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Howard the Duck (film)

Howard the Duck
The words "More adventure than humanly possible" and a giant egg with a beak holding a cigar.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Willard Huyck
Produced by
Written by
  • Willard Huyck
  • Gloria Katz
Based on Howard the Duck 
by Steve Gerber
Val Mayerik
Music by
Cinematography Richard H. Kline
Edited by
  • Michael Chandler
  • Sidney Wolinsky
Distributed by Universal Pictures
Release dates
  • August 1, 1986 (1986-08-01)
Running time
111 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $37 million[2]
Box office $38 million[3]

Howard the Duck is a 1986 American science fiction comedy film directed by Willard Huyck and starring Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, and Jeffrey Jones. Produced by Gloria Katz and George Lucas and written by Huyck and Katz, the screenplay was originally intended to be an animated film based on the Marvel comic book of the same name, but the film adaptation became live action because of a contractual obligation. Although there had been several TV adaptations of Marvel characters during the preceding 21 years, this was the first attempt at a theatrical release since the Captain America serial of 1944.

Lucas proposed adapting the surrealist comic book following the production of American Graffiti. After stepping down as the president of Lucasfilm to focus on producing he chose to begin production on the film personally. Following multiple production difficulties and mixed response to test screenings, Howard the Duck was released in theaters on August 1, 1986. Upon its release, the film received overwhelmingly negative reviews from critics and was a box office failure, and in later years has been widely acknowledged as one of the worst films ever made. Contemporary critics saw the decision to shoot the film in live action instead of as an animated film and the appearance of Howard as primary obstacles to its success, while more recent commentators tend to focus on the film's writing. Despite the criticism, it has gained a cult following among fans of the comic book series.


Twenty-seven-year-old Howard the Duck (Chip Zien) lives on Duckworld, a planet similar to Earth but inhabited by anthropomorphic ducks. As he is reading the latest issue of Playduck magazine, his armchair begins to quake violently and propels him out of his apartment building and into outer space; Howard eventually lands on Earth, in Cleveland, Ohio. Upon arriving, Howard encounters a woman being attacked by thugs. He defeats them using a unique style of martial arts. After the thugs flee, the woman introduces herself as Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson), and decides to take Howard to her apartment and let him spend the night. The following day, Beverly takes Howard to Phil Blumbertt (Tim Robbins), a scientist whom Beverly hopes can help Howard return to his world. After Phil is revealed to be only a janitor, Howard resigns himself to life on Earth and rejects Beverly's aid. He soon applies for a job as a janitor at a local romance spa. Because of unfair treatment by his boss, Howard resigns and rejoins Beverly, who plays in a band called Cherry Bomb. At the club at which Cherry Bomb is performing, Howard comes across their manager (Richard Edson), and confronts him when he insults the band. A fight breaks out, in which Howard is victorious.

Howard rejoins Beverly backstage after the band's performance and accompanies her back to her apartment, where Beverly persuades him to be the band's new manager. The two begin to flirt, but soon after that they are interrupted by Blumburtt and two of his colleagues, who reveal that a dimensional-jumping device they were inventing was aimed at Howard's planet and transported him to Earth when it was activated. They theorize that Howard can be sent back to his world through a reversal of this same process. Upon their arrival at the laboratory, the device malfunctions when it is activated, arousing the possibility of something else being transported to Earth. At this point, Dr. Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) is possessed by a life form from another alternate dimension. When they visit a diner, the creature introduces himself as a "Dark Overlord of the Universe" and demonstrates his developing mental powers by destroying table utensils and condiments. A fight ensues when a group of truckers in the diner begin to insult Howard. Howard is captured and is almost killed by the diner chef, but the Dark Overlord destroys the diner and escapes with Beverly.

Howard locates Phil, who is arrested for his involvement in the diner fight. After they escape, they discover an Ultralight aircraft, which they use to search for the Dark Overlord and Beverly. At the laboratory, the Dark Overlord ties Beverly down to a metal bed and plans to transfer another one of its kind into her body with the dimension machine. Howard and Phil arrive and apparently destroy the Dark Overlord with an experimental "neutron disintegrator" laser; however, it has only been forced out of Jenning's body. The Dark Overlord reveals its true form at this point. Howard fires the neutron disintegrator at the hideous beast, obliterating it, and destroys the dimension machine, preventing more creatures from arriving on Earth, but also ruining Howard's only chance of returning to his planet. Howard then becomes Beverly's manager and hires Phil as an employee on her tour.


