Long before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was Howard the duck, a savage sci-fi comedy that was supposed to be one of the greatest films of 1986. The film did not live up to that fate, but its initial reputation as a famous flop eventually morphed into another. thing, and now the film is firmly living in the realm of cult classic status, much to the delight of its stars, Lea Thompson and Chip Zien, who voiced the title character.
In a new Hollywood Reporter retrospective Thinking of the film’s 35th anniversary, Thompson and Zien both rethought the making of Howard the duck and its continued impact, including Thompson’s efforts to bring a rebooted film to Marvel Studios. Along the way, between the duck stories at the production’s afterparty and Thompson’s own frustrations on the set of the film, Zien revealed that he was not the original Howard. That honor belonged to a much bigger name at the time: Robin Williams, who resigned when he realized his particular comedic style didn’t match Howard’s puppet movements in the live footage.
What I was told is that on the third day Robin said, I can’t do this. It’s crazy. I can’t get the pace of this. I am confined. I’m handcuffed to match the beating duckbill. ‘ Zien, a Broadway actor who said he was asked to audition after a casting director told him he sounded “a bit like a duck”, recalls. So on Memorial Day 1985, I got a call from my agent who said: You have to go straight to the airport! Robin Williams has just resigned and you are now Howard the Duck. You have to go there tonight. A ticket awaits you at the counter. I was incredibly excited.
According to Thompson, the problem with Howard’s puppet duckbill ran deeper than Williams’ own irritation. Rather than having the actor playing Howard, or any actor on the film set to read the lines of the duck, the dialogue was delivered by the puppeteers, creating a mismatch between the actual character and Thompson.
It wasn’t working at the level needed, Thompson said. I felt like I was hanging out Howard the duck going up a hill all by myself with my teeth all the time. All the jokes fell flat. Comedy is a blast. We had amazing puppeteers, but they were 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 aspect of making the film was so difficult and loaded. I kept telling them: The duck is not walking.
Thompson was right, at least in 1986 terms. The duck didn’t work. Howard became not only a box office flop, but a pop culture short for “flop” in the years immediately following its release. Somewhere along the way, however, as the film found itself in more and more hands in the home video market, that started to change. Now in his own way Howard the duck is loved, so much so that Thompson herself has spent some time trying to bring the character’s life back to the big screen in her own way, teaming up with Howard the duck comic book creators Joe Quinones and Chip Zdarsky in 2018 for a new movie pitch … which Marvel turned down.
Joe Quinones did some of the art for the field because he and Chip Zdarsky did the last set of Howard the duck comics, explains Thompson. Chip and I worked together and came up with a really good pitch. 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’m the one who really understands the fans, both of the movie and the cartoon.
Indeed, Thompson, who has established herself as a director in recent years, still does her best to convince Marvel to let her get involved in Howard’s next incarnation on the big screen, when that can be. Earlier this month, when Howard appeared in the Marvel’s trailer What if? animated anthology series, she tweeted again that she would like to lead a reboot, and fans responded accordingly.
Maybe one day
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