The late Robin Williams made his starring film debut in Malta

The late Robin Williams made his starring film debut in Malta

“…we’re there on Malta, which is a very small island between Italy and North Africa…filming what turned out to be a pretty crazy experience.”

That is how the late and regretted comic genius remembered the time he filmed his first major role in Popeye (1980), as the stuttering, spinach-fueled sailor with “pappy” issues. Before the established director, Robert Altman, decided to give him the starring role in this musical comedy, Williams had played eccentric comical characters in TV series, the most notorious of them being the easily confused extraterrestrial Monk, in Monk and Mindy (1978).

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Altman and the producers decided that the only way they could recreate the shanty atmosphere of the cartoon series, was to find a suitable and unaltered location. They found it on the northwestern shore of Malta, in Anchor Bay, a sheltered strip of sand and rocks not too far from the old town of Mellieha. They proceeded to build a film set that devoured huge sums of money and left the production in shambles by the end of the filming period.

They started building a small town from scratch, with tree trunk logs that were brought from The Netherlands and even as far as Canada. The construction crew numbered no less than 165 workers of various nationalities. They needed over eight tons of nails and other apparel, as well as almost ten tons of paint to bring to life the original homes of Bluto and Olive. To ease the access to the set, a new road had to be constructed as a lead to Anchor Bay. In addition, the set had to be protected against the stormy waves of the sea, so a breakwater was placed at its mouth, where they also sunk several boats on purpose, to add to the accuracy of a small forgotten bay town.

Today, constructing such a mammoth-scale film set is considered expensive and futile, as with the help of computer-generated images, any landscape can be virtually created to suit the action of the movie. In 1980, the end result was the fictional village of Sweethaven, comprising of 19 houses, including a small hotel, a church, a school and a tavern.

The movie itself has a parody take to the original 1929 cartoon by E.C. Segar, mixing farcical scenes with inspired musical innuendos, the work of composer Harry Nilsson. The most recognizable theme from the movie remains to this day, the song performed by Robin Williams’ character: “I am what I am”. In fact, Williams’ performance was one of the few that aimed as high as the initial comical setting required. This role and the collaboration with Robert Altman helped the much-regretted actor to move on from television and on to the big screen where he delighted audiences for the next 34 years.

Robin Williams portraying Popeye

Robin Williams portraying Popeye

Although the movie producers were optimistic with this adaptation and the crew and actors enjoyed their time on the island, the movie flopped at the box office and failed to win many admirers. The main beneficiary of this whole enterprise proved to be Malta itself. The small island decided to keep the set and transform it into a touristic themed park and open-air museum, which attracts over a hundred thousand visitors every year.

Nowadays, the Popeye Village has its gates open all year round, welcoming tourists with fun activities that include reenactments of scenes from the movie, boat rides, carnivals, water trampolines and puppet shows. The adults can enjoy a session of mini golf and a wine tasting exposition, while the kids can take part in creative and educational games conducted by the organizers. Special events like Christmas, Easter or Halloween are celebrated with respective themed parties and are a major attraction especially for the children.

Popeye Village

Popeye Village

You can reach the Popeye Village, in Anchor Bay, by taking the 222 bus from Sliema or you can take the Popeye Express tour directly from your hotel, for a higher fee, and after you make a reservation with the organizers.

What started as a bold initiative from the Paramount producers and a fruitful collaboration between Robert Altman and Robin Williams, ended in a priceless piece of heritage for “the very small island between Italy and North Africa.” Today, Malta protects it and shares it with the rest of the world, not only for the movie lovers, but also as a tribute to the hearty sailor, Popeye, and to the memorable legend, Robin Williams.

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