In 1979, Arnold Schwarzenegger embarked on a Hollywood acting career, fresh from his success in the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron. Director Hal Needham, inspired by the triumph of Smokey and the Bandit, aimed to blend action and physical comedy in a Western reminiscent of Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles. The result was “The Villain,” a feature-length attempt at a Roadrunner-style comedy, featuring absurd Looney Tunes-inspired antics.
Conceptually, The Villain had potential as a Blazing Saddles-meets-Smokey and the Bandit adventure. However, the execution faced significant challenges. Screenwriter Robert G. Kane, known for one-liners on Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, struggled to stretch the one-joke premise into a full-length film. The plot revolves around Cactus Jack (Kirk Douglas) trying to stop a hero (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a damsel (Ann-Margret) from delivering a box of cash, incorporating Wile E. Coyote-style pranks along the way.
Despite a promising cast, The Villain faltered in its delivery. Kirk Douglas, in his first comedic role, was underutilized, and Ann-Margret seemed out of place. Arnold Schwarzenegger, charismatic in Pumping Iron, was reduced to a stereotypical “all brawn, no brains” character. The inclusion of an offensive subplot featuring a Native American chief (Paul Lynde) further marred the film.
The cartoonish concept, of attempting live-action Looney Tunes-style humor, proved a major drawback. The film’s gags, inspired by animated absurdity, fell flat in a real-world setting. Even with a stellar cast, the script, direction, and casting couldn’t salvage The Villain’s misguided attempt at translating cartoon humor to live-action.
The Villain, despite its flaws, continued the careers of its stars. Kirk Douglas continued working, Ann-Margret earned an Emmy nomination, and Arnold Schwarzenegger found success in action-adventure films. The box office failure and critical disdain for The Villain are a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of misjudging the translation of cartoon humor to the big screen.