The 1986 Universal film was deeply loathed by what seemed like the entire U.S. population before becoming an improbable cult classic. Now, Lea Thompson and Chip Zien spill about Robin Williams quitting within a week, asking patrons to leave the theater on opening day and how the onetime dumpster fire became a career highlight.
Lea Thompson was shocked.
It was around 3 p.m. on Thursday, July 8, when Howard the Duck was among the top trending topics on Twitter — and it was all positive. “Hang on one second, I have to tweet,” she announced in the middle of an interview with The Hollywood Reporter about that film’s upcoming anniversary, upon being informed of the social media attention.
That morning — in a bit of kismet — the first trailer for Marvel’s upcoming Disney+ series What If …? had dropped, and within that two-minute teaser was a glimpse of her former feathered co-star, albeit in animated form. Fans lost their minds, professing their love for the character and (more importantly) the 1986 film in which the actress starred. Thompson’s heart was ready to burst.
Howard the Duck found a second life as a beloved cult classic (it just got reissued in 4K), and the wisecracking duck even made a number of appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe voiced by Seth Green, first in a post-credits scene (and perhaps a post-story segment, so keep scrolling.) But, for years, the Universal Pictures bomb was a sharp pebble in the career shoe of most — if not all — who were involved, including Thompson and Broadway star Chip Zien, who voiced Howard.
Thompson, fresh off the biggest hit of 1985 with Back to the Future, signed on to star as Beverly Switzler. Jumping aboard another unique, big-budget Universal project — with George Lucas attached as executive producer no less! — was a no-brainer.
However, the then 25-year-old actress learned fairly quickly during production that the Willard Huyck project about a talking duck beamed to Earth from his home world was in big trouble. Still, Thompson never imagined Howard the Duck would initially be such a deeply loathed calamity (“It doesn’t work at all,” sneered the late Gene Siskel when he and Roger Ebert labeled Howard among the worst films of 1986.) The movie holds a dismal 14 percent rating on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
But that was then. Howard the Duck is more fondly embraced now. And as the film turns 35 on Aug. 1, Thompson and Zien share new stories about making the wacky title (the legendary Robin Williams quit after a few days; Zien asked patrons to leave the theater during a showing; and Lucas, believing he had another huge hit on his hands, threw a monster bash) as THR reexamines the venomous reaction to the film in an attempt to discern whether Howard the Duck was truly an abomination or merely a misunderstood punching bag.
Everyone in the world was auditioning for it.
Chip Zien remembers feeling insulted.
It was the summer of 1984 and he was starring in a production of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along that was likely headed for a Broadway revival. One evening after a performance, a casting director for Universal Pictures appeared in his dressing room to suggest he audition for the studio’s exciting upcoming film: Howard the Duck.
“She asked me if I considered auditioning because I sound a little bit like a duck,” recalls Zien, who famously played the Baker in the original Broadway production of Into the Woods. “I was kind of offended. I was miffed. And I told my agent. He said, ‘Oh, my God! Someone came to you about Howard the Duck? Chip, it’s huge! This is a great thing! I am going to call right away.’ And then I became aware that everyone in the world was auditioning for it, from big names to people like me.”
At the end of a lengthy bicoastal audition process, Zien learned Robin Williams had been cast as the voice of Howard. But that would not last long, as Zien reveals the late actor-comedian left the project within the first week out of frustration over syncing his voice to the duck’s animatronic bill. An actor to voice Howard had not been cast during production, so all of Howard’s lines were read on set by the puppeteers, and the bill moved to fit their bland delivery, rendering Williams’ wild improvisational style moot in postproduction.
“What I was told was by the third day, Robin said, ‘I can’t do this. It is insane. I can’t get the rhythm of this. I am being confined. I am being handcuffed in order to match the flapping duck’s bill.'” Zien reminisces. “So, on Memorial Day 1985, I got a call from my agent who said, ‘You have to get right to the airport! Robin Williams just quit and you’re now Howard the Duck. You need to get there tonight. There is a ticket waiting for you at the counter.’ I was incredibly excited.”
Thompson recalls a similar feeling of exhilaration when she was offered the juicy lead in a large production that had a lot of buzz around town. “I read all the comic books,” she boasts. “I loved how insane it was. I loved that I was a girl in love with a duck! I thought that was hilarious; everything about subversive humor and puns. I was hopeful because it was George Lucas and such a great part for me. I even got to do the singing.”
