George Lucas went to USC with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who later co-wrote American Graffiti with the Star Wars director. Readers of this site will recognize the two more for Messiah of Evil, a classic of 1970’s horror that is sadly underappreciated.
After finishing American Grafitti, Lucas told Huyck and Katz about Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck comic book. It took until 1984 to start the process rolling, however.
The film was optioned by Universal Studios after a partnership with Marvel Comics. Universal was excited, as they’d passed on previous Lucas projects and lost out on some major profits. Huyck and Katz felt that the film should be animated, but because Universal needed a summer blockbuster, Lucas suggested that ILM could create a live action movie.
The hard part of the whole movie is that in the comics, Howard is abrasive and rude. That’s not the way a main character should be in a Hollywood movie. The storyline is also straightforward while every adventure of Howard had a major streak of surrealism. After all, he was “trapped in a world he never made.”
Gerber often referred to his writing of the comic book as an existential joke: “This is no joke! There it is. The cosmic giggle. The funniest gag in the universe. That life’s most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view. Anyone who doesn’t believe this probably cannot enjoy reading Howard the Duck.”
That said, he helped with the script, was there on the shoot and felt that the movie was true to the spirit of Howard and Beverly.
Howard the Duck — played by Ed Gale, but also voiced by Chip Zien and acted by numerous puppeteers — is pulled from Duckworld to Cleveland, Ohio, where he meets Beverly (Lea Thompson), who will become his one true love.
Soon, the duck comes into conflict with the Dark Overlord of the Universe, a villain beyond the wall of sleep that possesses Dr. Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) and menaces all reality. There’s also a subplot about Beverly’s band Cherry Bomb, which features Katey Sagal’s twin sister Liz, Dominique Davalos from the band Dominatrix and Holly Robinson from 21 Jump Street.
Paula Abdul, Kim Basinger, Belinda Carlisle, Jodi Benson, Tori Amos, Sarah Jessica Parker and Lori Singer all tried out for the role of Beverly, but Thompson does a great job. She even sang all of the songs in the film.
The film was considered a box-office bomb, as it made only a million more than its overall production budget. Universal production heads Frank Price and Sidney Sheinberg supposedly got in a fistfight over the results, with Price eventually leaving the studio. Seriously, movies have flopped much harder than this, so I’ve never understood the stink that is on this movie. Perhaps — before the prequels — people expected more out of Lucas.
Huyck never directed again — he had also made the Eddie Murphy movie Best Defense — but he did write Radioland Murders with Lucas and Katz.
I loved that Howard showed up at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. It felt like Marvel’s first theatrical star finally got his moment, after being considered a failure for so long.
A postscript: Lucas had just built Skywalker Ranch complex and was counting on Howard the Duck to pay it off. He had to sell off assets to stay in business. Steve Jobs offered to help by buying Lucasfilm’s newly-launched CGI animation division for a better than market price. It turns out that he got a great deal, because that division is what we now know as Pixar.