Actors Portraying the Ducks
  • Ed Gale
  • Tim Rose
  • Steve Sleap
  • Peter Baird
  • Mary Wells
  • Lisa Sturz
  • Jordan Prentice


File:Time 100 George Lucas.jpg
George Lucas stepped down as the president of Lucasfilm in order to focus on producing films, including Howard the Duck.

George Lucas attended film school with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who later co-wrote American Graffiti with Lucas. After the film's production concluded, Lucas told Huyck and Katz about the comic book Howard the Duck, primarily written by Steve Gerber, describing the series as being "very funny" and praising its elements of film noir and absurdism.[4] In 1984, Lucas relinquished his presidency of Lucasfilm to focus on producing films.[5] According to the documentary A Look Back at Howard the Duck, Huyck, Katz and Lucas began to seriously consider adapting Howard the Duck as a film, and met with Gerber to discuss the project.[4] Steve Gerber's account differs slightly; he recalls that at the time he was approached to discuss the film, Lucas was not yet involved with the project.[6]

The film was optioned by Universal Studios. According to Marvin Antonowsky, "Sidney [Sheinberg] lobbied very hard for Howard the Duck", because the studio had passed on previous projects that Lucas was involved in, which had been very successful.[7] Sheinberg denied any involvement in Howard the Duck, claiming that he never read the screenplay.[8] Huyck and Katz strongly felt that the film should be animated. Because Universal needed a film for a summer release, Lucas suggested that the film could be produced in live action, with special effects created by Industrial Light & Magic.[4]

Production designer Peter Jamison and director of photography Richard Kline were hired in order to give the film a look similar to that of a color comic book.[4] Throughout the shoot, Huyck shot multiple segments establishing Duckworld, designed by Jamison. Howard's apartment is filled with detailed props, including books and magazines featuring duck-oriented puns.[9] Because Lucas often worked with dwarf actors, he was able to hire a number of extras to work on these sequences.[4]

The Ultralight sequence was difficult to shoot, requiring intense coordination and actors Tim Robbins and Ed Gale to actually fly the plane.[4] The location scout was stumped for a location for the Ultralight sequence; after she described what she was looking for, a telephone repairman working in her office in San Francisco suggested Petaluma for the scene. Because of the limited shooting time, a third unit was hired to speed up the filming process.[9] The climax was shot in a naval installation in San Francisco, where conditions were cold throughout the shoot.[4] The film cost an estimated $36 million to produce.[2]

Though Gerber's schedule generally prevented him from being present during shooting, he chose to miss the deadline on the first issue of The Spectre so that he could watch the final day of shooting.[6]


Huyck and Katz began to develop ideas for the film. Early on in the production, it was decided that the personality of the character would be changed from that of the comics, in which Howard was rude and obnoxious, in order to make the character nicer.[10] Gerber read over the script and offered his comments and suggestions. In addition, Hyuck and Katz met with Gerber to discuss a horror sequence that they were having difficulty with.[6]

During the screenwriting process, a stronger emphasis was placed on special effects, rather than satire and story.[10] Overall, the tone of the film is in diametric opposition to the comics. Whereas Katz declared that "It's a film about a duck from outer space... It's not supposed to be an existential experience... We're supposed to have fun with this concept, but for some reason reviewers weren't able to get over that problem."[11] Gerber declared that the comic book series' was an existental joke, stating "'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."[12] However, after shooting was finished, Gerber stated that he felt the film was faithful to both the spirit of the comic book and the characters of Howard and Beverly.[6]

An early proposed storyline involved the character being transported to Hawaii. Huyck states that this storyline was considered because "we thought it would be sort of fun to shoot there". According to Katz, they did not want to explain how Howard arrived on Earth initially, but later rewrote the screenplay so that the film would begin on Howard's home world.[13] Huyck and Katz wanted to incorporate both lighter, humorous elements and darker, suspenseful elements. Katz states that some readers were confused by the sexual elements of the screenplay, as they were unsure as to whether the film was intended for adults or children. Huyck and Katz wrote the ending leaving the story open for a sequel, which was never produced.[4]


The film was originally intended to be animated based on the character created by Steve Gerber and quoting scripts by Bill Mantlo. In particular, the "Duckworld" story of Howard the Duck magazine #6 was to serve as a basis for the script. A contractual obligation required Lucas to provide a distributor with a live action film, so he decided to make the film using live actors and to use special effects for Howard.

