While being interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter for the anniversary of Howard the Duck, Lea Thompson interrupts. noticing that the film is trending on Twitter. It is an unexpected surprise, and it is a great launching point for her to delve into the story from conception to completion of one of the most highly anticipated films of 1986, created by the monumentally celebrated George Lucas.
His follow-up would have Back to the Future star Lea Thompson pairing with the hottest comedian of the day, Robbin Williams, playing Marvel Comics' Howard the Duck. People were cueing up to audition for Howard including actors like John Cusack and Martin Short. Three-movie contracts were signed. Record-breaking success was their density.. I mean, destiny.
Right away Lea Thompson could tell things were not going well. She was used to the slick execution by professionals who made films like All the Right Moves, Red Dawn and Back to the Future."It wasn't working on the level it needed to work on," Thompson explained. "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.'"
Chip Zien, Broadway actor, stars as Howard, but admitted that his jump to Hollywood was a tad insulting. He was approached by a casting director for Universal Pictures. "She asked me if I considered auditioning because I sound a little bit like a duck. I was kind of offended. I was miffed. And I told my agent. He said, 'Oh, my God! Someone came to you about Howard the Duck? Chip, it's huge! This is a great thing! I am going to call right away.' And then I became aware that everyone in the world was auditioning for it, from big names to people like me."
Zien was told Williams left the project on the first week frustrated over syncing his voice to the duck's animatronic bill. All of Howard's lines were read by the puppeteers, and the bill moved to fit their deadpan delivery, hindering Williams' signature improvisational style impossible to edit in post production. "I thought, 'Uh oh. This looks a little weird,'" admits Zien. "I called my wife and said, 'I don't know. The technology seems a bit behind the times.' But, and this is really important, by my fourth day, I thought this was the greatest film ever made. I completely bought in and loved it. And I loved Willard and (the late producer) Gloria (Katz)."
Whatever misgivings he had at first melted away as the film began to catch traction. Offers started pouring in. "I was supposed to be Howard the Duck as a fill-in host on Entertainment Tonight," discloses the actor. "I signed a contract to be the voice of AT&T. And I had ancillary rights for talking Howard the Duck dolls. It was overwhelming."
"As the film got closer to opening, I noticed that no one is calling me," Zien remembers. "I wasn't invited to the premiere. It was alarming and disappointing. I didn't know what was happening. I was totally cut out of the loop. Little by little I heard horror stories about what a difficult shoot it [had been]."
George Lucas was planning a wrap party for the ages. Everyone was invited to the famous ranch in advance of the opening. After the first screening, you could see the tides changing. Thompson remembers, "I was like, 'Oh, no. I don't think this is going to go.' People didn't laugh a lot," she says. "They spent a lot of money on the afterparty. They even had ducks walking around."
After the abysmal reception from audiences, Frank Price, then president of Universal Pictures, resigned in September 1986. It was reported at the time that Howard the Duck had cost the studio more than $45 million, including film prints and advertising. All told, its box office earnings were $16.2 million domestic and $37.9 million worldwide.
"I had a friend who was a Hollywood screenwriter, and he had a meeting with Frank at Universal to talk about a project," Zien tells. "So he was in Frank's office and the massive billboard for Howard the Duck was still outside his window. And my friend said he saw Frank walk to the window, look at the billboard and shudder. And Frank said, 'That movie is going to get me fired.' And it did."
Thompson admits, "There is no way to be an artist and put your heart into something and not be hurt when people say terrible things. I got whiplash from being in the most beloved movie of the year and then the most hated movie of the year. It gave me a unique perspective on Hollyweird."
But like an aged funky wine, Howard the Duck has been embraced by a select community with a unique palette. "People now appreciate the movie in the spirit in which it was made," Thompson says. "It was an iconoclastic movie. It is for little rebels. And I love that fans had to be brave when they said, 'I like that movie!' It was so easy to make fun of it. And that is why I often say my Howard the Duck fans are my favorite fans because they had to earn it! It was not jumping on the bandwagon."
Thompson is proud of her participation in a film that was at one time a punchline, and she has been trying to get another project off the ground, even directing the the film and pitching the movie to Marvel, to prove it. "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."
Zien seem to have walked away with similar sentiments. "I didn't talk about it much for a while," he admits. "After it came out, I did some Broadway shows and did some TV things. I was quiet about my participation in Howard the Duck. But, eventually, I started to talk about it a lot because it was an amazing experience. And I am glad I did it. I didn't always put it in my bio at first and now, I always put it in there."
Howard the Duck has been waddling back into TV and film as of late, with Seth Green championing and participating in it's resurrection. "I like the character in the comics, and I like subversive stuff," Green says of his take on Howard the Duck. "He's a punk rock noir detective, at least that's the way I play it." Green can be seen breathing life back into the duck with all the swagger to land Lorraine, in Disney+ series What If...? premiering Wednesday August 11. "Not bad for a duck from outer space." This news comes courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.