I kept saying to them, ‘The duck doesn’t work.’
As she already had an impressive résumé of hits including All the Right Moves, Red Dawn and Back to the Future, Thompson knew when a production was operating like a well-oiled machine. And Howard the Duck was clunky — to say the least.
“It wasn’t working on the level it needed to work on,” Thompson remarks. “I felt like I was dragging Howard the Duck up a hill by myself with my teeth the whole time. All the jokes were falling flat. Comedy is a souffle. We had amazing puppeteers, but they were the ones doing the jokes. I was like, ‘It would be great if you could have an actor doing the lines to keep the ball in the air.’ The technical side of making the movie was so difficult and fraught. I kept saying to them, ‘The duck doesn’t work.'”
Zien confesses he was also concerned after he saw the first 12 minutes of footage in his initial recording session at Industrial Light & Magic.
“I thought, ‘Uh oh. This looks a little weird,'” admits Zien. “I called my wife and said, ‘I don’t know. The technology seems a bit behind the times.’ But — and this is really important — by my fourth day, I thought this was the greatest film ever made. I completely bought in and loved it. And I loved Willard and [the late producer] Gloria [Katz].”
As the film got closer to opening, I noticed that no one is calling me.
Executive producer Lucas was positive he had another mega-franchise on his hands like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, with Zien revealing that he signed on for a total of three films. “I was supposed to be Howard the Duck as a fill-in host on Entertainment Tonight,” discloses the actor. “I signed a contract to be the voice of AT&T. And I had ancillary rights for talking Howard the Duck dolls. It was overwhelming.”
Lucas threw a massive postproduction bash at his sprawling Northern California estate, with festivities that included a full circus, Zien says. And for a moment, the actor didn’t have a care in the world as he marveled at the grand spectacle, believing he was on the cusp of great wealth and film stardom. That would quickly change.
“As the film got closer to opening, I noticed that no one is calling me,” Zien remembers. “I wasn’t invited to the premiere. It was alarming and disappointing. I didn’t know what was happening. I was totally cut out of the loop. Little by little I heard horror stories about what a difficult shoot it [had been].”
There was a Hollywood premiere, and Thompson attended. What was meant to be a celebratory evening instead reinforced all her fears during production. “I was like, ‘Oh, no. I don’t think this is going to go.’ People didn’t laugh a lot,” she says. “They spent a lot of money on the afterparty. They even had ducks walking around.”
Having been inexplicably shunned, Zien saw the film on opening day at his neighborhood theater at 83rd and Broadway on the Upper West Side. “There were maybe 12 people there,” he recalls. “And most were young women with babies who came to see a movie about a duck. I was running around to them and saying, ‘You know, this is not that good of a movie for your child’s age. It gets kind of scary.’ And they would look at me like, ‘Who the hell is the weird guy running around in the theater trying to get people to leave?'”
It gave me a unique perspective on Hollyweird.
Howard the Duck opened in 1,554 theaters on Aug. 1, 1986. In its first weekend, it finished third, with a $5 million take. Blood was in the water and media sharks relentlessly bashed the film. The reaction wasn’t just negative, it was cruel, the stars agree.
“It was one of those things that it was easy to make fun of in headlines,” says a dejected Thompson. “There is no way to be an artist and put your heart into something and not be hurt when people say terrible things. I got whiplash from being in the most beloved movie of the year and then the most hated movie of the year. It gave me a unique perspective on Hollyweird.”
Zien concurs, saying it became fashionable to dogpile on the film. “I remember Ishtar opening, another classic disaster, and The New York Times review said ‘Ishtar is Arabic for Howard the Duck.’ And I remember thinking, ‘Can’t we just let this go?! It was a movie that failed. It happens.’ It was unbelievably depressing.”
The film was so poorly received, Frank Price, then president of Universal Pictures, resigned in September 1986. It was reported at the time that Howard the Duck had cost the studio more than $45 million, including prints and advertising. All told, its box office take was $16.2 million domestic and $37.9 million worldwide.