The script significantly altered the personality of the title character, played the story straight instead of as a satire, removed the surrealist elements, and added supernatural elements that could highlight special effects work done by Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic.

The film itself was adapted into comic book format by writer Danny Fingeroth and artist Kyle Baker for Marvel Comics. The adaptation appeared in both Marvel Super Special #41[14] and in a three-issue limited series.[15]

Special effects

Lucasfilm built animatronic suits, costumes and puppets for the film. Because of the limited preparation time, varied "ducks" created for the film would explode or lose feathers, and multiple ducks were built with the wrong proportions. On the first day of shooting, the crew realized the poor quality of the effects when they found that the inside of the puppet's neck was visible when its mouth opened. Huyck repeatedly reshot scenes involving Howard as the animatronics were improved. Because multiple puppeteers were in charge of controlling different parts of the animatronic body, Huyck was unable to coordinate the shoot properly. In the opening sequence, Howard's chair is propelled out of his apartment by wires, which were later digitally erased by computer, an effect that was uncommon in 1986. The effect of the feathers on Howard's head becoming erect during the love sequence took months to prepare.[4]

The voice of Howard, Chip Zien, was not cast until after shooting completed. Because Ed Gale's voice was difficult to hear when he wore his suit, Huyck ordered Gale to perform his scenes without speaking any of the required dialogue, which was later synchronized during the editing process.[4][9] Lead puppeteer Tim Rose was given a microphone attached to a small speaker, which would allow Rose to speak the dialogue in order to help the actors respond to Howard's dialogue.[9] While wearing his suit, Gale could only see through Howard's mouth, and had to sense his location without proper eyesight. Gale often had to walk backwards before beginning rehearsals.[9] In between takes, a hair dryer was stuffed in Howard's bill in order to keep Gale cool.[4] Gale taped two of his fingers together in order to wear the three-fingered hands created for the Howard costume.[16] A total of six actors gave physical performances as Howard.[17]

Gerber was impressed by the appearance of Howard, and commented, "It was very bizarre to meet it and ... realize not just that I created it - that would have been bizarre enough... you know, it was sort of like meeting a child I didn't know I had ..."[6]

Makeup artists Tom Burman and Bari Dreiband-Burman and actor Jeffrey Jones discussed the appearance of the Dark Overlord character with Huyck and Katz, and developed the character's progressing looks. When Katz's daughter visited the set during the shoot, she was terrified by Jones' appearance in makeup. The diner sequence combines practical effects, including squibs and air cannons, with visual effects created by ILM.[4] Sound designer Ben Burtt created the voice of the Dark Overlord by altering Jeffrey Jones' voice as his character transformed.[18] Stop motion effects during the climax were designed by Phil Tippett, who began with a clay model before upgrading to more sophisticated pieces.[4]


After auditioning a number of actresses, singers and models for the role of Beverly, Lea Thompson was cast in the role, because of her appearance in Back to the Future.[4] Thompson purchased clothing from thrift stores because she wanted to appear at the audition as "a cross between Madonna and Cyndi Lauper." During the shoot, Thompson complained that the filmmakers chose to shoot Howard's closeup before hers. Thompson also states that she regrets not wearing a wig, as her hairstyle took two hours a day to prepare.[9] Jeffrey Jones was cast because of his performance in Amadeus. Although Tim Robbins had not appeared in many films, Huyck and Katz were confident that he was right for the part.[4]

In order to play the physical role of Howard, Huyck and Katz held casting calls with dwarf actors, eventually casting a child actor and hiring Ed Gale, who had been rejected because he was too tall for the role, to perform stunts and portray the role during evening shoots.[9] The child actor found the shooting conditions to be too difficult to handle,[4] and the film's editors were unable to match day and evening sequences because of the difference in the two portrayals.[9] Because Gale also served as an understudy, he took over the role.[4][9]

After the film was completed, Huyck and Katz auditioned John Cusack and Martin Short for the voice of Howard, eventually casting Chip Zien, because they felt his gravelly voice worked well for the part.[18] Because Howard's voice was not cast until the film had begun editing, synchronization was extremely difficult.[18]


