During the late ’70s and early ’80s, more than a few TV viewers found themselves nursing a crush on Pam Dawber, Mindy of the ABC sitcom Mork & Mindy. After the series had run its course and co-star Robin Williams departed the small-screen landscape to begin his slow build to big-screen success, Dawber did a couple of other sitcoms (My Sister Sam and Life… And Stuff) and more than her fair share of TV movies. But in the mid-’90s, she began to step away from Hollywood in favor of spending time with her husband, Mark Harmon, and raising their children. Until this year, Dawber’s most recent on-screen appearance had been in the 2000 film I’ll Remember April—which proved to be an appropriate transition into full-time family life, what with Harmon playing her husband—but when the creative team for CBS’ The Crazy Ones approached her with an idea for reuniting her with Williams, she couldn’t resist. Dawber recently talked to The A.V. Club about sharing the screen with Williams again, how she found her way in front of the camera in the first place, and why she’s just fine with her self-imposed TV retirement.
The A.V. Club: CBS was kind enough—or trusting enough—to provide a screener of the episode in advance of the interview. It was pretty great to see you and Robin play off each other again.
Pam Dawber: Oh, it was so much fun. I mean, it really was just so much fun.
AVC: During the Television Critics Association press tour in January, someone asked Robin if he’d consider having you guest star on The Crazy Ones, and although he admitted that the idea of stunt casting gave him pause, he certainly wasn’t against the idea. And by the end of the month—
PD: Well, they’ve had Josh Groban guest star, and they’ve had other people come on a little bit as well. Brad Garrett, I don’t think he was on there originally, but now he’s become a semi-regular. But, yes, I was told that there’d sort of been a campaign to get the two of us back together. Also, Bill D’Elia, who’s one of the producers, has been a very close friend of ours for 20 years or so. But I hadn’t seen Robin in 20 years, and… I don’t do episodic. I mean, I’ve obviously done it, but that was something I was never really interested in. But just to see Robin and work with him, Bill was directing it, so all these pieces were good. And I liked what they wrote for me. I said, “As long as I’m not just setting up Robin like I did for four years on Mork & Mindy!” [Laughs.] I said, “As long as there’s actually something to do, I’m in!” And I think they also left the door open for me to be able to return, so we’ll see what happens with that.
AVC: Tracy Poust, a writer-producer for The Crazy Ones, said they didn’t actually tell Robin they’d even approached you until you’d officially signed on, and that he got a little misty when they told him.
PD: Oh, that’s so sweet! It’s a very, very laid-back, easygoing group. I hadn’t done anything like that in so many years—I hadn’t performed, really—and I was so surprised, actually, that it was like going home. And Robin’s a different guy, you know? We’ve grown up. We’re older than Jonathan Winters was when he came on to Mork & Mindy… and to me he was an old guy! [Laughs.] So it’s a little shocking to realize that we’re even older than that! But Robin and I…
I don’t know what it is about the two of us, but I have just loved him on a very deep level. Robin is truly one of the kindest, most caring people I’ve ever met. He cares about all the younger cast members, and I’m so happy they’ve surrounded him with such talented kids. Robin was never one of those comedians that was competitive and had to have all the funny lines. It was always playtime for him. He’s just very generous. He’s not going to try to grab somebody else’s line if he likes it better. He’s never been that kind of guy. But it’s different. We’re different, and it’s a different show, and… he’s a grown-up! [Laughs.] So it was really interesting to just be there for that few days. I loved it.
AVC: You definitely seemed to be having a good time. From the first time we see you, you’re getting to be somewhat more randy than Mork & Mindy fans might remember you.
PD: I know! That was so funny, and I loved that opening. People want Mork and Mindy back together? Well, they got it! [Laughs.]
AVC: Was there chemistry between you and Robin as soon as you got back in front of the camera, or did it take a bit of time to find it again?
PD: Honestly, the on-camera thing is separate from just the two of us being back together. We were just so happy to see each other, because there’s just so much history together. We spent four years together, and those were pretty crazy years. From the late ’70s to the early ’80s, a lot happened, both personally and in the world at the time, with Robin… well, all of us, really, being catapulted to fame because of Robin.
I always think of it as being like, “The anchor has come home.” I reminded him of this, but he used to call me Sister Mary St. Patience. Because it was crazy in those days! He’d never done a sitcom, and neither had I. I’d done practically nothing, so I was faking my way to the top! [Laughs.] But I was holding on to his coattails so hard, trying to figure out, “What am I doing? What am I supposed to do?” We were just dear friends, and I think it’s just because he’s a generous spirit and I am, too. We just have a chemistry that works because we really care about each other.
