Robin Williams, a Maltese casino and bags full of cocaine: the madcap making of Popeye
Sunday 6th December 2020
The crew explain how Williams's first big-screen adventure, released 40 years ago today, was hamstrung by wild behaviour and dodgy props
Nowadays, live-action comic-book adaptations are Hollywood's life-blood. Given this, it's startling to look back 40 years and learn that few of the people involved with Popeye, Robert Altman's 1980 film, ever wanted to make it.
The film wasn't even the first choice of its principal driving force, producer Robert Evans. Popeye was Evans's second choice for a movie based on a newspaper comic-strip, after he'd tried and failed to land Annie. Then, the cartoonist and screenwriter Jules Feiffer agreed to come up with a script only if he could base it on EC Segar's original early-Thirties strips - ignoring the subsequent, more accessible animated version by Max Fleischer.
In Feiffer's tale, grizzled sailor man Popeye (Robin Williams) washes ashore in Sweethaven, a coastal village populated solely by eccentric shipwreck survivors. He's looking for his lost Pappy (Ray Walston), but is soon sidetracked into a wonky love triangle with local catch Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) and her fiancé Bluto (Paul L Smith). There's also the mystery of the abandoned baby Swee'Pea, leading to a treasure hunt.
There was a behind-the-scenes hunt for a director too. The indie maven Hal Ashby circled, but moved on. Evans instead went to Robert Altman, the lauded director of MASH and Nashville. Altman wasn't immediately convinced, but he needed a commercial project after the critical and commercial failure of his five- picture deal with Fox. (The fifth of those, HealtH, wasn't deemed worth releasing by the studio.)
Casting was no more straightforward. Dustin Hoffman, Evans's first choice as Popeye, was enthusiastic early on, but soon quit after falling out with Feiffer over the writing. At least Robin Williams, then a huge TV star thanks to the sitcom Mork & Mindy, wasn't going to turn down Altman for his big-screen debut - but even as he signed up, he expressed how perplexed he was. Williams was instantly recognisable and renowned for his verbal dexterity. As the cartoon-grotesque Popeye, who speaks in muttered mispronunciations and malapropisms, he'd be unrecognisable and unintelligible.
Even when Popeye got under way, a good 50 per cent of it was made with no enthusiasm, or so Frederick Muller, the film's production manager, tells me via Zoom. He's still incredulous four decades later. "It was the oddest production I ever worked on, and I've worked with Orson Welles and Nicolas Roeg."
Malta was chosen as the filming base. This was ostensibly on account of the giant water-tank that had been built for Raise the Titanic the previous year, but, Muller says, "we only ended up shooting about 10 days there [of] the six-month schedule".
What really attracted Altman to Malta - aside from its remote distance from the suits in Los Angeles - was the picturesque Anchor Bay: a perfect Sweethaven Village, at least once major work had been undertaken. Unfortunately, Muller recalls, "it was the most impractical location ever. It really was just a goat track leading to a couple of fishermen's huts. We had to quarry the mountain to build the breakwater, and create a road so that lorries could get down it."
The production designer was Wolf Kroeger, already part of Altman's inner circle. His extraordinary Sweethaven still stands as a tourist attraction in Malta, part of a deal with Malta's then-government that the village would be a permanent structure bequeathed to the island when production was over. All the timber for the construction was shipped in from Italy, and the shingles for the roofs came in nine containers from Canada, at predictably enormous expense. When Kroeger decided that he wanted Popeye's harboured boat to be listing, he snuck down at night and knocked a hole in it. (The insurers paid for that one.)
A music studio was also built in situ for Harry Nilsson and his entourage, including Van Dyke Parks, the film's orchestrator and arranger, for whom the experience of shooting Popeye was "a fearsome and epic but very companionable adventure".
"Nilsson was a genius," Muller adds. "He brought in musicians, and they came and went and played around up there. It was like an association of flower children - all very hippie." Little was planned in advance. Every sequence was hammered out from scratch on set, with the entire cast made up and in costume every day by 8.30am.
"Everything about the picture was ad hoc," Parks remembers via Skype. "It was brilliant!" Williams was less enamoured, threatening to quit on at least one wasted day, during which he was left in full Popeye regalia while Altman played truant at the local casino.
