Why Did Robin Williams Quit 'Howard the Duck' After One Week?

'Howard the Duck'Credit: Lucasfilm
Howard the Duck is a cult classic, and it almost had a very famous voice. 

If you're a fan of offbeat Hollywood movies, you've probably seen Howard the Duck. The film just celebrated its 35th anniversary, with The Hollywood Reporter doing an entire article on how it came to be. It features interviews with Lea Thompson and Howard-voice Chip Zien, who unearthed a lot of fun facts about the movie.  

One of the most fun is Zien's anecdote about how he got to play Howard's voice. He was on Broadway, acting, got called in, and eventually lost the part to Robin Williams. The story should have ended there, but that's not how Hollywood works. 

As the legend goes, Robin Williams showed up to set to be Howard, and hated it. He was a big comic performer who loved to improvise and do his own thing. But that wasn't really possible with an animatronic duck. 

As Zien told THR, "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 to match the flapping duck's bill.' 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. You need to get there tonight. There is a ticket waiting for you at the counter.' I was incredibly excited."

Zien flew to set, and the rest is history.

There are many anecdotes about how difficult it was working with a puppet on set. It was impossible to get actor chemistry because you were performing across from puppeteers who were just saying lines, not performing them.

As Thompson recalled, “It wasn’t working on the level it needed to work on. I felt like I was dragging Howard the Duck up a hill by myself with my teeth the whole time. All the jokes were falling flat. Comedy is a souffle. 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.'”

Turns out, the duck did not work for audiences either. The movie took in around $37 million on a $45 million budget. It was a pockmark on the careers of everyone involved. But it didn't stay that way. The movie played on TV and became legendary in circles of film buffs and kids whose parents mistakenly let them watch and told their friends. The movie even got a 4K restoration recently. 

How did you first see Howard the Duck? Would you have enjoyed the Robin Williams version? Let us know in the comments!     

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This and Deadpool are the three Marvel productions I swear by.

July 28, 2021 at 12:46PM

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