How I Made Popeye’s Arms

told by Romolo Felice (sculpture ad special effects)

It was of 1980 and Walt Disney with Paramount were producing a film directed by Robert Altman about Popeye which in Italy we call Braccio di Ferro.

They had already set up a big set in Malta, in Mellieha to be exact, many of my colleagues from Cinecittà had left weeks before to work on the scenery of the village that still exists today as a tourist attraction, I preferred to stay in Rome because I had so much work and commissions at my Workshop. Anyway here in Rome I made numerous resin sketches of rocks, icebergs, marine elements, with various effects and aesthetic finishes that I sent to Malta where they would make the enlargements to complete the sets. Filming had already begun, but Robin Williams who played as Popeye the Sailor Man was unable to act with the silicone arms they had made for him. They were stiff, heavy, impossible to manage with casual and natural movements. The director hated them in fact in the first sequences Robin Williams wears a trench coat to cover them. I was in Rome at that time and I was working on a bodycast on an actress for the masters of special effects Rocchetti and Carboni with whom I had been collaborating for a long time on many films. That week they asked me to finish the work very quickly because they urgently needed to the help the production designer on the film Popeye.

So, they commissioned me to make new arms for Popeye-Robin Williams already modeled in clay by our sculptor here in Rome. 

There were a series of problems and difficulties to be solved, the arms had to looks very real, allowing natural movements, then you had to insert the nails and hair but last but not least they had to be worn like gloves and have a huge mass of muscles on the forearms with a real texture of the body and skin color.

In 1980, forty years ago, I did not have the great availability of performing materials and specific rubber silicon as we have today. So I had to solve this series of difficulties adopting the materials I usually used, but above all they didn’t give me enough time. I had to work really fast.

I adopted a series of technical measures also at the first time of manufacturing the mold. I made it whole in a single piece, to avoid any sign of joining of the parts.

To make the arms I used latex, instead of the silicon rubber they used for the first unsuccessful ones, and I poured it inside the mold. The biggest problem with latex is due to very slow drying, especially in the absence of air. So I made small holes inside the mold at the fingertips, to let the latex flow out, thus obtaining thin layers and from which I introduced air to obtain faster drying. To have the right texture of the skin and muscles, I poured the reduced fiberglass into the mold into chopped and thin needles which I then emptied. In this way the fiber remained attached to the latex only in the right quantity and then I continued to pour other layers of latex until I reached the desired thickness and consistency.

On the finished and very dry arms, at Rocchetti and Carboni’s provided a realistic coloring and the laying of the hairs which were threaded with very thin needles from the inside. When the first pairs of prosthetic forearms arrived on the set they get great curiosity but above all great approval and satisfaction by the set designer and director Altman. Initially I had to produce about twenty arms in latex but then during all the filming on the set I getting weekly requests for a further ten pairs up to a final quantity of about two hundred. On the set, after many takes, the arms were no longer suitable and then the actor always wore new ones.

At the end, the film was successful and the special effects, within the limits of that time, had an excellent result. However, for some reason the movie did not get the expected earnings and was labeled as an ‘interesting flop’. The audience was divided between those who love it and those who hate it. I have very good memories of that period and of the work we all did together.