Friends, it was 40 years ago today that the live action adaptation of E. C. Segar’s iconic comic strip character of Popeye the Sailor hit the big screen – one week after it’s premiere in Orlando, Florida. Or possibly the premiere for Robert Altman’s Popeye was held in Los Angeles, California – it all depends on where you are looking on the internet. Having said that though it appears that everyone agrees the general release of the film was on December 12th. Shockingly considered a flop at the time – even though it managed to pull in 60 million dollars at the box office against a budget of 20 million – it is a film that is very near and dear to my heart. Thanks in no small part to the stellar performance by the late and great Robin Williams, to say nothing of the catchy tunes written by none other than celebrated singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson (The Point).
You might be interested to know that the reason Popeye was adapted into a musical comedy is because of the film adaptation of the Broadway production of Annie. It would seem that Paramount Pictures and Columbia found themselves in a tug of war on which studio was going to pay the most for the rights to the hit musical. It was Columbia that would win the day – but producer Robert Evans (The Godfather, Chinatown) decided to secure the rights to another comic strip character. As it turned out, Paramount Pictures still retained the theatrical rights to Segar’s sailor man, thanks to the studio releasing the Popeye animated shorts from 1933 until 1942.
It might interest you to know that Robert Altman (MASH, The Player) was not the first choice to helm the film, while many think that the celebrated director was an odd choice for the movie, originally it was going to be John Schlesinger of Midnight Cowboy fame that was going to direct. In fact Dustin Hoffman was going to play the lead in the picture, but he walked away from the role as I understand it when he clashed with Jules Feiffer, the screenwriter for Popeye.
At the time of writing this article, which is rather late, 40 years ago this evening I was sitting in the auditorium of a local movie theater watching Popeye. While normally my Father and I would have waited until the Saturday afternoon matinee to catch a new film – our love of Robin Williams – thanks to the popular Mork & Mindy TV series at the time meant we needed to see the musical comedy on opening night. That is really saying something as I have shared before that my Father absolutely despises musicals… almost as much as he dislikes video games. Unfortunately the showtimes printed in the newspaper were off – by about 30 minutes as I recall – so after talking it over we decided to catch the late show of Popeye in the next town. It is something of a magical memory if I am being totally honest, we were the only two people in the auditorium, and it was the first time that it was after midnight when we left the theater. And while Harry Nilsson provided a handful of memorable tunes for the film, it was “I Yam What I Yam” that proved to be an earworm in our household.
I feel that even though it was considered a box office disappointment back in 1980 it has managed to become a cult classic, thanks to the performances by not just Williams but Shelley Duvall (The Shining), Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian), Bill Irwin (Legion,) and Paul Dooley (Sixteen Candles) to point out just a few. And while it seems that the esteemed Leonard Maltin was one of the most vocal critics against the picture – Popeye was reviewed favorably by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on Sneak Previews.
Here is to 40 years of 1980’s Popeye – a charming and still very entertaining musical comedy. To close out this article, why not enjoy this 1979 interview with Robin Williams on The Dick Cavett Show?