I’m going to tell you something that’s so sweet that happened. Since you’ve seen the show, you know there’s a scene in a restaurant where he’s just unraveling. Well, while we were shooting that, playing that together, he kept reaching out, grabbing my hand, saying, “Dawbs, are you okay? Dawberdog, are you all right?” And I said, “Yeah, Robin, I think we’re getting it. It’s good, you know? We’ve got plenty of time!” “Oh, okay. Are you sure?” Finally, after he did this maybe three times, I realized. I said, “You feel bad that you’re hurting my feelings in the scene.” He said, “It’s killing me! I can’t stand it!” And I said, “Oh my God, that’s so sweet, but Robin, it’s called ‘pretend.’ I’m not taking it seriously!” But that’s what kind of a sensitive soul he is: It was really bothering him to watch his character hurting my character!
AVC: Actually, one of the other writer-producers, Jon Kinnally, said, “It was adorable to see how protective Robin was on the set.”
PD: Oh my gosh, Yeah, it was just lovely, and I’ll tell you what was one of the most wonderful things about it: My son—who’s 25—and his girlfriend, are both actors or want to be actors, and he’s been with this girl for a couple of years now. I had no idea that she was a Robin Williams fan, because it just seemed that that generation would’ve missed the boat on that, but she had told me a couple of months ago. And Sean, my son, said to me, “Mom, do you think I’ll ever get to meet Robin Williams?” And I said, “God, I hope I get to meet Robin Williams!” [Laughs.] But I had actually taken him to the set of Hook, but he was so young he doesn’t even remember meeting him. Dustin Hoffman carried him around on his shoulders while he was dressed as Captain Hook, and he remembers that, but he doesn’t remember Robin. So I said, “You know, I hope so. I really hope so.” So when I got this gig, I said to Sean, “Let me check with Robin—because this is not my show, this is Robin’s show, although I’m sure he’ll be all right with it. I’ll see if we can surprise Chelsea and bring her on. And Robin said, “Of course!” And Sean said, “Okay, I’ve just got to tell her that she’s going somewhere special, because she’ll kill me if she’s not dressed right!”
Anyway, they came over to Fox just as I was getting out of a golf cart, all dressed up for my scene, and I said, “So, Chelsea, do you know where you are?” She goes, “I’m, uh, on the Fox lot?” I went, “Yessssss, but do you know where you are or what show this is?” And she goes, “Nooooo…” And I said, “Okay!” It was just perfect, because they were lighting a set, and they were after us to do publicity, so on one of the back sets TV Guide was set up to do an interview with Robin and I. Sean’s been on many sets, but Chelsea had never been on a set like this before, so I got to lead her through all of this wonderfulness. We get back there, and we walk through the very front set—you know, the elevator with his caricature up there?—and she didn’t see it, but she’s walking toward me, and I said, “Turn around.” She turns and looks and she goes… [Sudden intake of breath.] “No!” I said, “Yes! Now hold yourself together, Chelsea. Be cool!” [Laughs.]
So we went back on to the set, and as I said, Robin’s so lovely and generous and warm, and she just… Both of them just had the best time. It was just so comfortable, and it was such a thrill for me to be able to bring them into that. And Chelsea wrote Robin the nicest note. It was, like, the thrill of her lifetime. She said, “I don’t know why my parents let me watch his HBO specials at such a young age, but they did, and I used to play them over and over again.” She was beyond thrilled.
AVC: I interviewed your husband by phone for our Random Roles feature, and when I met him in person, he said that our conversation—specifically, our discussion of his first TV acting gig—had inspired him to go back and listen to Ozzie Nelson’s music.
PD: Oh my gosh, I know. Mark loved Ozzie. I never met Ozzie—he passed away before I could meet him—but I knew Harriet, which I personally found so bizarre. [Laughs.] Having been raised in the ’50s and coming from the Midwest, to be sitting in the kitchen with Harriet Nelson was something I couldn’t quite wrap my head around!
AVC: When I talked to your husband, we discussed the film I’ll Remember April, which is the only time you’ve ever worked with him on-screen, and when I asked how it was to work with you in that capacity, he would not go any further than to say, “Different.”
