Robot 6

Reflecting on Robin Williams and the weird, underrated ‘Popeye’

MCDPOPE EC001The world was saddened to learn of Robin Williams’ passing on Monday, and the circumstances surrounding his death only made it more tragic. Most of us, however, prefer to remember the comedy legend through the times he made us smile.

Perhaps it was his goofy silliness as the alien Mork, or his stellar voice work in Aladdin, or the way he managed to fill out the form of an old lady in Mrs. Doubtfire. He had loads of dramatic roles as well, from The Fisher King to Dead Poets Society. Williams could make you empathize with the hurting soul underneath the clown, the man behind the facade.

For all his versatility — from playing a cartoon bat trying to save the rainforest to a frightening stalker working at a photo booth — it’s a shame Williams was never in a superhero movie, especially in an era when the likes of Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson and Anthony Hopkins have embraced such genre roles.

Oh, wait. Williams did play a superhero, of sorts: He was Popeye the Sailor Man.

Popeye as comics’ first superhero isn’t a widely accepted concept, but it does have its proponents. E.C. Segar’s most famous creation may not have had a secret identity or worn Spandex, but he did become super-strong and nigh invulnerable once he popped open a can of spinach. One hornpipe jig later, and it is on. Even during his first appearance in Thimble Theatre, when the Sailor Man was a bit depowered, he proved he could survive multiple gunshot wounds. “Can Popeye beat the Hulk?” is a question depressingly few fanboys ask these days.

The 1980 musical comedy Popeye marked Williams’ big-screen debut as a leading man (according to IMDb, it was only his second movie role). Despite a decent box-office performance, the film received mixed reviews, and was considered a flop by Paramount Pictures, which had originally set its sights on an adaptation of the Broadway musical Annie (itself based on the long-running comic strip).

Also starring the likes of Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley and Linda Hunt, virtually everything about Popeye was phenomenally, undeniably weird. A film about the famously lumpy comic strip sailor that wasn’t a cartoon? A soundtrack composed by soft rock artist Harry Nilsson (“Everybody’s Talkin’”)? And … directed by Robert Altman (MASH, The Long Goodbye, and, later, Gosford Park)?

And yet, if I were being completely honest, Popeye is the only Altman film I’ve ever seen. I agree with a lot of the negative reviews; Leonard Maltin called it an “astonishingly boring musical,” and he wasn’t wrong. The songs aren’t catchy at all, and the clumsy action sequences can never replicate the intensity of the comics or the cartoons.

However, the movie holds a special place in my heart, partly because of my love for Popeye, the ugly, squinting palooka who’s never invited to any of the superhero parties. But it’s also because you could never have asked for a better Popeye than Robin Williams.

Imagine casting this film in more modern times and trying to think of which Hollywood A-lister could possibly play the title role. You’d still come back to Robin Williams. His appearance on screen was a bit off-putting at first. No man, after all, has as prominent a jawline as Popeye. However, Williams embodied the role — and it wasn’t only the rubber forearms. After a few minutes of seeing the actor scrunch his face and chomp at a comically large corncob pipe, you believe Williams is a cartoon character come to life. Plus, that unmistakable gruff Popeye voice, first spoken by Billy Costello in the Fleischer cartoons, that Williams imitates perfectly. It’s probably the most effort an actor has ever put into transforming himself into a comic book character, and he pulled it off amazingly well.

It’s a glimpse, too, of the mind-boggling amount of energy Williams put into all of his roles, a quality combining exuberance and deep sympathy that will be very much missed.

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not to mention Popeye made Robin box office poison to other studios for a while. till he changed that with think dead poets society or mrs. doubt fire.for even icons like Robin have that one project the less talked about and mentioned the better and Popeye though it tried to nail the character. seems to have been Robins one shame project

It was definitely a different movie, but not in a bad way.

People tend to love Altman. I haven’t seen Popeye yet, but I have seen two other Altman movies. Gosford Park was well acted but inconclusive, a big mistake in something billed as a mystery. And M*A*S*H is terrible, a noisy and snide and cynical mess that has no heart whatsoever. The TV show took the same idea and made it much better.

The songs weren’t catchy? Are you tone deaf?

The “Popeye” film (which I saw in the theaters when it came out) was perhaps the best adapted comic strip to a movie- ever. All you have to do is read a handful of E.C. Segar’s strips and you can see that Altman and the actors got it right.

The songs aren’t catchy??? Wha?….. Like David said, are you tone deaf??

But wait…. Larry, “Popeye” is the only Altman film you’ve ever seen?????!!!! What the hell man….
“M*A*S*H”, “Nashville”, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, “Short Cuts”….Geez man with tons of cable stations, Netflix, Amazon, etc…. how can you NOT see any of his films?????

@Simon,
Sorry, but I have to completely disagree with you regarding M*A*S*H the movie. It wasn’t meant to have too much heart, it was written as a black comedy, and the cynical attitude it carries is a reflection of how Hawkeye and Co chose to deal with being in a war they didn’t believe necessary or purposeful. It was a political war, and the movie used a hindsight perspective to critique the overconfident approach america took for the Korean “conflict”. It was a commentary on the American war machine post WWII, and how the nation went from hesitant savior, to power-hungry world enforcers.

@Richard J. Marcej — I know, right? It actually only occurred to me when I was writing this piece that I hadn’t actually seen any other Altman movie. I’d briefly considered watching “Prairie Home Companion” when it was getting talked up at Oscar time but I never did. I’ve probably seen more Wes Anderson and Terrence Malick films, which is weird.