The film's score was written by John Barry. Thomas Dolby wrote the film's songs, and chose the members of Cherry Bomb.[4] Actress Lea Thompson performed her own singing for the role, although she states that the filmmakers were unsure as to whether they would keep her vocals in the final film. Thompson was required to learn choreography with the band and record the songs so that they could be synchronized during filming.[9] The final sequence, in which Cherry Bomb performs the film's title song, was shot in front of a live audience in an auditorium in San Francisco. The song was co-written by Dolby and George Clinton.[4] Gale was choreographed to dance and play guitar as Howard. Dolby built a special guitar for Gale to rehearse and film with.[9]


Critical response

File:Howard the Duck screenshot.jpg
The six actors who gave physical performances as Howard received a Golden Raspberry Award for "Worst New Star".[17] The appearance of Howard was generally seen as being unconvincing.[19][20]

Howard the Duck received overwhelmingly negative reviews from critics. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 14%, based on 43 reviews, which makes it the lowest-rated Lucasfilm production. The site's consensus states: "While it has its moments, Howard the Duck suffers from an uneven tone and mediocre performances."[21] Orange Coast Magazine writer Marc Weinberg and Leonard Maltin criticized the decision to shoot the film in live action.[22][23] Maltin described the film as a "hopeless mess ... a gargantuan production which produces a gargantuan headache".[23] The appearance of Howard was criticized as being unconvincing due to his poorly functioning mouth, drunkenness, pervertedness, and expressionless face. Reviewers also criticized the acting and humor and found the film boring.[19][20] In The Psychotronic Video Guide, Michael Weldon described the reactions to Howard as being inconsistent, and that "It was obviously made in LA and suffers from long, boring chase scenes", but praised the stop-motion special effects in the film's final sequences.[24] The film received seven Golden Raspberry Award nominations in 1987 including Worst Supporting Actor (Tim Robbins), Worst Director and Worst Original Song ("Howard the Duck"). It won four trophies for Worst Screenplay, Worst New Star ("the six guys and gals in the duck suit"), Worst Visual Effects, and Worst Picture, tied with Under the Cherry Moon.[17] The movie also won a Stinkers Bad Movie Awards for Worst Picture.[25]

Box office

The film was considered a Box office bomb, grossing $16,295,774 in the United States and $21,667,000 worldwide for a total of $37,962,774, just under $1 million above the production budget.[3] When the film was screened for Universal, Katz said that the studio's executives left without commenting on the film.[18] Screenings for test audiences were met with mixed response.[18] Rumors suggested that Universal production heads Frank Price and Sidney Sheinberg engaged in a fistfight after arguing over who was to blame for green-lighting the film. Both executives denied the rumors.[2][8] News reports speculated that one or both would be fired by MCA chairman Lew Wasserman.[2] Price soon left the studio, and was succeeded by Tom Pollack. The September 17, 1986 issue of Variety attributed Price's departure to the failure of the film, even though he had not approved the film's production.[8] Following the film's failure, Huyck and Katz left for Hawaii and refused to read reviews of the film.[18]

In 2014, the LA Times listed the film as one of the costliest box office flops of all time.[26]


The negative reaction to the film had a difficult effect on the cast, who found themselves unable to work on other projects because of the film.[16] However, Thompson and Robbins have had successful acting careers since then, with Robbins winning an Academy Award for his performance in 2003's Mystic River. Jones had a moderate career following the film, being featured prominently in films such as Beetlejuice, Mom and Dad Save the World, Ed Wood, and The Devil's Advocate. Zien found fame on Broadway, starring in the original cast of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.

According to Ed Gale, he was hired to work on Spaceballs because Mel Brooks had said, "Anybody who's in Howard the Duck can be in my movie." Gale also said he receives more fan mail for his Howard the Duck portrayal than for his Chucky performances, the antagonist in the Child's Play horror film series.[16] After the film's release, Huyck and Katz chose to work on more dramatic projects in order to separate themselves from Howard the Duck.[16] Katz said Lucas continued to support the film after its failure, because he felt it would later be seen in a better light than it had been at the time of its release.[16] Huyck said he later encountered fans and supporters of the film who felt that it had been unfairly treated by critics.[16]

In June 2012, the YouTube series Marvel Super Heroes: What The--?! featured an episode starring Howard the Duck complaining to Marvel that his movie was not given a special Blu-ray re-release to celebrate its 25th anniversary. He eventually gets Joe Quesada to try and appeal to, and bribe, George Lucas into supporting the re-release.[27]

