Before There Was ‘Barbie,’ There Was Robin Williams’ ‘Popeye’

Greta Gerwig’s delightful, subversive comedy shares many similarities with Robert Altman’s forgotten, underloved 1980 musical that brought the ‘Mork & Mindy’ star to the big screen
Before There Was ‘Barbie,’ There Was Robin Williams’ ‘Popeye’

The delightful Barbie seems to have been beamed in from another planet, its candy-colored quirkiness operating on its own giddy/satiric wavelength. But in a recent interview with Letterboxd, director Greta Gerwig revealed many of the film’s acclaimed (and very-earthbound) cinematic inspirations — everything from musicals (Singin’ in the Rain) to thrillers (Rear Window) to gangster epics (The Godfather) to The Truman Show. However, there’s one movie she didn’t mention that many critics have latched onto: Popeye.

In her Time review of Barbie, Stephanie Zacharek noted that “the first half-hour or so is dazzling and often genuinely funny, a vision that’s something close to (though not nearly as weird as) the committed act of imagination Robert Altman pulled off with his marvelous Popeye.” And over at Inverse, writer Hoai-Tran Bui more explicitly spelled out the parallels: “A director beloved for their arthouse movies gets tasked with the dreaded white whale of Hollywood: making a great movie out of a well-known property. The result? A movie that is inarguably an IP movie. But also? A movie that can’t be divorced from that director’s profoundly distinct vision. Forty years ago, this described Robert Altman’s Popeye. … Today, the same words can be used to describe Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.”

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Obviously, Warner Bros. (the studio behind Barbie) hopes its movie doesn’t suffer the same fate as that 1980 film. Generally remembered as a commercial disaster that wasn’t all that well-reviewed, Popeye has spent decades being underappreciated and more than a little misunderstood. (For one thing, it actually wasn’t a flop, but more on that later.) Regardless, the comparisons to Barbie are dead-on because, like Gerwig, Robert Altman — one of the most irreverent American directors of the 1970s — found a way to make something very personal out of something everybody thinks they know. And he did it by taking a risk on some sitcom actor. Popeye is how moviegoers first met Robin Williams.

Initially, the idea was to have Dustin Hoffman play the famous Sailor Man, the creation of cartoonist E.C. Segar in the late 1920s. Popeye had been in the funny papers, the star of comic books, cartoons and radio, and this was going to be his first live-action movie. But once Hoffman walked away from the project, legendary producer Robert Evans started thinking about who might be right for the role.

“I saw Robin Williams on television in Mork & Mindy and I said, ‘He looks like Popeye,’” Evans told writer Mitchell Zuckoff for Robert Altman: The Oral Biography. “They were afraid to put a television actor in a picture this big. Using a television star in those days to play a lead role in a movie was not au courant. That’s changed today. But nobody could have played it better than Robin.”

Indeed, back in the late 1970s, there was a stigma around TV actors: Sure, they were good performers, but c’mon, they weren’t movie stars. (That stigma persisted for years: People forget this now, but it was viewed as risky at the time when George Clooney left ER in the late 1990s to try his luck with film.) But Williams, who had already made a name for himself as a dynamic L.A. stand-up, parlayed that success into landing the lead role in Mork & Mindy, playing a zany alien getting used to Earth customs. The comic was a genius at utilizing bizarre voices and manic energy on stage. (He basically was a cartoon character.) So portraying Popeye made sense for his big-screen debut.

“He’s such a great, crusty character and an orphan,” Williams said in a 2013 interview of his affinity for Popeye. But to prepare for the film, which was going to be partly a musical, the actor went through a bit of a wringer. “I was training. I was doing gymnastics and tap dancing.” Plus, there were the prosthetics he’d have to wear — Popeye’s comically large arms weren’t something the filmmakers could CGI back then — and the grumbly, mumbly voice he’d wield to play the character. But all the work paid off: Williams’ Popeye was a bizarre figure and an inspired one. He felt like he’d walked right off the comics onto the screen. 

There were other directors that Evans had in mind before Altman took the gig. Revered for his generation-defining pictures like M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye and Nashville — movies that captured the defiance and confusion of the counterculture — the Oscar-nominated filmmaker had as many misses as hits in the 1970s. And at the end of the decade, he had delivered some commercial and critical duds, including A Wedding and Quintet, which made him less in-demand. This was perfect for Evans, who hoped the notoriously strong-willed director would be more amenable to collaborating as a result. But Evans was taking a gamble. Popeye would be a pricier movie — Paramount had expectations of it being a hit, not one of Altman’s peculiar but brilliant smaller pictures — so it was foreign terrain for the director. In a sense, both Williams and Altman were doing something out of their comfort zone.

The making of Popeye is filled with the sort of outrageous behind-the-scenes stories that used to be typical of Hollywood productions. Altman and Evans filmed the movie in Malta, building the elaborate fictional town of Sweethaven where Popeye arrives, falling in love with Olive Oyl (Altman veteran Shelley Duvall). There were terrible weather conditions, and the substances were, reportedly, running rampant. “When we were on Malta, we were on everything but skates” is how Williams put it in Zuckoff’s book, later adding, “The open bar at dailies? I think anything, everything was going on.” 

The shoot went long, with an ending having to be improvised due to mechanical issues with a malfunctioning octopus prop. But such stories were typical at a time when ambitious epics — like Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate and New York, New York — were being overseen by maverick directors making big swings. Although somewhat romanticized, it was an era when studios were willing to take risks, even when budgets ballooned and filming stretched on seemingly forever.

