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

by  in Comic News Comment

The 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.