The first Marvel character to ever star in a feature-length film wasn’t Thor or Spider-Man, but a jaded, cigar-loving space duck named Howard. Who would think to put such a weird character onto the silver screen? None other than sci-fi visionary George Lucas. Released in 1986, Howard the Duck was roasted by critics and, domestically, didn’t even make half of its budget back. Since then, though, B-movie fans have flocked to the picture, and turned it into a genuine cult classic.
1. JOHN LANDIS COULD’VE DIRECTED IT.
Howard the Duck began life as a surrealist comic book. Conceived by Marvel writer Steve Gerber, Howard made his debut in a 1973 issue of the Adventure into Fear series—and he came with a wild back story: Born in another dimension, the anthropomorphic bird ended up getting stranded on Earth, where he didn't exactly blend in. Throughout the 1970s, this odd duck would appear in many other comics—which is how he caught the eye of George Lucas, who decided to produce a movie about him.
Originally, Lucas wanted his friend John Landis in the director’s chair. A great comedic filmmaker, Landis had helmed Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places, but Landis turned down this particular project. “My greatest regret in my career is that John [Landis] was unable to direct Howard the Duck,” Lucas later said. “I feel the movie would have been far more successful and saved me the years of hardship following its release.”
2. GEORGE LUCAS WANTED THE FILM TO BE ANIMATED.
After Landis said no, Willard Huyck—who co-wrote the script with his wife, Gloria Katz—was tapped as the film's director. Production began in the mid-1980s. At first, Lucas and his screenwriters envisioned Howard the Duck as an animated movie. However, Universal Studios had other ideas. “We really wanted to animate it,” Katz said on the DVD’s making-of documentary, “but Universal needed a picture for [the summer of 1986].” Animation is, of course, a lengthy process and a hand-drawn film couldn’t have been made that quickly. “So, George said, ‘Well, we can build a duck. We can do it with the technology that we have,’” Katz recalled.
3. MARTIN SHORT AND ROBIN WILLIAMS AUDITIONED FOR THE VOICE OF HOWARD.
4. LEA THOMPSON TOOK GUITAR LESSONS DURING PRODUCTION.
Both the movie and the comics gave Howard a human girlfriend. In the former, his non-avian love interest was played by Back to the Future’s Lea Thompson. Since her character, Beverly, leads a rock band, the actress had to brush up on her musical skills. “I had to learn how to play guitar,” she told Decider. “We shot the movie for six months and I never had a day off. I was always rehearsing, or recording, or doing something. I was so exhausted by the end.”
5. TIM ROBBINS THOUGHT THEY GOT THE DUCK ALL WRONG.
It's worth noting that Howard the Duck marked one of the earliest film appearances by future Oscar-winner Tim Robbins. Earlier this year, when asked if he looked back on the project with any fondness, Robbins replied, "Well, I look back at it and I realize that one of the things I think about was, at the time, I got this big job that was paying a really decent salary and it was for George Lucas, who had just come off three Star Wars films. So it was a huge deal at the time. And then it wound up going over its shooting schedule and I wound up getting paid twice for that movie because of all the overtime. So I think more about that than about the quality of the movie. [Laughs.] I think more about that allowing me [the] opportunity to do a movie like Five Corners and to produce great plays with The Actor’s Gang, because of the money I was able to take in on that movie."
But Robbins also contended that the movie could have been better—if the duck had been better. "I think one of the things that we realized at the time was—at least I did from the very first day—was that the duck was kind of miscast," he said. "We got the wrong duck to be in the movie. And I don’t mean the people that were inside the suit, I mean kind of the design and concept of who the character was. In the comic book it was this cigar-chomping, rude, skirt-chasing duck, and it got kind of cute-ified in the movie and when I saw that on the set ... I was worried. I was worried at the start."
6. THE HOWARD SUIT WAS INCREDIBLY COMPLEX.
Unlike most high-tech creature suits that had been built in the past, all of Howard’s wires, motors, and batteries were fully contained within his “body.” A four-puppeteer team was in charge of regulating facial expressions via remote control. Apparently, their individual jobs were quite specific. “One person was only concerned about the eyes … somebody would be doing the mouth and so forth,” Huyck explained. “It was a nightmare of coordination.”
7. THE DARK OVERLORD MONSTER WAS CREATED BY JURASSIC PARK’S “DINOSAUR SUPERVISOR.”
An accomplished stop-motion artist, Phil Tippett designed, constructed, and animated the grotesque final form of Howard the Duck’s main villain. (To see his beast in action, check out the clip above from the film’s climax.) Tippett also provided stop-motion monsters for the original RoboCop and Return of the Jedi. Years later, he played a huge role in bringing Jurassic Park’s massive digital creatures to life. Watch the end credits and you’ll see that Tippett is listed as a “Dinosaur Supervisor”—much to the Internet’s amusement.
8. UNIVERSAL SET UP A HOWARD THE DUCK HOTLINE.
In 1986, you could’ve called 1-900-410-DUCK and heard Zien promote the movie in character as Howard. Several pre-recorded messages were made—most of which involved rather terse conversations between the web-footed lead and his human co-stars. Sadly, that hotline no longer works (we checked), but the recordings have found their way to YouTube.
9. THE FILM LANDED ONE ACTOR A ROLE IN SPACEBALLS.
Chip Zien was the voice of Howard, but who was in the duck suit? Most of the time, it was actor Ed Gale. Initially hired as a stunt double, Gale was later asked to take over the role in almost every scene. On set, he became well acquainted with first assistant director Dan Kolsrud. After Howard waddled into theaters, the two reunited at a social function. There, Kolsrud introduced Gale to another associate of his: Spaceballs director Mel Brooks. On a DVD bonus feature, Gale says that “Mel was looking at him and looking at me and [asked] ‘How’d you two meet?’” When Kolsrud answered Brooks, the funnyman “stood up and said ‘Anybody who was in Howard the Duck can be in my movie.’” Just like that, Gale was cast as one of the Dinks in Spaceballs.
10. AFTER THE MOVIE TANKED, THERE WAS A SHAKE-UP AT UNIVERSAL.
Howard the Duck grossed $16.2 million in the U.S. against a $37 million budget. Wave after wave of bad reviews certainly didn’t help. Critics widely panned the movie, which went on to make Siskel & Ebert’s “Worst of 1986” list. Then came Howard the Duck’s four Razzie Award wins, including a tie with Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon for “Worst Picture.” Needless to say, Universal wasn’t happy. Following Howard the Duck’s release, Frank Price—who chaired the studio motion picture group—resigned. When Variety covered this story, they ran the immortal headline “‘Duck’ Cooks Price’s Goose.”
11. IF HOWARD THE DUCK HAD BEEN A HIT, PIXAR MIGHT NOT EXIST.
For George Lucas, the utter failure of Howard the Duck couldn’t have come at a worse time. In 1986, he was still reeling from an expensive divorce and had plunged deeply into debt by building Skywalker Ranch, a scenic retreat with a $50 million price tag. He’d hoped that profits from Howard the Duck would improve his financial situation. Instead, its horrible box office performance forced Lucas to sell off some assets. At the time, he owned an up-and-coming computer animation division. With the aid of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, several employees in that department created a spinout corporation—together, they paid Lucas $10 million in the process. Nowadays, we know the resultant company as Pixar Animation Studios.