“I had a friend who was a Hollywood screenwriter, and he had a meeting with Frank at Universal to talk about a project,” Zien tells. “So he was in Frank’s office and the massive billboard for Howard the Duck was still outside his window. And my friend said he saw Frank walk to the window, look at the billboard and shudder. And Frank said, ‘That movie is going to get me fired.’ And it did.”
My Howard the Duck fans are my favorite fans.
Despite the initial tidal wave of venom, the ensuing decades have been kind to Howard the Duck. Thompson, who now does most of her work behind the camera as an accomplished director of films and shows such as DC’s Stargirl, The Goldbergs and the upcoming second season of Star Trek: Picard, credits VHS for helping build the Howard the Duck cult, which is mighty these days.
“People now appreciate the movie in the spirit in which it was made,” Thompson says. “It was an iconoclastic movie. It is for little rebels. And I love that fans had to be brave when they said, ‘I like that movie!’ It was so easy to make fun of it. And that is why I often say my Howard the Duck fans are my favorite fans because they had to earn it! It was not jumping on the bandwagon.”
Thompson is adamant she was never ashamed of Howard the Duck. What’s more, she has for some time wanted to be involved with another project featuring the character. In fact, Thompson even pitched her version of a new film, which she would have helmed, to Marvel.
“Joe Quinones did some of the art for the pitch because he and Chip Zdarsky did the last run of Howard the Duck comic books,” Thompson explains. “Chip and I worked together and came up with a really great pitch. Marvel liked the pitch, but they have different plans for the different characters. I still think I could do a really good job because I feel like I am the one who really understands the fans, both of the movie and the cartoon.”
And fans seem to agree with her on that notion. When Thompson tweeted on the afternoon of July 8, “I see #HowardTheDuck is trending #3. That’s awesome. I love my duck #WhatIf I get to direct @Marvel reboot,” the post received nearly 8,000 likes and a slew of hopeful comments.
Her only Howard the Duck regret, Thompson admits, is she never told Gloria Katz about all the positives that came from the film before the producer died in 2018. “I cried for about a day when I heard that Gloria died,” says Thompson. “After the movie came out, it was so maligned. And I felt bad I never told her about all the Howard fans who have come up to me at Comic-Cons, so happy.”
Zien admits it took some time for him to get past what seemed like an endless barrage of attacks on the film and himself before he saw Howard the Duck in a different light.
“I didn’t talk about it much for a while,” he admits. “After it came out, I did some Broadway shows and did some TV things. I was quiet about my participation in Howard the Duck. But, eventually, I started to talk about it a lot because it was an amazing experience. And I am glad I did it. I didn’t always put it in my bio at first and now, I always put it in there.”
He’s a punk rock noir detective, at least that’s the way I play it.
Seth Green was among those who saw Howard the Duck when it came out in 1986 and admits it was a strange viewing experience. But the actor, who has taken over the Howard the Duck mantle in the MCU, has some thoughts as to why the film acted as a lightning rod for vitriol.
“George Lucas had made such a series of successful things. And when anyone has such big hits, the audience can’t help but wait for their failure and speak publicly that that person is no longer a god,” Green says. “I think there was a lot of pressure, culturally, on George, having just released Return of the Jedi, to make something that could be as big and accessible as the Star Wars movies had been.”
Green landing the role of Howard the Duck was a months-long process, he jokes. “I got a call from James Gunn, who I worked with on Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. He said, ‘I’ve already shot the colored animation for the Howard cameo but the lip assignment is pretty loose. Do you wan to come in and loop these two lines for this tag on Guardians of the Galaxy?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.'”
Not thinking it would lead to more, Green was pleasantly surprised when he got another call to play the character, again from Gunn. “He made the second Guardians and was like, ‘I threw Howard into this seedy place,’ told me the line was, ‘You’re out of luck, until you’ve gone duck,’ and I said, ‘OK, let’s try that.'”
Green has since reprised the role a number of times, including for the upcoming, highly anticipated What If …? Disney+ series, “which is really cool because it resulted in a scene between T’Challa and Howard.” What If …? marks the late, beloved Chadwick Boseman’s final time playing the character.
“I like the character in the comics, and I like subversive stuff,” Green says of his take on Howard the Duck. “He’s a punk rock noir detective, at least that’s the way I play it.”
As for the future of Howard in the MCU and a possible new Howard the Duck film, Green says, “I think we can all rest assured that Marvel has good plans for all their characters that are going to make sense.”