Popeye is a 1980 live-action film directed by Robert Altman and adapted from E. C. Segar's Thimble Theatre comic strip. The screenplay by Jules Feiffer was based directly on Thimble Theatre Starring Popeye the Sailor, a hardcover reprint collection of 1936-37 Segar strips published in 1971 by Woody Gelman's Nostalgia Press.
Marketed with the tagline, "The sailor man with the spinach can!", the film is a musical, which was uncommon for the time. It starred Robin Williams (in his first film role) as Popeye and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl. Popeye features hallmarks of director Robert Altman's style, including an ensemble cast, overlapping dialogue and cross-cutting to non-musical sequences during songs by Harry Nilsson.
The town of Sweethaven, Olive Oyl's family, her former comic-strip boyfriend Ham Gravy, and a handful of minor characters from the strip appear in the film. Olive's brother Castor has a relatively important role, as he did in the strip before Popeye came aboard. The movie's portrayal of Popeye's dislike of spinach was also a theme used in the original comic strip by Segar. In fact, only once during the syndicated run of the comic did Popeye eat spinach (to boost his already considerable strength before a fight). It wasn't until Popeye appeared in animated cartoons that he was shown to actually love spinach and eat it regularly (probably more as a move on the part of his producers to promote the animated sailor as a positive role model for younger viewers than anything else).
However, by the time of the movie's release, people were so well aware of Popeye's love for spinach and his eating it to augment his already amazing strength (especially with a Saturday cartoon of Popeye airing on CBS at the time), viewers and critics complained when the film portrayed Popeye as hating spinach. With the exception of fans and aficionados of Segar's Popeye and Thimble Theatre, few people even knew Popeye never liked spinach in his early appearances. This portrayal of Popeye's dislike of spinach was also addressed in "Flopeye" (Mad's parody of the movie) as such: The Popeye cartoon character had been forced to witness several of these discrepancies between the movie and the common conceptions of his character all throughout the movie satire, and when the discrepancy that he doesn't like spinach came up, the cartoon Popeye saw this as the last straw."What the hell IS dis?! Since WHEN don't I likes spinach?!" he complains and bursts into action to save this "disgustipating pitchur", eating the spinach, rescuing Olives Oil and Swee'Tea (parodies of Olive Oyl and Swee'Pea, respectively), and teaching his live-action counterpart a lesson he won't soon forget.
An international construction crew of 165 worked seven months to construct the set. Tree trunk logs were driven across the European continent from Holland, and wood shingles were imported all the way from Canada. Eight tons of nails and 2,000 gallons of paint were used to complete the set. When they finished, the fictional village of Sweethaven consisted of 19 buildings including a hotel, a school-house, a store, a post office, a church and a tavern. The set for the town of Sweethaven was built at Anchor Bay on the Mediterranean island of Malta. After filming it became a popular tourist attraction. Many of the "citizens" of Sweethaven, especially those who had to do some physical gags, were recruited from European circuses. The many sunken ships in the harbor were actually seaworthy vessels that were rented or bought and then sunk. A 200– to 250-foot breakwater had to be constructed at the mouth of the harbor to prevent the set from flooding during high seas.
The makeup appliances for Robin Williams' fake forearms were not ready when filming began, so in early shots, Popeye wears a long-sleeved raincoat to hide his normal-sized arms.
During filming of the scene where Ray Walston throws Robin Williams the can of spinach, Walston hit Williams in the head so hard that he required several stitches in his scalp. This delayed filming for several weeks.
One dark and stormy night, the gruff but goodhearted seaman Popeye rows his small dinghy into the harbor of the quaint seaside community of Sweethaven. There he rents a room at the Oyls' boarding house, where he quickly falls for their daughter Olive. But Olive's hand has already been promised to Captain Bluto, a bully and ruffian who is in charge of collecting taxes for the mysterious Commodore. Popeye and Bluto take a quick disliking to each other, and get in a large fight.
Popeye, who was orphaned at an early age, is in the midst of searching for his missing father, but what he does not realize is that he is closer than he thinks to completing his quest. Along the way, he encounters an assortment of characters, including George W. Geezil, J. Wellington Wimpy, "Oxblood Oxheart" (The dirtiest fighter alive), and a greedy, unnamed taxman. Eventually Popeye and Olive are brought together when they find Swee'Pea, an adorable foundling. It is soon discovered that Swee'Pea can predict the future, by whistling when he hears the right answer. Wimpy soon learns of this, and uses the baby to gamble. Popeye is outraged and takes Swee'Pea away from him.
When Swee'Pea is kidnapped, Popeye and Olive Oyl go looking for him. Olive and Wimpy soon find that Swee'Pea was taken on the Commodore's ship, and who else should be the Commodore but Popeye's father, Poopdeck Pappy. Bluto has tied up Pappy, and is going to use Swee'Pea to find Pappy's old treasure. Olive and Wimpy go tell Popeye what they've discovered, but Popeye does not believe them. Popeye goes to the Commodore's ship where he finally meets his father, from whom he learns the secret to gaining great strength (spinach). The irony of this discovery is the revelation that Popeye despises spinach.