But although geared toward family audiences — especially kids — Popeye was very much a Robert Altman film. One Robert Altman film in particular: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, his elegiac 1971 Western about a mumbling outsider (Warren Beatty) who arrives in a remote town filled with oddballs, tough guys and dreamers. McCabe has big plans and a blustery manner, but there’s something comical about his indomitable determination, which his eventual love interest (Julie Christie) will find endearing. That’s basically the premise of Popeye as well, without McCabe’s violence and dark commentary about the American dream. 

The Altman trademarks didn’t end there, though. The way supporting characters just come and go in Popeye, serving as a rich tapestry of background life. The guarded optimism of its main character who’s facing down a harsh world that doesn’t understand him. Yep, you could spot Altman’s fingerprints all over Sweethaven. And then there was the gleeful genre subversion: Featuring terrific songs from Harry Nilsson, the movie was a musical, but it wasn’t The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins. Instead, the characters were prickly, their exaggerated demeanor replicated from the original strip and Max Fleischer’s subsequent cartoon. Nilsson’s witty tunes had a Beatles-esque sense of melody, but as befitting his idiosyncratic songwriting approach, the songs were packed with jokes and sly non sequiturs. (One ditty is titled “Food Is Food.”) 

In other words, Popeye didn’t follow the playbook, possessing none of the saccharine cuteness of most wholesome family films. If you were trying to construct a movie that would cater to the largest audience imaginable — which is the M.O. for studios today — you absolutely would not do it the way Altman made Popeye. For crying out loud, Williams had to redub most of his dialogue because it was so intentionally mumbly that the execs complained they couldn’t make it out — another amusing echo of McCabe, where Beatty was incensed that his words couldn’t always be heard. But that was Altman: He didn’t care if you couldn’t decipher every line. That wasn’t the point. The texture of the film — the feeling that you were in Sweethaven alongside these lovable goofballs — was what mattered.

Popeye opened in December 1980. (Also out that month: Stir Crazy, Flash Gordon and Any Which Way You Can.) Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert praised the movie, but the consensus was that this was a strange, not entirely successful merging of comedy, musical and family film. However, one part of the Popeye story that’s incorrect is that the film tanked at the box office. In fact, the movie was commercially successful — the problem was that Paramount had expected a massive hit. If Hollywood in the 1970s was about pursuing creatively adventurous material — that’s a gross simplification, but go with it for a second — then the 1980s were about chasing blockbusters. Popeye failed on that measure.

It’s about the only measure in which it failed. To be sure, Popeye is an imperfect film — it runs out of gas in its last third, and the ending really is a mess — but Williams and Duvall were terrific as those indelible characters. Williams especially was a revelation: For his first film, he gave everything to his portrayal of Popeye, playing him as grumpy but tenderhearted, a man searching for his father who ends up finding his soulmate. His comic brilliance wasn’t a surprise if you’d seen him on stage, but that sweetness and soul were unexpected, and disarming. The megahit comedies and award-winning dramas he’d eventually pursue can all be traced back to Popeye. Everything he did after is embedded in that performance. 

As for Altman, he (like Gerwig 43 years later) had taken on some beloved IP and bent it to his will. (God, wouldn’t it be nice to still be living back then, before “IP” was a thing mentioned all the time?) Especially for Altman fans, it was exciting to see him do his thing with such a big commercial project like Popeye — the same sort of reaction many who loved Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Little Women will feel once they feast their eyes on her spiky Barbie. But because Popeye wasn’t a juggernaut, nor did it receive any Oscar nominations, Altman’s flirtation with bigger studio movies ended right there. In the 1980s, he was, in essence, persona non grata around Hollywood. “I think Bob has a lot of friends in Hollywood,” Cary Brokaw, an executive producer of his 1992 comeback film The Player, once said. “I just don’t know how many of them are studio executives.” 

As a consequence, Altman made smaller films, often based on plays. Some of them, like Secret Honor, are superb. And he swore he was happy, despite the press treating this era as a period in which he was in exile. “You have that point of view because of the press and whatever, but to me — I was doing the most exciting things that I’d done,” Altman said in 2001 about his 1980s work. “I didn’t come out of theater, I came out of films, and dealing with actors over the years and then being exposed to theater, I came to it backwards. I became very interested in it. So anytime I found something that I could literally put a fourth wall up and shoot as a film, it was something I had a lot of fun doing and wanted to do. … I wasn’t sent off to Coventry there, you know. I was experimenting.”

Over time, Popeye’s reputation has grown — no doubt bolstered by Altman’s comeback in the 1990s. Before Altman’s death in 2006 at the age of 81, he remained convinced that Popeye had delivered the goods. “You should watch Popeye with a kid,” he advised Zuckoff. “Kids love that movie. They get it.” And he’s right: Despite its flaws, Popeye has a childlike spirit that’s deeply satisfying. It’s a movie that feels like dress-up, all these actors playing those famous Sweethaven denizens. (Yup, Bluto and Wimpy and the whole gang are here.) Where so many kids’ movies now feel cynically dumbed-down and preprocessed, Popeye is dazzlingly alive and weird. It doesn’t seem like it’s been made by a committee.

Barbie shares some DNA with Altman’s beautiful oddity. Thankfully, it doesn’t look like Gerwig will have to deal with what Altman faced. Barbie has gotten great reviews, and it’s projected to be a massive hit. Mattel is planning on doing a whole lot more movies based on its toys because of it. 

I really like Barbie, which is risk-taking and peculiar in its own way, but I’ll always be partial to something like Popeye, which boldly and joyously is its own thing, inviting viewers to sail away with it. Even more so all these years later, Popeye truly does seem like it exists on some other plane of reality — harder to reach than even Barbie Land. But what a trip. 

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