PD: [Bursts out laughing.] God knows I haven’t let him walk down that road again. Yeah, uh, I’d rather hear his stories about his day at work than participate in them. That’s all I have to say!
AVC: This may explain why he wouldn’t say much about the idea of you guest-starring on NCIS.
PD: Actually, he did invite me, but it was a bad time. It was right before Christmas, and my dad was coming into town, and I didn’t think it was such a good idea. I thought it was kind of stunt casting. And the gal who did it, I’d actually done a play with, and she was wonderful. It was the part of a psychiatrist. But, nah, it’s just too close. Yeah, I’ll Remember April… [Starts to laugh.] No, we’re not gonna go near that one. Not that we had any fights, but we certainly had discussions afterwards!
AVC: Now that you’ve dipped your toe back into series television with The Crazy Ones, would you consider taking another gig?
PD: No, I don’t think so. I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve been married for 27 years. If you’re that ambitious for yourself your entire life, something’s gotta give. I really enjoyed letting it go and raising the boys. When you think about it, Mark’s either been doing Chicago Hope or movies or now NCIS. My God, he was still in his 40s when he started that show… and I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think he was still a brunette! [Laughs.] But for me, the reality is that I have no delusions about this business. If you want a career at 50 or 60 years old, you’ve got to fricking fight for it… and I don’t care!
I wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool actress. I kind of jumped on every opportunity train that pulled up to my door, and it happened for me through serendipity and luck. Not that I didn’t try to prepare myself, but I never went out saying, “I have to be an actress!” I thought I was going to be a commercial artist. But my life took me to New York, just doing what I loved to do, which was singing, and then these other doors opened. So I feel like I’ve done everything you can do in this business, I understand it.
I mean, we had nannies. Because I was still doing TV movies when there were still TV movies to do, but that was, like, once or maybe twice a year, and the kids would come on location, and it was fine. But, really, once they were in elementary school, I thought life would be easier, because they’d be going to school early, coming home at 3 or 4 o’clock. So I put my toe in and did this CBS show [Life… And Stuff]. They had a deal with Rick Reynolds, who was a comedian, and so I thought, “Oh, sitcoms are easy!” [Laughs.] Well, ever since Seinfeld, everybody thinks they can go out on the back lot and shoot around the garbage can, which means you don’t get home till 8:30 or 9:00 p.m., even though you’re doing an audience show. So I was coming home at that time, and my husband certainly wasn’t happy about it. I had my tap shoes on for everybody. The kids didn’t really care, I don’t think, but… it wasn’t good for me. It just wasn’t good, and I was praying that the show didn’t get picked up. It went six episodes, but then it died. And then I thought, “I’m done! I’m not doing this!” So that’s what I did!
So going back to it… Look, to go and do Robin’s show every now and then, that’d be fun, because that doesn’t get in the way. But to go back and pursue doing a show, I just don’t want to do that. I want to be home for Mark. I want to have dinner ready. Our life is very Midwestern, really. I don’t have live-in people here. I did when I had kids and we were driving everybody everywhere and picking them up and all that, but I didn’t even want a live-in housekeeper. In fact, the cleaning crew comes today… [Laughs.] But, you know, for the most part, I take care of my house and I do the cooking. I like it that way. I’ve kind of been able to do it all. And you can do it all… but you can’t do it all at the same time.
AVC: Domesticity in Hollywood. What a concept.
PD: Yeah, right? [Laughs.] But, you know, I realize I’ve followed a pattern. Mark’s parents were married their whole life, my parents were married their whole life, Mark’s mother gave up her career to raise her family, and I was lucky enough that I had my career well into my 40s. Actually, beyond that! I find myself very, very lucky. I just don’t need to beat the doors down anymore.
AVC: To jump back to the very beginning of your career, how did you find your way into the cast of Robert Altman’s A Wedding?
PD: [Long pause.] I was really stupid. I burned some bridges there. But… well, he was like the fairy godfather for me, as you can imagine. He was the hottest thing happening, and so cool and avant-garde. It was really sort of the beginning of the small independent movies, even though his weren’t quite that. But he was so cutting-edge and different. I had been doing a musical up in Connecticut at the Goodspeed Opera House, we had our one day off a week, and I was the one kid who had a car. So we’d all jump in my jeep, and we’d drive back to the city, and everybody would go on their auditions, and we’d race back up for Tuesday and start our show again. I happened to be preparing myself to look like a hippie because they were casting the Hair movie, and I’d gotten a callback to sing for it, and my agent called and said, “Robert Altman wants to meet you, but you’ve got to get there within the hour, because he’s leaving for Europe.” “What?!?” [Laughs.]
