The set of “Popeye” has been painted as chaotic. In Robert Evans’ memoir he discusses his own criminal mischief that was peripheral to the production. What was your experience of it?
I’ve been speaking about this movie for its anniversary and I’ll always say, I never saw chaos. Through five sets and five films with Altman, I never saw chaos. What they might describe as chaos I called spontaneity. And freedom. And the ability to try things and do spur of the moment things. It was always a big fun party. He started with every actor there on the first day of the film to the last. Which had never been my experience of a movie, you know. Because you generally are on call for a couple of days, or a week, or what have you. Bob wanted to keep everybody there for the whole time. Because he wanted that festive collegial summer theater, summer camp feeling around. Because, he said, if he were to do it in the traditional way, “I may want to put you in something next week and you won’t be here.” So he’d sometimes say, “Come on set tomorrow, I want you for this scene.” And you’d look at the scene and say, “I don’t have any dialogue.” And he’d say, “Doesn’t matter, we’ll come up with something.” The chaos might come from the studio, which didn’t like his methods, sometimes. Bob told me that when he did television, for the first few years, he was fired from every show for having a muddy soundtrack. Because he wanted to have it sound like a real conversation, with real people. And it was always too muddy for the studios, who wanted every line to be clean. But Bob felt that’s not what real life was like. And that was a hall mark of how his actors work.
What about the musical aspect? The movie’s songs by Harry Nilsson are really charming.
I did have a song as Wimpy but in the process of editing they lost the song. The other day someone told me they knew how to find it, and I’d like to find it and listen to it. It’s about Wimpy being a con man, which he is. After all, he sold Swee’ Pea for a bag of hamburgers.
I had one fear doing Wimpy: I didn’t want to look like Oliver Hardy. I was a fat man with a small mustache and a derby. And I love Oliver Hardy but I did not want to look like him here. Because I could never be him. I wanted to be different and it worked out fine.
Kubrick was a very exacting guy. She told me about him directing Scatman Crothers, how he did 70 takes of a guy in his 70s. And it wasn’t even a line of dialogue. It was a long shot, of him walking toward the camera, and doing little bits of business. And Crothers had to do it for two days. Very, very exacting director.
Shelley was discovered by Bob, she had never been on the stage or on television. He found her down in Texas, in preproduction for “Brewster McCloud.” She was a tour guide in a museum. And he was very struck by her look. Big eyes, long neck; something very elegant about her looks. And in the right light she could look kind of beautiful but in a different light she could look strange. She told me that when she was in middle school the other kids used to call her Olive Oyl, so this was very apt casting, It was meant to be. She was more perfectly suited than Robin was, only because nobody had ever looked like Popeye, with his great big jaw and his bulging arms. And she did a great job.