the movie Howard the Duck celebrated its 35th anniversary. That movie has had a resurgence of people talking about it in the last year as it hit the landmark anniversary, and its key character was interested in the animated Marvel series What If…? after appearing in the background of Marvel movies in the past years including the first two Guardians of the Galaxy films, as well as Avengers: Endgame.
One fun fact that was revealed last year about the original 1986 movie was that the late, great actor and comedian Robin Williams was the first actor cast in the role of Howard the Duck. He was all set in the voice role to play the alien humanoid duck character who is dragged from his homeworld to Earth where he must stop an alien invasion with the help of a nerdy scientist (Tim Robbins) and a female rock star (Leea Thompson).
But Williams didn’t even last a week. As it worked out, Broadway actor Chip Zien was able to get the part in his wake. He explained to THR that his agent came to him with the part, saying:
“She asked me if I considered auditioning because I sound a little bit like a duck,” recalls Zien, who famously played the Baker in the original Broadway production of Into the Woods. “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.”
At the end of a long bicoastal audition process, Zien learned Robin Williams had been cast as the voice of Howard. But that would not last long, as Zien reveals the late actor-comedian left the project within the first week out of frustration over syncing his voice to the duck’s animatronic bill. An actor-to-voice Howard had not been cast during production, so all of Howard’s lines were read on set by the puppeteers, and the bill moved to fit their bland delivery, rendering Williams’ wild improvisational style moot in postproduction.
“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.’ 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.”
Lea Thompson recalls the same feeling of delight when she was offered the juicy lead in a big production that had a lot of buzz around town, saying:
“I read all the comic books. I loved how insane it was. I loved that I was a girl in love with a duck! I thought that was hilarious; everything about subversive humor and puns. I was hopeful because it was George Lucas and such a great part for me. I even got to do the singing.”
Before the movie was even out, Thompson remembers what a difficult time she had with her puppet co-star. Zien also recalls watching the first 12 minutes of the film and telling his wife that it looked a little weird. He was correct. It was weird. But it is something we can all look back and have a laugh at.