Bluto kidnaps Swee'Pea and Olive Oyl, then begins to sail on his boat to an island on which the Commodore has said his hidden treasure is located. On the way, he tries to use Swee' Pea's predictive ability to precisely locate the treasure. Popeye, Pappy, Wimpy, and their friends give chase on another boat and chase Bluto to Pirate's Cove. Using a cannon, Pappy tries to sink Bluto's ship, but, in the end, has to ram it. Olive is trapped in a tube that is tossed in the water, and Pappy manages to get up on the cove with Swee'Pea and Popeye's friends.
Bluto and Popeye get into a swordfight on the cove's rocky walls. Bluto, being bigger and stronger, knocks Popeye into the water. Meanwhile, an octopus comes from under the water and tries to eat Olive. Pappy calls to Popeye and tells him that if he ate spinach, he wouldn't be losing. Bluto discovers Popeye's dislike of spinach, and attempts to add insult to injury by forcing the sailor to eat a can of it, then wrapping him in chains and dropping him under the water. The expected reaction occurs, and Popeye shoots up and defeats Bluto in the traditional way with a mighty punch that catapults the villain out of the water. He then swims under the water and rescues Olive from the giant octopus—using his famous "Twisker Punch," sending the octopus flying into the air (in a poor special effect that was reportedly the result of the film having run out of production money). Bluto, now beaten, begins swimming away from the cove and out to sea, literally turned yellow, never to be heard from again.
Pappy finds his treasure, and opens it up to find spinach and a picture of "Me Son". All the characters then begin to sing "Popeye The Sailor Man", while Popeye dances and falls back in the water, only to pop back up smiling, and the film ends with the credits playing with a view of the cove, and Bluto still swimming out into the ocean.
Popeye was Robin Williams' film debut. In interviews, referring jokingly to the perceived flop of the film, he has spoken of his early struggles as a film actor as "the Popeye years." Most of Robin Williams's muttered Popeye voice was discovered to be inaudible once filming wrapped, and he had to re-dub much of the dialogue. In a fourth season episode of Mork and Mindy (produced by Paramount's TV division), Robin Williams, as Mork possessed by his son's personae, says that he loved Popeye, and "if you run it backwards, it has an ending."
The parts of Popeye and Olive Oyl were originally intended for Dustin Hoffman and Gilda Radner. Hoffman left over a disagreement in the hiring of Jules Feiffer as the scriptwriter and, although Radner was the preferred choice of the studio, Robert Altman held out for Shelley Duvall. At one point, Lily Tomlin was signed to play Olive Oyl. In a print interview released around the same time as the film, Shelley Duvall admitted that kids used to call her "Olive Oyl" when she was in grade school. Wesley Ivan Hurt, who plays Swee'pea, is Robert Altman's grandson.
Curiously, the song "Everything Is Food" was not included on the soundtrack, while the song "Din' We" (which was cut from the film) was.
The song "He Needs Me" was featured in the movie Punch-Drunk Love. Coincidentally, "Punch-Drunk Love" was originally released on DVD the same day as the DVD release of Popeye.
In general, the soundtrack was unusual in that the actors sang some of the songs "live". For that reason, the studio-recorded soundtrack album did not quite match the tracks heard in the film.
To date, the album is out of print, its only releases being the original 1980s-era pressings on vinyl record, cassette and 8-track tape. The only song in CD format is "He Needs Me", which appears on the Punch-Drunk Love soundtrack. "He Needs Me" can also be purchased as a single from iTunes.
Harry Nilsson took a break in the middle of production of his album Flash Harry to create the music for this movie. He wrote all the original songs and co-produced the music with producer Bruce Robb at Cherokee Studios. Harry Nilsson took his band of musicians to the island of Malta where they had a purpose-built studio constructed for them. Everyone tried to dissuade Robert Altman from working with Harry Nilsson, claiming that Nilsson would be constantly drunk. Only Robin Williams supported him in this decision. As it turned out, Altman found Nilsson to be delightful to work with.
"There’s nothing new on this edition. It’s just a repackage along with about 40 other 80s hits that have come out this Tuesday (August 5, 2008). This title hasn’t been re-released since 1993, I believe. And the only reason I’m putting this title on this week’s column is to advocate for an astonishing edition. With the passing of the brilliant Robert Altman – it is way past due that this undeclared comic masterpiece be given the treatment it needs. A long time ago – I spoke with (Popeye producer) Robert Evans, who told me he had a three-hour film print of 'Popeye' that was the true version of 'Popeye' as Altman originally conceived the film. Let’s get that print into some hands where it can be restored to the glory that the late great Altman had intended."