Robin Williams, a Maltese casino and bags full of cocaine: the madcap making of Popeye

Robin Williams as Popeye and Ray Walston as Poopdeck Pappy in Robert Altman's 1980 film - Alamy
These days, live action comic book adaptations are Hollywood's lifeblood. In light of that, it's amazing to look back 40 years and learn that few of the people dealing with Popeye, Robert Altman's 1980 film, ever wanted to make it.
The film wasn't even the first choice of its main driving force, producer Robert Evans. Popeye was Evans' second pick for a newspaper comic-based movie after trying not to land Annie. Then caricaturist and screenwriter Jules Feiffer agreed to develop a script only if he could build it on EC Segar's original strips from the early 1930s - without the subsequent, more accessible animated version by Max Fleischer.
In Feiffer's story, the grizzled sailor Popeye (Robin Williams) washes himself ashore in Sweethaven, a coastal village populated exclusively by eccentric shipwreck survivors. He searches for his lost Pappy (Ray Walston) but is soon distracted into a shaky love triangle with local catch Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) and her fiancé Bluto (Paul L Smith). There's also the abandoned baby Swee'Pea's secret that leads on a treasure hunt.
There was also a behind-the-scenes hunt for a director. Indie maven Hal Ashby circled but moved on. Instead, Evans went to see Robert Altman, the lauded director of MASH and Nashville. Altman wasn't immediately convinced, but he needed a commercial venture after the critical and commercial failure of his five-picture deal with Fox. (The fifth of these, HealtH, was not deemed released by the studio.)
The casting wasn't easier. Dustin Hoffman, Evans' first choice as Popeye, got excited early on but gave up soon after arguing with Feiffer over writing. At least Robin Williams, then a big TV star thanks to the sitcom Mork & Mindy, did not want to turn down Altman for his movie debut - but even when he signed up, he expressed how perplexed he was. Williams was instantly recognizable and known for his verbal dexterity. As the cartoon-grotesque Popeye, who speaks in mumbled wrong pronunciations and malapropisms, he would be unrecognizable and incomprehensible.
Even when Popeye started, a good 50 percent of the production was without enthusiasm, Frederick Muller, the film's production manager, tells me about Zoom. He's still in disbelief four decades later. "It was the strangest production I've ever worked on and I worked with Orson Welles and Nicolas Roeg."
Malta was chosen as the location. This was supposedly due to the huge water tank that was built for Raise the Titanic last year, but according to Müller "we only shot about 10 days of the six-month schedule there".
What really drew Altman to Malta, apart from its distance from the Los Angeles suits, was picturesque Anchor Bay: a perfect sweethaven village, at least after major work had been done. Unfortunately, Müller remembers: “It was the most impractical place ever. It was really just a goat train that led to a couple of fishermen's huts. We had to dismantle the mountain to build the breakwater and make a road for trucks to drive on. "
The production designer was Wolf Kroeger, who was already part of Altman's inner circle. Its extraordinary sweethaven is still a tourist attraction in Malta, part of an agreement with the then Maltese government that the village would be a permanent structure left to the island after production ended. All of the timber for the construction was shipped from Italy, and the shingles for the roofs were shipped in nine containers from Canada at predictably enormous costs. When Kroeger decided that Popeye's harbor boat should be listed, he snuck down at night and punched a hole in it. (The insurers paid for it.)
A music studio was also built for Harry Nilsson and his entourage, including Van Dyke Parks, the orchestrator and arranger of the film, for whom the experience of directing Popeye was "a terrifying and epic, but very companionable adventure".
"Nilsson was a genius," adds Müller. “He brought musicians with him and they came and went and played around up there. It was like an association of flower children - all very hippy. “Little was planned in advance. Each sequence was worked out from scratch on the set, with the entire cast dressed in costume at 8:30 a.m. each day.
"Everything about the picture was ad hoc," Parks recalls over Skype. "It was brilliant!" Williams was less in love and threatened to quit on at least one wasted day when he was left in full Popeye regalia while Altman was playing gay at the local casino.
