Director Willard Huyck’s 1986 film Howard the Duck has since gone on to become beloved for all of its raunchy weirdness. But when the movie—based on the Marvel Comics character—was first coming into shape back in the ‘80s at Lucasfilm, many of the people involved almost immediately had concerns about whether it would work, and not just because of its...weird subject matter.
Even by today’s standards, a character like Howard the Duck’s a bit of an odd choice to build an entire film around, if only because he doesn’t have quite the same name recognition as other Marvel heroes like the Avengers or the X-Men. Back in the ‘80s, the idea of a live-action Howard the Duck vehicle was even more absurd, but due to a contractual obligation, Lucasfilm charged forward with the project and set out to cast its duck-billed star.
While the voice role ultimately went to Broadway actor Chip Zien, in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he revealed that Robin Williams was originally meant to star as Howard. But within the first few days of shooting, Zien recalled, the late actor’s frustration with the movie’s production process led to him dropping out. “What I was told was by the third day, Robin said, ‘I can’t do this. It is insane. I can’t get the rhythm of this. I am being confined. I am being handcuffed in order to match the flapping duck’s bill.’” Zien said. “So, on Memorial Day 1985, I got a call from my agent who said, ‘You have to get right to the airport! Robin Williams just quit and you’re now Howard the Duck.”
Actress Lea Thompson—who portrayed Howard’s human love interest Beverly— was a major fan of Marvel’s comics when she signed onto the role, and at the point in her career had enough experience working on big-budget productions to be able to sense early on that the film was in trouble. “I felt like I was dragging Howard the Duck up a hill by myself with my teeth the whole time,” Thompson said. “We had amazing puppeteers, but they were the ones doing the jokes. I was like, ‘It would be great if you could have an actor doing the lines to keep the ball in the air.’ The technical side of making the movie was so difficult and fraught. I kept saying to them, ‘The duck doesn’t work.’”
Even though Williams’ exit, Thompson’s concerns, and much of the negative buzz about Howard the Duck were all early signs that the movie might not be a smash success, the studio stilled seemed intent on ignoring the obvious as shooting wrapped. Thompson recalled how the movie’s premiere, which Zien wasn’t invited to, was an extravagant affair—live ducks were even in attendance at the afterparty. When Zien saw the movie in a theater, he couldn’t help himself from warning other audience members with children that Howard the Duck wasn’t exactly for kids. “I was running around to them and saying, ‘You know, this is not that good of a movie for your child’s age. It gets kind of scary.’” Zien said. “And they would look at me like, ‘Who the hell is the weird guy running around in the theater trying to get people to leave?’”
Howard the Duck’s critical and commercial failures were particularly rough for Zien to witness because, in the buildup to the movie’s release, the studio truly had envisioned a future where the alien bird creature franchise really became the next big thing. “I was supposed to be Howard the Duck as a fill-in host on Entertainment Tonight,” Zien recalled. “I signed a contract to be the voice of AT&T. And I had ancillary rights for talking Howard the Duck dolls. It was overwhelming.”
Today, Howard the Duck’s experiencing a new level of nostalgic popularity that’s a big part of why the character made a cameo in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films. Though the MCU’s Howard hasn’t been established as having any connection to his previous cinematic counterpart, Thompson says she’s still very interested in being involved with a Howard project, which she’s previously pitched to Marvel. “Chip [Zdarsky] and I worked together and came up with a really great pitch,” Thompson said. “Marvel liked the pitch, but they have different plans for the different characters. I still think I could do a really good job because I feel like I am the one who really understands the fans, both of the movie and the cartoon.”
The planned Hulu show is no longer on Marvel’s docket, but the character’s upcoming appearance on Disney+’s What If...? might expand the world around him in ways that could bring back many of his supporting characters. There’s no way of knowing what the future holds for Howard or any of Marvel’s other slightly less-than-iconic characters now popping up in the MCU. But if his next big outing ends up being a hit with audiences, the possibilities could be endless.
What If...?, the next place Howard the Duck will appear, is set to hit Disney+ on August 11.
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