Nilsson's songs remain the film's greatest asset, nailing Segar's rustic folksiness and eloquent inarticulacy. There's Popeye's blunt manifesto, I Yam What I Yam ("and that's all I yam"); or Olive's night-before-the-wedding song, where she's supposed to be rhapsodising about Bluto but can't really come up with anything ("He's large... tall... large...").
"I loved the job I did on I Yam What I Yam - a chromatic stream modulating The Sailor's Hornpipe," Parks says. "And I think the best work I ever did as an arranger was the string work on He Needs Me. I wanted to give Olive Oyl that goofy elasticity, careening and irregular."
Shelley Duvall's performance as Olive is note-perfect too, singled out by critics who otherwise found the film, at best, puzzling. The New York Times's Vincent Canby said she was "superb... fated to play Olive Oyl". Pauline Kael in the New Yorker called her "transcendently comic" and compared her favourably to Laurel and Hardy.
Cut from the theatrical release was what Parks believes was Nilsson's own most "transcendent" contribution, Din' We, sung by Altman alumnus Robert Fortier as the town drunk. "He had nothing to do but lean on a lamp post, a man of failure, an alcoholic. And this was in a kids' movie!"
The finished film was also, Parks continues, "practically devoid of the orchestrations I wanted to do - taking little folk things and putting proscenia around them, lifting them from the plain into the fanciful. I'm grateful that I did get to hear my versions on the soundtrack album."
Despite the Maltese sunshine, the atmosphere progressively darkened on set. This was thanks in part to Altman's erratic behaviour, and in part to the arrival of his notorious consigliere Scotty Bushnell, who revelled in creating inter-departmental tension. Altman soon stopped speaking to his Italian cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno. Everyone, meanwhile, stopped speaking to Feiffer.
The drugs didn't help. Evans almost caused a diplomatic incident when his luggage - full of cocaine - went missing at the airport. More was smuggled in via the filming equipment. "I was the hero of the regiment for opening up a walkie-talkie to change the battery and finding a bag of cocaine," chuckles Parks. "I don't remember how much there was or to whom I gave it.
"But I remember that I recoiled, because I knew that it would be a component in the way people behaved, and the difficulties of the production right up to the top."
There were enough difficulties at ground level. The original prosthetic arms created by Altman's team looked, according to Williams, "like two hazmat gloves filled with putty." The Italian make-up crew that Muller had employed ended up creating them instead, with Da Vinci-like artistry. "There was musculature under the rubber," Williams marvelled. "I remember a little old lady punching hair into them." Paramount eventually stopped the money.
As a production, Popeye was probably never going to end well, but in narrative terms, it barely ends at all. Duvall found herself in the ultimate Ed Wood-style low-budget situation, fighting an inanimate rubber octopus by manually flailing its legs. A planned shipboard battle between Popeye and Bluto, meanwhile, became simply the former chasing the latter into the distance. Williams would later joke that the film concluded more satisfyingly if you played it backwards.
Nevertheless, for Parks, Popeye was a creative success. "It was an inspired act of ingenuity and defiance," he says proudly. "In spite of all the afflictions of the age, the drugs and alcohol, we somehow got it done, and it conveys what's central to Popeye - the questioning of authority.
"It's not easy to digest. It's a problem child, but that's okay. We need them."
Popeye actually performed respectably at the American box office over Christmas 1980: it was the 11th biggest film of the year, with just under $50 million in receipts. "Not a blockbuster, but not a black eye," Evans later reckoned. But its $20 million budget - at least 10 times anything Altman had worked with previously - was huge for the period, and, Muller says, "when you add that and the interest and the prints and advertising and all of that... I don't think it made any money."
Altman retreated to theatre and television for the next decade, only making a proper cinematic comeback with The Player in 1992. "Sometimes extreme relaxation can bite you in the tail," Warren Beatty said of his experience working with the director McCabe and Mrs Miller. In 1971, Altman built a town, filled it with an extraordinary ensemble cast and saw what happened - and it paid off. In Malta, nine years later, it almost cost him his career.