LOS ANGELES | Toward the end of "Mork and Mindy," Robin Williams says, scripts would include the words "Mork does his thing here."
Producers were so sure he'd find the comedy they figured they didn't have to write anything.
"It was just like, 'Riff, riff little white boy, here we go," he says. "And it burned out. They couldn't keep the character arc going."
Today, Williams says, the stakes are much higher and a series can't rely on an actor's flights of fancy.
With "The Crazy Ones," his new series about a father and daughter working in an advertising agency, improv isn't the rule, it's the exception.
"It has to be appropriate," the Academy Award winner says. "In an ad agency, the creative process would allow you to improvise -- good and bad -- but you can't do that all the time."
And, he adds, why would anyone want to when multiple Emmy winner David E. Kelley is writing and producing the show?
"David knows character. The stuff he writes is amazing. If we can push the envelope with this, it's a totally open field. When I started, there were three networks and no other content. Computers were huge. Today, it can't just be riffing. It has to be more."
Based on the life of Chicago advertising executive John Montgomery, "The Crazy Ones" needed someone who could capture the chaos of the advertising world.
Casting directors thought of Williams but didn't think they could get him.
Says Kelley: "We made a phone call just the same. Robin and I met. He responded to the material and the whole project took flight. I think we connected over who the character was, not just with his comedic sensibilities but his personal flaws and his professional insecurities."
To give Williams some freedom, directors have him do the script as written for several takes, then they let him riff.
"He says my words perfectly," Kelley says. "Then he uses his."
The result is more than "Mork and Mindy" ever was, Williams says. The old sitcom "was a great ride but I really wasn't present. To be part of the process is wonderful. And to have a guy like that writing?" He shakes his head.
"If I try something, it has to be appropriate."
Audience sensibility has changed plenty, too, he says. In the 1970s, jokes had a longer shelf life. "Now, you start to make an Anthony Weiner joke and it's already passe. Today, you know if things work instantaneously."
While Williams' creative process isn't much different ("you get the stimulus and see how far you can go with it"), he likes that he's not working on it alone.
"Even stand-up is different -- it's a whole new world. Andy Warhol said everybody will be famous in the future for 15 minutes. Well, in the future everyone will have their own network, too, so welcome."
Like Michael J. Fox, who also returned to television this season, Williams has had to deal with children who don't always find him as funny as his fans do.
"They were the toughest audience of all. They'd say, 'Don't do that dad'" and shut him down. When a reporter asked his daughter if she laughs a lot at home, she replied, "All the time. Even our pets laugh."
"That's kind of the sarcasm dealing from that end," Williams says.
TV seemed like the right place to be because "there are very few older superhero movies right now," he says. "If you can, you end up playing a villain."
More interesting roles are in independent films but "you have to go out and work your ass off and then you have to sell them. They're more like co-dependent films."
A series, he says, offers something he hasn't had in years -- a steady gig. "I like that. Growing up I watched a lot of science fiction and I loved it. As a kid I always had this fascination with science. My brother teaches physics in Memphis and science fiction was always this dream of what's coming."
Williams wanted to star in those kinds of films, but wasn't offered many. "I did one -- 'Bicentennial Man' -- and I'll make amends for that later."
So, he says, the goal became that steady gig. And now? "It's exciting. Being part of the process is wonderful."