. I, the iguana who lives under the refrigerator (his companion, Truman Capote, has passed away). "My desire for material things is almost nonexistent," says Williams, who points out that his suburban Detroit upbringing as the son of a Ford Motor Co. exec accustomed him to comfort.

He has had to give up his trademark rainbow suspenders because he is recognized too easily. (Kids ask him in supermarkets: "Will you take me back to space with you?") But Mork's wardrobe was based on its star's own, and he still buys baggy pants and Hawaiian shirts at used-clothing stores in L.A., like Aaardvark's and Paleeze. He never carries money and is constantly borrowing from friends. "It has nothing to do with cheapness," says one associate. "He just doesn't know anything about money." Or time. He never wears a watch and is always late.

Robin misses calls from old friends ("They don't want to pimp you for anything"), so he telephones them. "Friends insulate you from the outside and peel away the crust that gets on you, like a ship that is moored," he says. Some of his Comedy Store colleagues accused him publicly of stealing their material, but Williams says, "There's no truth in it. Those are all my friends and I don't want to bad-mouth any of them." "I think he has taken things," says comedian Robert Aguayo, "but he transcends his material." Arbitrates Mork director Howard Storm, a former comic himself: "When you're a success, it's the same old charge."

Williams has tried to spread the success around on Mork & Mindy. One old pal, Jim Staahl, has been cast to play a character added to put new ginger in the series. That became essential with a shift in the time slot that not only cut into the show's ratings--he's opposite CBS' Archie Bunker's Place--but also added to Robin's problems with network censors. "Getting shit through the radar," in Williams' inelegant expression, is harder in his family-fare Sunday night spot. When the censor arrives on set, Robin and the cast chorus: "Lumpy ca-ca! Dog-doo! Balls!--oops, just practicing lines."

Occasionally something gently suggestive gets by, but the humor is never cruel. Mork always ends with a moral aimed at its kiddie audience, and Williams seems genuinely concerned about his impressionable young fans. "Whatever you do," he says, "you have an incredible influence." When his managers asked him to taste a sample of MORK bubble gum (sold in a plastic egg), he recoiled: "I don't want people chewing this sugar--it's wrong." To Williams' regret, it's on the market.

Robin has begun, meanwhile, to beat the drum for causes like the Human/Dolphin Foundation. At a recent fund-raiser he played dolphins doing a benefit for humans. Under the influence of the foundation's zealous head, Dr. John Lilly, Williams has bought a sensory deprivation tank (filled with 93° salt water) where he floats for an hour. "Caucasian meditation," Robin calls it, "to recharge, reconnect." He also appears at anti-nuke rallies and benefits for L.A.'s new children's museum and the March of Dimes. He has not thrown his increasing clout behind any political candidate.

Come January, Williams is off to Malta to make his first movie, the musical Popeye. He plays the title role once intended for Dustin Hoffman. Wife Valerie will be warming up the film's dancers, and the director is Robert Altman, no less. Williams' salary is $500,000 plus points, and he has already begun gym work to learn acrobatics and trim down (he's 15 pounds over his fighting weight of 135). His three years of acting training under John Houseman (along with Juilliard roommate Christopher Reeve) will come in handy. Robin also sets aside one night a week writing a screenplay.

Weekends are his "time to sleep and hang around the house--my sanctuary," as he now calls it. He bodysurfs, runs, cleans the parrot cage ("Cora is so bitchy Valerie won't touch her"), reads science fiction or books on his hero Albert Einstein (Robin has been known to attach a picture of him to his shirt) and listen to jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. "If I could be as free and as disciplined as Jarrett is," sighs Williams, "that's what I'm aiming at." He shrugs off those who tell him that he's already there. "When you're creating, you just become a vehicle," says Robin of his improv skill. "It seems to come from a divine source, a sense of the wonder of God." Williams can genuinely feel such a sentiment, yet realize at the same time that it's part shazbot. As Larry Brezner, a member of his management staff says: "Robin Williams did not become a lunatic when he became a star. He started off a lunatic."

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