Williams on his experience in Malta

Robin Williams (1951-2014) from his four years of work on Mork and Mindy was provided a large amount of public exposure, which of course his name became a household word. As his television run went on Robin started to look for something more demanding.

‘In Hollywood,they see me and say, “Brilliant!” instead of “Hello!” You lose perspective. It’s salvation to get out of America and see myself from another point of view.’

It was in the late 1970s that Williams was casted to play Popeye in his  feature film debut Popeye. Robert Altman directed and produced this film. Popeye was not shot in Hollywood or on location nearby, which was commonly done. Instead, Altman leased a piece of land in Malta, and spent four and a half months with a crew of 165 workers, designing and building a village, where the action would take place.

Williams arrived in Malta in the spring of 1980. According to Jay David, he felt that he had been rescued from an imminent disaster as Mork and Mindy was in a slump after only one year of success. ‘In Hollywood,’ Robin said, “they see me and say, “Brilliant!” instead of “Hello!” You lose perspective. It’s salvation to get out of America and see myself from another point of view.’

Williams worked hard to get Popeye’s diction and took research seriously.

When I was training for Popeye, I thought this is it. This is my Superman. I also had the dream of getting up and thanking the Academy, but I got beyond the ‘this-is-it’ stage as we started shooting. After the first day on Popeye I thought, “Well, maybe this isn’t it”, and I finally wound up going, “Oh God, when this going to be over?”’

Andy Dougan writes that filming Popeye was a miserable experience for everyone concerned. The cast spent for six months in a place which Williams describes as ‘San Quentin on Valium’. The cast and crew lived in a place compounded with wire fences and guards on the gates because Paramount were concerned with security.

We were there for six months, working six days a week, and soon after we got to Malta it started raining and hardly ever stopped. That stretched out shooting schedule, and we would just sit there for days, going bats and feeling trapped…there are no great entertainment centres on Malta, and on weekends we used to drink. They had this very strange wine available on the island; cabernet muck…When the English had a naval base on Malta, they built a few pubs which are still there. We’d visit them on Saturday nights and get a little loaded and then sleep all day Sunday and go back to the grind on Monday.’

Robin also recalls that the physical demands were enormous. Transforming him into Popeye took 90 minutes in the make-up chair every day, after which the inflated muscular fore-arms would be applied.

They tied me off almost like a junkie. In some of the fight scenes I’d lose all the circulation in my arms and they’d lock up. I’d ask for a little blood and they’d untie me and say “Relax, Robin. Relax.” Once the circulation got going they’d tie up my arms again so I could fight for another half-hour. It was very strange and very strenuous.’



David, Jay (2000) “The Life and Humour of Robin Williams”, Bill Adler Books

Dougan, Andy (1998) “Robin Williams”, Thunder’s Month Press.