And, ah, I don’t subscribe to any streaming services, unfortunately. Not everybody has Netflix, and I’m still way too comfortable with watching things on DVD and Blu-Ray. (We had Netflix for a while, but we discovered we never had time to go watch it, so we dropped it.) As for cable… well, Altman films don’t air on cable with much frequency. The Fast and Furious films, on the other hand, air almost constantly.

This was project that was doomed – when it had the independent minded Altman – then two taskmaskers in Disney and Paramount – and music which Altman did not seem to like. Nilsson threatened to record an album titled “Popeye Sung The Right Way”. Altman had the characters slur the lyrics – throw up all sorts of action to distract from the songs (much as Ken Russell had characters eating while saying Paddy Chayefsky’s lines in Altered States causing Chayefsky to take his name off (and put on his real name!)). It’s not even clear that Altman liked the Feiffer script – since Altman liked for actors to improvise – and Feiffer scripts do not need improvisation.
Just a lot of very talented people but whose skills did not seem to gel or have a united vision.
That said, this is about as close to a live action cartoon as I’ve ever seen.

I feel Altman maybe wasn’t the ideal director for a comic strip movie, but he was the best choice. If you consider how Hollywood viewed comic properties at the time, it could have been a horrid wreck instead of the underplayed and misunderstood treat that it is.
His take on Prairie Home Companion was delightful, and makes a good companion to Popeye actually–see it! (However Lindsay Lohan is so distracting in the movie. I’m not normally taken back by stuff like this in films, but her presence knocks everything else about the cast out of whack whenever attention is placed on her.)

I think Shelley Duvall’s “He Needs Me” is really sweet and a good song, but it didn’t mean a thing until it was repurposed in Punch Drunk Love, which basically turned it into the film’s mission statement and made it a classic.
I couldn’t tell you much about the other tunes, and I have seen Popeye a few times over the years.

@Larry,
If you get a chance, hunt down “Short Cuts”(1993). It’s one of those films featuring interweaving stories starring dozens of characters and plot lines that don’t always end up resolved. And what other film can you watch singers Lyle Lovett, Huey Lewis and Tom Waits acting?

I totally agree with Richard. It’s true to its source material even to a fault. I love it.

I love the Popeye movie. Loved it when I saw it as a kid. Love it now.

Each to their own I suppose.

I never made it through Popeye as a kid but maybe I should go back and try again.

Whatever is wrong with it, it’s not the cast; Williams and Duvall were both inspired choices.

“I’m mean , I’m mean , I’m mean, you know what I mean? ” God I love that movie, as do my kids now.”I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today…” We love all the songs and the strange humor in the movie.

Altman was an awful director. Critics rave about his films but I found everyone of them dull or worse.I don’t know anyone who enjoyed his movies. MASH wasn’t any good until it came to television.
I first saw Popeye when it was released to the theaters. I expected a lot, despite my prior experience with Altman pictures. I came out of that experience just as disappointed as ever, and perhaps more so because of my affection for those old Popeye cartoons.
There are only two bright spots in the movie: (1) the brief cartoon image of Popeye at the opening credits with the old voice there and (2) Robin Williams performance. He rose above the crap around him. He inhabited Popeye and made the cartoon spring to life.
The only good in this horrid film is William’s performance. And I cannot believe that Altman brought that performance out of Williams. That was inspired Robin Williams all the way.

@Demoncat – “World According to Garp” was a couple of years after Popeye. Whatever poison Williams may have been was immediately overcome. Nothing like a few Oscar noms for a flick to waft away the stink.

I saw Popeye in the theater and as a kid the cartoons were the only reason I ate spinach. Honestly, I was a living cliche. (I got over spinach as an adult – bleck). The movie was a disappointment. As a child I just didn’t get it and the singing bit. Bluto was not even menacing to me. As an young-adult and older-young-at-heart adult today i can appreciate the concept that was attempted. But honestly – it should never have been marketed to kids.

Williams did the best with the material he had to work with. He did embody the spirit of Popeye perfectly. Shelly Duval was actually a decent Olive Oil. The rest of it was a mess. Ray Walston will forever be Mr. Hand to me (Fast Times…). Here he was kinda wasted.

Williams’ career was never a series of home runs. Plenty of missteps and non-commercially successful roles. But his cameos and willingness to try anything made him fun. “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” anyone? But he was never afraid to do TV even after becoming a “STAR” – long before the current trend of A-List actors coming to TV (more so in on cable but not always).

I’ll miss Robin Williams. “The Crazy Ones” wasn’t great – the outtakes were gold, though. There’s 4 more movies on the way left for us to enjoy his brand of humor and then we’re running on empty.

Shazbot!

Man the popeye movie is great!

While I didn’t love the plot I was amazed at how well it transformed comic/cartoon visuals to live action – and I consider it a film well worth watching for that reason.
and there were some great lines…. (spoken by Robin Williams)

Still love the film. Interestingly, it was an ORIGIN film, which is why he didn’t eat spinach until much later.

I loved the movie as a kid and saw it again the year before last on cable and while silly was as faithful to the comics as you can get. YOu either like the character Popeye or not but the movie didn’t detract from that at all.

Also as far as Williams being in a comic BOOK movie I remember he was the original choice for the Riddler in Batman Forever but turned down the role that eventually went to Jim Carey.

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