See also

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  1. ^ "HOWARD...A NEW BREED OF HERO (PG) (!)". British Board of Film Classification. October 28, 1986. Retrieved April 12, 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c d Matthews, Jack (1998). The Battle of Brazil. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 158. ISBN 1-55783-347-8. 
  3. ^ a b "Howard the Duck (1986)". Box Office Mojo. 1988-07-05. Retrieved 2014-03-17. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Huyck, Willard; Katz, Gloria (2009). "A Look Back at Howard the Duck". Howard the Duck (DVD (extra)). Universal Home Video. UPC-A 025195052306. 
  5. ^ Shone, Tom (2004). Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Summer. Simon and Schuster. p. 136. ISBN 0-7432-3568-1. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Zimmerman, Dwight Jon (September 1986). "Steve Gerber (part 2)". Comics Interview (38) (Fictioneer Books). pp. 6–19. 
  7. ^ Sharp, Kathleen (2004). "Safeguarding the Legacy: 1981–2002". Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire. Carroll & Graf Publishers. p. 451. ISBN 0-7867-1419-0. 
  8. ^ a b c Dick, Bernard F. (1997). "In the Embrace of the Octopus". City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures. University Press of Kentucky. p. 178. ISBN 0-8131-2016-0. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Thompson, Lea; Jones, Jeffry; Gale, Ed (2009). "A Look Back at Howard the Duck". Howard the Duck (DVD (extra)). Universal Home Video. UPC-A 025195052306. 
  10. ^ a b Tom, Stempel (2000). "Alumni". Framework: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film. Syracuse University Press. p. 207. ISBN 0-8156-0654-0. 
  11. ^ Paul Brian McCoy. "F.O.O.M. (Flashbacks of Ol' Marvel) #13: "If It Ain't Funk He Don't Feel It: Howard the Duck (1986)"". Comics Bulletin. Retrieved June 18, 2010. 
  12. ^ Mediascene #25.
  13. ^ Zimmerman, Dwight Jon (September 1986). "Gloria Katz". Comics Interview (38) (Fictioneer Books). pp. 50–55. 
  14. ^ Marvel Super Special #41 at the Grand Comics Database
  15. ^ Howard the Duck: The Movie at the Grand Comics Database
  16. ^ a b c d e f Thompson, Lea; Jones, Jeffry; Gale, Ed (2009). "Releasing the Duck". Howard the Duck (DVD (extra)). Universal Home Video. UPC-A 025195052306. 
  17. ^ a b c Wilson, John. "1986 Archive". Golden Raspberry Award. Retrieved October 11, 2009. 
  18. ^ a b c d e f Huyck, Willard; Katz, Gloria (2009). "Releasing the Duck". Howard the Duck (DVD (extra)). Universal Home Video. UPC-A 025195052306. 
  19. ^ a b Stanley, John (2000). Creature Features: The Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Movie Guide. Berkley Boulevard Books. p. 253. ISBN 0-425-17517-0. For one, the duck costume and makeup are phony — Howard looks like a midget in a Halloween costume. 
  20. ^ a b Hunter, Lew (2004). "Nothing in the Mind, Please". Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434: The Industry's Premier Teacher Reveals the Secrets of the Successful Screenplay. Perigee. p. 21. ISBN 0-399-52986-1. Because we all know what a duck looks like, Lucas could not get an audience to suspend their belief that Howard was a little person in a duck suit. 
  21. ^ "Howard the Duck (1986)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 6, 2009. 
  22. ^ Weinberg, Marc (September 1986). "Out-Foxed". Orange Coast Magazine 12 (9): 143–144. 
  23. ^ a b Maltin, Leonard (2008). "H". Leonard Maltin's 2009 Movie Guide. Penguin Group. p. 641. ISBN 0-452-28978-5. 
  24. ^ Weldon, Michael (1996). "H". The Psychotronic Video Guide. 0312131496. p. 277. ISBN 0-312-13149-6. 
  25. ^ "1986 9th Hastings Bad Cinema Society Stinkers Awards". Stinkers Bad Movie Awards. Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 2006-10-17. Retrieved April 2, 2013. 
  26. ^ Eller, Claudia,"The costliest box office flops of all time", Los Angeles Times (January 15, 2014)
  27. ^

External links

Preceded by
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Razzie Award for Worst Picture

(tied with Under the Cherry Moon)
7th Golden Raspberry Awards

Succeeded by
Leonard Part 6