If you cast your mind back to the 1980s, you may recall a time when movies based on characters from comic books and comic strips weren’t as popular as they are now. There were notable exceptions like “Superman,” but for the most part, the genre was still a bit on the sidelines. When “Popeye” came out in 1980, the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was almost three decades away, and Tim Burton’s “Batman” was still nine years out.
“Popeye” starred the late Robin Williams as the titular character based on the comic strip and cartoon character created by E.C. Segar. It was directed by five-time Academy Award-nominee Robert Altman, who was responsible for films like “M*A*S*H” and “The Long Goodbye.” For a young actor like Williams, that was a big deal. His work on the TV series “Mork and Mindy” was getting him noticed, but he’d only done a small part in one film at the time.
Despite that, he was offered the role by producer Robert Evans, who had originally wanted to cast Dustin Hoffman, according to the New York Times bestselling book “Robin” by Dave Itzkoff. Williams had some reservations, but another comics-based movie actor helped convince him to take the job: Christopher Reeve.
‘Oh my gorshk’
In the book, Itzkoff — who had access to Williams and his family for interviews — explains that Williams was worried “that his unique attributes would get lost in the trappings of a familiar cartoon character.” He was concerned enough that he took the script to his longtime friend and writer Bennett Tramer, who said, “Unless you talking like Popeye is enough to sell a movie, there’s no story here.”
It’s hard to think of Robin Williams’ delivery of lines being anything but a selling point, but this was early in his career, and Williams didn’t want to turn a director like Altman down for his first major film. He was also encouraged to take the role by his friend Christopher Reeve, who was fresh off his success starring in the film adaptation of “Superman.” That one had been a significant risk. It was a very expensive production for the time, with a budget of $55 million, but it ended up with three Academy Award nominations and praise from audiences.
Williams ended up taking on “Popeye,” hoping that he would have similar success.
‘I yam what I yam an’ that’s all I yam’
According to the book, Williams went full throttle into the role, taking dance and acrobatics, learning the songs, and getting the close-cropped bleach blond haircut. He said:
“I also had that dream of getting up to thank the Academy. I thought, this is it, this is my ‘Superman,’ and it’s gonna go through the f*****’ roof! 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?'”
That first day’s description was dead-on regarding the film’s success. “Popeye” wasn’t particularly well-received. As of this writing, the Rotten Tomatoes score for the film stands at 58% from critics and 39% from fans. Even with Williams’ incredible talent for comedy, and a co-star like Shelley Duvall, who played Olive Oyl, the film was a mess. All these years later, however, many fans of Robin Williams have a soft spot in their hearts for “Popeye.”
Hey, they can’t all be “Superman.”