At Olive and Bluto's engagement party a man can be heard complaining about Olive getting married. This man is Ham Gravy, who was Olive's fiancé in the "Thimble Theater" comics before he was written out and Popeye took his place.
Everyone tried to dissuade Robert Altman from working with Harry Nilsson, saying that he would be constantly drunk. Only Robin Williams supported him in this decision. As it turned out, Altman found Nilsson to be delightful to work with.
An international construction crew of 165 worked seven months to construct the set. Tree trunk logs were driven across the European continent from the Netherlands, and wood shingles were imported all the way from Canada. Eight tons (7,257 kilograms) of nails and 2,000 gallons (7,571 liters) of paint were used to complete the set. When they finished, the fictional village of Sweet Haven consisted of 19 buildings, including a hotel, a schoolhouse, a store, a post office, a church, and a tavern.
Paramount green-lit this film after losing a bidding war with Columbia for the screen rights to the musical Annie (1982). When producer Robert Evans found out that Paramount had lost the bidding for "Annie", he held an executive meeting in which he asked about comic strip characters that they had the rights to, that could also be used in order to create a movie musical, and one attendee recommended Popeye.
Jules Feiffer's script originally included Popeye's magical pet Eugene the Jeep. Though the Jeep was ultimately left out, Feiffer gave some of its magical characteristics to Swee' Pea, hence the baby's apparent clairvoyance.
Harry Nilsson took a break in the middle of production of his album "Flash Harry" to create the music for this movie. He wrote all of the original songs and co-produced the music with producer Bruce Robb at Cherokee Studios.
In the 1940s William Hanna and Joseph Barbara were working at MGM, their main goal was to beat Walt Disney with family animation. Four decades later, Hanna-Barbara animated the Paramount opening intro for this film, thus working for a Disney co-produced film.
This was not only the first joint production between Paramount and the Walt Disney Company, it was also the first time Disney had co-produced a film with another major studio. In the following years, most Disney/Paramount joint productions would involve Disney's Touchstone and Miramax brands rather than the flagship Walt Disney Pictures label.
This film ended Paramount's involvement in the "Popeye" franchise, having released the 1933-57 animated cartoons, and outsourced production on some of the 1960s TV cartoons from King Features. In 2012, Paramount licensed US/Canadian home video rights to much of its catalog to Warner Bros., and this film was among the titles that were licensed to them. Warner Bros. has owned the Fleischer/Famous "Popeye" cartoons outright since 1996.
Released the same month as another film adaptation of an American comic strip icon, "Flash Gordon" (which had premiered December 5, 1980). Ironically, both films were poorly received in the U.S. at the time, although later considered cult classics.
After so many other directors had said no, Robert Altman said he wanted to make the film, loved the script, and wouldn't change a word. "I laughed when Evans reported this to me," Feiffer wrote in his memoir. "I was a friend of Altman's and a fan. As a fan I knew what was coming. ... Altman didn't didn't believe in scripts except as a necessary evil to get films financed. He didn't much believe in words, he didn't care if you heard the dialogue or not. And he didn't believe in story. But I could imagine no one better to give credibility to Segar's outlandish creations on-screen."
Screenwriter Jules Feiffer asserts that while Dustin Hoffman was attached to the project, he tried to get Robert Evans to fire Feiffer, but even though he was good friends with the actor, the producer refused. "This is not done in Hollywood," Feiffer writes, knowing the project would lose its financing as soon as Hoffman stepped away.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
While it may seem odd to most fans that the movie's portrayal of Popeye does not like spinach, this was a theme used in the original comic strip by E.C. Segar. Popeye originally boosted his strength by rubbing the hairs on the head of a magical Whiffle Hen called Bernice when he first began appearing in Segar's "Thimble Theatre" in 1929. The consumption of spinach to explain Popeye's strength was introduced in the early 1930s, and was only infrequently referenced until it became a staple of the 1930s animated shorts from Paramount Studios and Fleischer Studios.
During filming the scene at the end where Pappy throws Popeye the can of spinach, Ray Walston hit Robin Williams in the head so hard that he required several stitches in his scalp and got filming delayed for several weeks.