Nilsson's songs remain the film's greatest asset and meet Segar's rustic folkiness and eloquent inarticulability. There's Popeye's blunt manifesto, I Yam What I Yam ("and that's all I yam"); or Olive's song before the wedding, in which she is supposed to rave about Bluto, but can't come up with anything ("He's big ... big ... big ...").
"I loved working on I Yam What I Yam - a chromatic stream that modulates The Sailor's hornpipe," says Parks. “And I think the best job I've ever done as an arranger was pranking He Needs Me. I wanted to give Olive Oyl that stupid elasticity, care and irregularity. "
Shelley Duvall's appearance as Olive is perfect too, highlighted by critics who otherwise found the film puzzling at best. Vincent Canby of the New York Times said she was "great ... fateful to play Olive Oyl". Pauline Kael in the New Yorker called her "transcendently funny" and compared her positively to Laurel and Hardy.
Cut from the theatrical release, Parks felt that Parks was Nilsson's "most transcendent" entry, Din 'We, sung by Altman alumnus Robert Fortier as the drunken city. “He had nothing to do but lean on a lamppost, a man of failure, an alcoholic. And that was in a children's film! "
For critics, Shelley Duvall's appearance as Olive Oyl was a comical revelation - Alamy
The finished film was also, according to Parks, “practically free of the orchestrations that I wanted to do - taking small folk things and putting proscenia around them, lifting them out of the plane into the imagination. I am grateful that I heard my versions on the soundtrack album. "
Despite the Maltese sunshine, the atmosphere on the set became increasingly dark. This was thanks in part to Altman's erratic behavior and in part to the arrival of his infamous consigliere Scotty Bushnell, who enjoyed creating cross-departmental tension. Altman soon stopped talking to his Italian cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno. Meanwhile everyone stopped talking to Feiffer.
The medication didn't help. Evans almost caused a diplomatic incident when his cocaine-filled luggage went missing at the airport. More was smuggled in via film equipment. "I was the regiment's hero because I opened a walkie-talkie to change the battery and find a bag of cocaine," chuckles Parks. "I don't remember how much there was or who I gave it to.
"But I remember pulling back because I knew it would be part of people's behavior and the difficulties of producing all the way to the top."
There was enough trouble on the ground. The original prosthetic arms, made by Altman's team, "looked like two putty-filled hazmat gloves," Williams said. The Italian makeup crew Müller hired created them with Da Vinci-like art instead. "There was muscle under the rubber," marveled Williams. "I remember a little old lady pounding her hair." Paramount eventually stopped the money.
Williams' prosthetic arms were one of the many troubles on set - Alamy
As a production, Popeye would probably never end well, but in narrative terms it hardly ends. Duvall found himself in the ultimate Ed Wood-style low-budget situation, battling a lifeless rubber octopus by manually tapping his legs. A planned battle on board between Popeye and Bluto, meanwhile, simply became the former, which drove the latter into the distance. Williams later joked that the film ended more satisfactorily if you played it backwards.
Even so, Popeye was a creative hit for Parks. "It was an inspired act of ingenuity and defiance," he says proudly. "Despite all the tribulations of the age, drugs and alcohol, we somehow got it through and conveyed what is central to Popeye - the questioning of authority.
"It's not easy to digest. It's a problem child, but that's okay. We need her."
Popeye actually made a respectable appearance at the American box office over Christmas 1980: it was the eleventh largest film of the year with revenues of nearly $ 50 million. "Not a blockbuster, but not a black eye," Evans calculated later. But his budget of $ 20 million - at least ten times what Altman had previously worked with - was huge for that period, and Mueller says, "If you add that and the interest and the prints and the advertising and all that, I'll do that not i think it made money. "
Altman retired to theater and television for the next decade and didn't make a decent cinematic comeback until 1992 with The Player. "Sometimes extreme relaxation can bite your tail," said Warren Beatty of his experience with director McCabe and Mrs. Miller. In 1971 Altman built a city, filled it with an extraordinary ensemble, and saw what happened - and it paid off. In Malta, nine years later, it almost cost him his career.

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