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Long before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was Howard the Duck, a wild sci-fi comedy that was supposed to be one of the biggest movies of 1986. The film didn't live up to that destiny, but its initial reputation as a famous flop eventually turned into something else, and now the film lives firmly in the realm of cult classic status, to the delight of its stars, Lea Thompson and Chip Zien, who voiced the title character.
In a new retrospective at The Hollywood Reporter reflecting on the film's 35-year anniversary, Thompson and Zien both looked back at the making of Howard the Duck and its ongoing impact, including Thompson's own efforts to pitch a rebooted film to Marvel Studios. Along the way, in between stories of ducks at the production afterparty and Thompson's own frustrations on the film's set, Zien revealed he actually wasn't the original Howard. That honor belonged to a much bigger name at the time: Robin Williams, who quit when he realized his particular comedic style didn't mesh with the movements of Howard's puppet in the live-action footage.
“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, a Broadway actor who said he was asked to audition after a casting director told him he sounded "a little bit like a duck," recalled. “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.”
According to Thompson, the issue with Howard's puppet duck bill ran deeper than Williams' own irritation. Rather than having the actor playing Howard, or any actor at all on the film's set to read the duck's lines, the dialogue was delivered by the puppeteers, creating a disconnect between the actual character and Thompson's own performance.
“It wasn’t working on the level it needed to work on,” Thompson said. “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.'”
Thompson was right, at least in 1986 terms. The duck didn't work. Howard went on to be not just a box office flop, but pop culture shorthand for "flop" in the years immediately following its release. Somewhere along the way, though, as the film kept winding up in more hands on the home video market, that started to change. Now, in its own peculiar way, Howard the Duck is beloved, so much so that Thompson herself has spent a little time trying to revive the character's big-screen life 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 pitch because he and Chip Zdarsky did the last run of Howard the Duck comic books,” Thompson explains. “Chip and I worked together and came up with a really great 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 am the one who really understands the fans, both of the movie and the cartoon.”
Indeed, Thompson, who's come into her own as a director in recent years, is still doing her level best to convince Marvel to let her be involved in Howard's next big-screen incarnation, whenever that may be. Earlier this month, when Howard popped up in the trailer for Marvel's What If…? animated anthology series, she tweeted once again that she'd like to direct a reboot, and fans responded accordingly.