George Lucas Finds a Fowl-Weather Friend

From the world of comic books comes 'Howard the Duck'

george lucas howard t duck
©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection
Howard the Duck
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It looked like a normal concert. On the stage of San Francisco's Warfield Theatre, four women in black spandex and gold baubles tore into their encore, while a crowd of decked-out New Wavers danced and a guest guitarist slid into a solo and a duck walk. Normal, except the guy doing the duck walk had lots of practice. Because he was a duck.

More precisely, he was Howard the Duck, a cigar-chomping and grouchy but well-dressed fowl from outer space who, this month, gets his chance to be an earthly movie star courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd. A decade ago Howard was a cult duck who numbered George Lucas among his fans, but today he faces two mallard-size tasks: onscreen he's supposed to save the earth; offscreen he's supposed to help save Lucasfilm.

Tall orders for a duck who stands just thirty-seven inches high – but then, Howard has been facing formidable foes since the mid-Seventies, when he threw the world of big-time comics for a loop. At a time when Marvel Comics' reigning stars were predictable, kid-stuff superheroes like Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk and Captain America, Howard was a bird of a different feather. He was created by Steve Gerber, who was writing a horror comic featuring a swamp monster called Man Thing while driven to distraction by a neighbor with an enormously loud stereo and a single salsa record. ("I swear I went into a trance or something," Gerber says.) Gerber put a talking duck in Man Thing's swamp, and the Marvel editor had a single comment: "Very funny. Kill him off immediately."

Instead, public demand won Howard his own comic, and Gerber dragged Marvel into social commentary, political satire, surrealism and lengthy philosophical discussions. These areas were once the exclusive province of underground comics, but Howard delved into them via an existentialist, Groucho Marxist duck "trapped in a world he never made" (Cleveland, to be precise). "Howard is an alien perspective on the human condition," says Gerber. "That takes in politics, social satire, all those things."

His rivals included a bag lady convinced he was after her kidneys and an evil bookkeeper lusting to be Chief Accountant of the Universe. In one episode, a brooding Howard had a nightmare, woke up, realized he'd only dreamed he'd awakened, woke up again and found he was still trapped in the dream. Howard wandered through increasingly bizarre, twisted and adult territory – and then you'd turn the page and find yourself in the usual Marvel Comics terrain: an ad offering 100 toy soldiers for $1.50.

The comic was at its oddball best for the first two dozen issues, until Marvel fired Gerber during a dispute over a Howard newspaper strip. (In court, Marvel later won the rights to the character and Gerber won a settlement he can't talk about but says he's happy with.) In those early issues, Howard lived up to his own self-description: "an irascible, somewhat high-strung but eminently likable duck."

Readers liked him, among them comic aficionado George Lucas; the screenwriting-producing-directing team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (who wrote American Graffiti and wrote and directed Best Defense) liked him enough to secure film rights; and on the set in San Francisco recently, even the poseurs and punkers at the Warfield liked him. Recruited by way of local radio ads, they booed mentions of Bruce Springsteen and Yoko Ono but cheered mightily when Howard waddled out.

"It's really hip in a strange way – so strange but so mainstream at the same time," says Lea Thompson, who stars as a struggling rock singer who befriends Howard. She says she had a similar feeling while making Back to the Future, in which she plays Michael J. Fox's mother.

Howard's new home is a cavernous sound stage in a San Francisco Bay warehouse district. That's where you'll find Duck World, which includes a little record store with albums by the Migrators and Ugly Duckling and a little beauty salon – sorry, feather salon – decorated with photos of elaborately coiffed ducks.

Then there's Howard's apartment. A little coffee table in front of a little rattan couch. A little piano with little pictures of Mom and Dad Duck on top. Little books and records. A little stereo. Little copies of Playduck, DQ and Rolling Egg. A little refrigerator stocked with a little TV dinner, a box of cigars and two dozen little bottles of Birdweiser beer. Howard calls it home, and thanks to the film's art department and the Lucasfilm coffers, it's so charming it's downright creepy.

They're spending the time and money on sets that'll only be seen for five minutes because Howard the Duck is crucial for Lucasfilm, even though it was developed by Huyck and Katz and only later brought to Lucas. While Lucas was building his lavish Skywalker Ranch complex in northern California, his production of films was sporadic, and none was as successful as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies that financed the nearly 5000-acre complex, which he says cost $50 million. (Other estimates suggest it may have cost twice that.) Even sales of Lucas's once lucrative line of Star Wars toys have slumped; earlier this year he sold some divisions of Lucasfilm and reportedly laid off two dozen employees. He could use a blockbuster, and Labyrinth won't be it. That leaves Howard.

Lucas apparently wasn't a constant presence on the set "Lucas has to allow his producer and director their freedom, and he's very good at that," says one Howard insider cautiously. A long pause. "But when artistic decisions are made . . . well, he's very much involved."