I was a nobody at the time, but when they were sending me out for all these various ABC casting calls, which eventually led to Mork & Mindy, I met Scotty Bushnell, who was Altman’s casting person at the time, and she said to me, “Oh, there’s a movie that you’re so perfect for, but it’s cast!” And I remember thinking at the time, “Yeah, sure…” But I guess Shelley Duvall, who was in his little repertory crowd, dropped out. So I walk over to his apartment, I literally walk through the door, he takes my hand and shakes it, and he asks, “Could you ride a horse?” I said, “Yeah!” He said, “Could you jump a fence?” I said, “Yeah, I used to do that when I was a kid! I used to take riding lessons!” “Okay, let me tell you about your part in the film.” And now my lips are starting to dry to my gums because I’m thinking, “I’m gonna have to read for Robert Altman!” [Laughs.] And that’s never been my strong suit.
So he tells me all about this and that, and he’s kind of pissy about Shelley dropping out, but he finishes telling me about the movie, and he says, “So do you wanna do it?” I couldn’t believe it. Truly, once again, I was faking my way to the top! But Bob was so free and easy. It was pretty crazy. There was a lot of… [Hesitates.] I don’t know how much to say, because I said too much at a younger age. I said so much. I really shouldn’t have opened my big mouth. But I will say that Bob gave me a huge opportunity, and being cast in that film was the catalyst that made ABC put me under contract, because suddenly ABC was interested in this girl who was ripe from New York.
It had started out when I auditioned for Tabitha, and it came down to Lisa Hartman and me, but they said, “Whoever doesn’t get this, don’t feel bad, because we loved both of you, and we want to put you in a show.” Well, I left directly from the Tabitha audition in L.A. to go back up to the Goodspeed Opera House. The dream of my lifetime was to be in a musical, and this one was Broadway-bound, so the more ABC kept trying to get me to come back for the pilots and I said, “No,” the crazier they got, which is the old game. I didn’t know I was playing a game… but it worked! Because suddenly I got cast in a Robert Altman film, and ABC went, “We’ve gotta put her under contract!” [Laughs.] It was because of that that the wheels spun, and I’ll tell you what, the stars must’ve been in some sort of alignment for me in those days, because all of a sudden all of this happened. But it was because of Robert Altman that ABC suddenly took me more seriously, I guess, and locked me up. So I signed a contract for them for a year while they looked for something for me to do… and then Mork & Mindy arrived.
AVC: You’ve got one other film on your résumé that’s developed a cult following over the years: Stay Tuned.
PD: Oh, wow. You know, I think that’s a movie that could be ripe for a remake. We really did have a lot of fun during that movie, and John [Ritter] was such a sweetie. It’s so funny, because he was dealing with his own personal problems at the time, and I had found out that I was newly pregnant and was so thrilled about it, but I didn’t want to tell the producers because it’s not the thing you should do on a movie that’s about to film for three months. So I’ll tell you: I had some breasts in that movie! [Laughs.] Oh my God! I thought, “Anybody who knows me and sees me in this movie is going to think I’ve had breast augmentation!” I got through it, but I was so thrilled because we filmed the movie in and around Vancouver, so thanks to the amazing Canadian health care system, I went in, sat in a room, and they did an ultrasound and showed me the beating heart and made the whole thing real… and I never paid a dime! I kept waiting for a bill to appear, but…
Yeah, we had a very good time on that movie. I, uh, wish it had been a better movie. [Laughs.] But it is sort of a cult classic, and I loved the idea of the head of the network being the devil! I thought that was so clever. But I do think you could make a darker, better movie out of that premise.
AVC: To bring it back to The Crazy Ones to close, when you said earlier that you thought of yourself as Robin’s anchor, I neglected to mention that during the TCA tour, he actually referred to you as his rock, saying that you kept things grounded at a time when he was “on everything but skates.”
PD: Exactly! I remember one morning, looking at him when he came in an hour late—or something like that—for call time, and I could just see he was burned out. He’d been out too late, and he was doing who knows what, and I just remember that as we were standing next to each other, I said, “Oh, what tangled webs we weave…” And, of course, then he did an Elmer Fudd riff on that for about 20 minutes. [Laughs.] But we still had a very good time, and it’s just so lovely to have him back in my life.