Hollywood Flashback: Robin Williams Was Strong to the Finish in 'Popeye' in 1980

POPEYE
Paramount Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

Robin Williams as Popeye, Wesley Ivan Hurt as Swee’Pea and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl in 1980’s 'Popeye.'

Robert Altman directed Williams — who stepped in for original star Dustin Hoffman — and Shelley Duvall in the film. The Hollywood Reporter's critic deemed it a "disappointment," but the movie went on to box office success.

Popeye, which turns 40 this month, owes a debt to another beloved character: Little Orphan Annie. Producer Robert Evans desperately wanted to make Annie for Paramount. But when it went to Columbia, he was determined to make his own comic strip musical, and learned that Paramount owned Popeye.

Evans asked cartoonist and screenwriter Jules Feiffer (Carnal Knowledge) to pen the screenplay. Feiffer agreed, as long as it could be based on E.C. Segar's original Popeye strip — "a work of genius," he said — instead of Max Fleischer's Popeye the Sailor cartoons, which he felt were not. ("I want to do whatever Popeye you want to do," Evans replied.)

Dustin Hoffman was supposed to play the lead, but when Hoffman wanted Feiffer off the project, Evans sided with the writer and replaced Hoffman with Robin Williams, the breakout star of TV's Mork & Mindy.

A number of directors, including Hal Ashby and Louis Malle, turned down the film. Then Evans thought of Robert Altman, who was in a career slump and reluctantly said yes. To play Olive Oyl, Altman cast Shelley Duvall, a regular in his films. (The two were bickering at the time — Altman reportedly said, "Anybody but Shelley," but capitulated. Even the rail-thin Duvall, who'd been called "Olive Oyl" as a child, had to admit she was born to play the role.)

Altman shot in Malta, far from the eyes of execs at Disney and Paramount, which shared costs. The island nation has virtually no indigenous wood — it's all solid rock — so tons were imported to create Wolf Kroeger's spectacular Sweethaven set. Harry Nilsson was enlisted to compose songs (including "He Needs Me," also used in Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 film Punch-Drunk Love). Constant rain led the shoot to run two months over schedule, during which there were multiple creative squabbles.

When it finally opened on Dec. 6, 1980, critics were underwhelmed.

THR called it "one of the major disappointments of the season." Still, the $20 million picture made $50 million domestically ($157 million today) and has since gained a loyal following. "It was a good little movie with some major talents done with very little money," says Kroeger, now 79. "All the rest is bullshit."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.