The Huyck and Katz script is "corny and cute and wicked and sadistic and black," according to actor Jeffrey Jones (the high-school principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the bad guy in Howard). It finds Howard catapulted to Cleveland through a hole in space, followed by a galactic Dark Overlord who'd love to bring along his Dark Overlord pals. Howard – who spends the first half of the movie coping with what he thinks is a disagreeable planet – winds up in what Huyck calls "an odd dilemma: earth's never done anything for him, and yet here he is, the only one who can save it."

Early on, Huyck and Katz decided that Howard would be an actual being – figuring, in Huyck's words, "it's too hard to relate to a leading man who's animated." So instead of a cartoon, he's a secret: no photos until the movie's out, no descriptions of Howard from the few reporters allowed on the set "That's standard operating procedure at Lucasfilm," says Huyck. "In my mind it's not like E.T. or anything. You can figure Howard the Duck is gonna look like a duck."

But what about his personality, which in the comics was alternately rude tempered and philosophical? Huyck and Katz say their Howard isn't as mean spirited as his comic counterpart, but neither do they want to make him too adorable. "Steve Spielberg was petrified that E.T. would be too scary," says Huyck. "We have the opposite problem: we want to make Howard tough enough that he's not too cute."

So they've made him "a pretty cantankerous duck," says Thompson, who has a love scene – albeit a weird one – with Howard. "He's always getting himself into trouble with his big beak, but he's really a knight in shining feathers." Adds Jones, "He's definitely pissed off to be here. He's not very impressed with human beings, he has a short fuse, and he's not about to take any shit from anybody."

As for the often surreal tone of Gerber's books, Huyck says they tried to ground things a little more in "movie reality," keeping in mind that the whole project was odd.

"We'd think things like 'Should we have a mock-heroic theme for Howard?' " laughs Katz. "And then we'd think, 'What are we talking mock-heroic? We have a duck.' "

In adapting the comic books, Huyck and Katz even won a fan in Gerber, who says, "Oddly enough – and this was an incredibly pleasant surprise – I think Willard and Gloria came closer, certainly, than any of the other comic-book writers to capturing the flavor of the character." That's the crucial trick – capturing Howard persuasively enough so that once the audience figures out how it's done (which won't take long), they'll see a cranky interstellar waterfowl, not an ingenious creation given life by those amazing Lucasfilmers.

Actor Tim Robbins, who plays a hyperactive lab assistant, thinks the filmmakers succeeded: "About three weeks into shooting, I realized how much of a person Howard had become," he says. "He ran into something and got a hole in his beak, and I thought, 'Oh, shit! Get a medic!' "

So Howard, in the end, is simply Howard. He walks, he talks, he gripes, he flirts. He even does interviews. Not in person, mind you – but written questions were answered in time for a reporter's visit to the production offices.

His answers suggest Howard's not about to hang out with Hollywood's Duck Pack. "When I came to earth and initially saw these 'funny animal' comix, I was appalled," he says of Donald and Daffy and Scrooge McDuck. "These cartoons are full of fowl aspersions. These characters are an unfair and biased representation of ducks. All I can say is nobody compromises my dignity, dresses me funny and lives!"

What, then, of the rumors that Howard has been dallying with Donald's girlfriend, Daisy Duck?

"This is a sad commentary on contemporary journalism," Howard begins, in a transparent attempt to deflect attention from the public's right to know what's up, duck. Then he issues the oldest denial in the book: "Daisy is a close personal friend. That's it. We've gone to a few movies, some gallery openings, a couple of restaurants, shared some laughs – but nothing more."

And Lea? "Lea Thompson is a great actress and a real lady. Just because she looks human, she doesn't behave like one. When she first met me, she did not scream, she did not look down upon me condescendingly like I was the main course at a banquet. She treated me as an equal."

Then the duck gets testy. "But the gossip items linking me with Ms. Thompson are the grossest exaggerations. We starred in a major motion picture together. We toiled together as artists. It's as simple as that. What happened after hours is nobody's goddamned business."

So now that ducky's gone to Hollywood, what happens if he's a hit? The cast seems eager to do sequels (and some are contractually bound to do them): Tim Robbins wants the next movie to be based on Howard's comic-book battle with the Deadly Space Turnip; Lea wants to see her character in Duck World; Willard Huyck wants to shoot it somewhere warm and sunny, like Hawaii. Even Steve Gerber – who repeatedly says he has no interest in the movie business – would like to try his hand at a script. (He'd really like to return to the comic, but he says he can't work with Marvel's conservative regime  –  "the one sour note in this whole experience.")

As for Howard, he's preparing for stardom on his own terms. "The market is foaming at the mouth to offer a talking duck up to the media-blitzed public," he says. "But I ain't playing along. All right, I do have an agent, Michael Ovitz, one of the most powerful hairless apes in showbiz, but he was the first to say to me, 'Howard, I do not want to exploit your duckness. It's cheap, it's gaudy, it's undignified. I am going to find you nonduck roles. The Robert Redford roles, the Bobby De Niro parts you can sink your bill into.'

"That's what I'm doing now, reading scripts, talking with directors. Reminds me, I've got to return Marty Scorsese's call . . . "

This story is from the August 14th, 1986 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 480: August 14, 1986
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