The First ‘Popeye’ Movie Made Robin Williams Miserable

‘Oh, God, when is it going to be over?’
The First ‘Popeye’ Movie Made Robin Williams Miserable

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Variety announced this week that a new, live-action Popeye movie is in the works, with screenwriter Michael Caleo bringing some of his Sexy Beast and Sopranos sensibilities. It will be the first big-screen Popeye movie since the 1980 version that starred Robin Williams in his first leading role. It was also a part that made Williams freaking miserable.

It coulda, shoulda been great considering the talent attached — legendary producer Robert (The Godfather, Chinatown) Evans, director Robert (Nashville, M*A*S*H) Altman, and strangely, Dustin Hoffman as the titular sailor man. When Hoffman dropped out, Evans impulsively cast Williams, hot off of Mork and Mindy, despite his lack of movie experience.

Williams threw himself into the role, taking dance and acrobatic lessons while dreaming of success. “I thought, this is it, this is my Superman, and it’s gonna go through the fuckin’ roof!” he says in Dave Itzkoff’s biography Robin. “After the first day on Popeye, I thought, Well, maybe this isn’t it, and I finally wound up going, Oh, God, when is it going to be over?”

Everything that could go wrong did, including:

  • Bulging prosthetic forearms that cut off Williams’ circulation;
  • Rickety sets that Williams described as “San Quentin on Valium”;
  • On-set skirmishes between Williams and Altman, who insisted on zero improvisation (presumably the reason someone would cast the comic in the first place)

Cartoonist and screenwriter Jules Feiffer was on set in Malta (until he had a fight with Altman and split), and one night he was awoken in the middle of the night by a phone call from a crew member. “Robin’s coming to beat you up. He heard you’re sleeping with Valerie, his wife.”

The groggy Feiffer couldn’t quite understand what was happening. “I was a hundred years older than everybody else there,” he said later. “That notion of me sleeping with his wife was nuts.” But he still got up and walked down to the street in his pajamas to figure out what was happening. Williams was already in the road, slowly walking toward Feiffer like a gunfighter preparing to draw his gun. Dumbfounded, Feiffer simply held out his arms and shouted, “Robin!” Instead of throwing punches, Williams hugged him. “We announced our love for each other and that was the end of the evening,” Feiffer remembered. “I know what I was on, but I don’t know what he was on. He was doing a lot of stuff.”

Production was a disaster. The movie was supposed to end with Popeye slugging it out with a giant octopus, but Altman had blown through the movie’s budget and the special effects guys abandoned ship before they could film the climax. That left Shelly Duvall’s Olive Oyl screaming for help in a pool with a non-moving, non-threatening octopus. As Williams remembered it, “At the end, it was like Ed Wood.”

With the final fight in shambles, everyone realized the movie didn’t have a workable ending. “I joked to Robert Evans, who was coked out of his tits, and I said, ‘Maybe I should walk on water,’” remembered Williams. “He said, ‘Yes!’”

Popeye made money but it wasn’t well-liked by critics or comedy fans. Some would heckle Williams about Popeye during stand-up sets, but the comic had a couple of lines to fire back at them:

“For your information, it’s playing in Hollywood on a double bill with Heaven’s Gate.” 

And “If you watch it backward, it really does have an ending.”


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