Marvel may be the dominant force in movies right now, but it got off to an inauspicious cinematic start. The first big-screen movie — and the last for 12 years, until Blade — was 1986’s Howard the Duck, based one of the more eccentric characters in the comics giant’s stable. It was a huge Lucasfilm production; it was, well, not another Star Wars. But time has been good to the onetime bomb, to the point where its 35th anniversary has produced a fawning look-back at The Hollywood Reporter, where we learn, among other things, that it very briefly starred Robin Williams.
This comes courtesy of his replacement, Broadway star Chip Zien, who went from doing Stephen Sondheim to subbing in for the guy from Mork and Mindy as the voice of a sentient alien duck who finds himself unwittingly beamed to Earth. This was well before the age of CGI, so Howard was, of course, an animatronic duck. However, no voice actor had been cast during production, so all of his lines were read on set by puppeteers. That meant when they cast Williams, a famous ad-libber, he had to make sure his wild line readings matched the stiff bill movements of his waterfowl character.
Zien says the story he was heard that “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.’” And so Zien was flown out from New York right away, and the rest — which is to say legendarily poor box office and reviews — is history.
Not only did the movie not make Zien a star; he wasn’t even invited to the premiere! Instead, he saw his big break with the great unwashed, at his local Upper West Side movie theater, along with “maybe 12 people.” He spent part of the screening warning parents who’d brought young kids that the movie got pretty scary, he recalls: “And they would look at me like, ‘Who the hell is the weird guy running around in the theater trying to get people to leave?’”
At least Howard the Duck isn’t the only major thing on Zien’s CV. He also originated the role of the Baker in Sondheim’s Into the Woods (played by James Corden in the 2014 movie), and you can see his excellent work in the much-loved filmed stage version shown on PBS’ American Playhouse from 1991.