The film was first completed in 1975 as a live-action/animated film, in which only the main characters were animated and the rest were portrayed by live actors, but the film's release was pushed back, and later postponed indefinitely. Warner Bros. claimed that this version of the film was unsatisfactory; concerns about the backlash against Coonskin were also cited.
In 1982, a very different version of the film was released; much of the live-action sequences were replaced by animation, and dialogue was heavily rewritten and reedited. It was given a limited release in the United States and went largely unnoticed; it performed respectably in foreign markets, and developed a cult following. The original version of the film remains unreleased.
In Brooklyn during the 1980s, a heavyset, middle-aged woman walks alone meets a mysterious man who greets her and shows her the remains of a black leather jacket. The woman sobs at the sight of it, and the man begins to tell a story.
In the 1950s, Vinnie is the leader of a gang named "the Stompers". His best friend, Crazy Shapiro, is subject to multiple murder attempts by Crazy's detective father, Solly. While in an old basketball court, Vinnie reunites with an old flame named Rozzie, but their reunion is abruptly interrupted by Rozzie's protective Jewish father, who chains her to her bed so she won't meet with Vinnie. Vinnie and Crazy spend the evening drinking, meet up with two prostitutes and go to sleep on the beach, waking up to find themselves close to a group of showering women and their mobster husbands. While Crazy inches over to the ladies, Vinnie finds a dead body buried in the sand. The screams of Vinnie and the women alert the mobsters, who beat up Crazy. It's later seen that Crazy has killed off the mobsters.
Vinnie runs off, finding himself on the black area of the beach where he bumps into rival gang leader Boogaloo Jones and his gang, the Chaplains. Boogaloo sets up a rumble between his gang and the Stompers. Vinnie later meets up with Roz and the girl Crazy dates, Eva; Crazy has meanwhile beaten all the mobsters. The four head out to a party, where Vinnie tells the Stompers that they are going to fight with the Chaplains, to which the gang responds negatively. Much of the gang and their girls head out to a rock and roll show. Vinnie is horrified at the idea of Crazy and himself having to fight the Chaplains alone. One of the Stompers named Sal and his girl have a run-in with Boogaloo while driving, and wind up in a car crash. Vinnie finally persuades the Stompers to rumble with the Chaplains.
At a drive-in restaurant, Vinnie and Crazy make out with their girls. When Roz spots a car that she thinks Boogaloo is in, Crazy is quick to drive off after it. Crazy ends up shooting two of the black gang members in an alley, much to Vinnie's shock. Solly investigates the death of the two black gang members. He questions Boogaloo, who tells him that he should be looking for the Stompers.
Crazy and Roz are then seen at a pier. Rozzie tells him that Vinnie is ditching town, her and the rumble, which makes Crazy the leader of the Stompers. Disgusted with Vinnie's cowardice, Roz allows Crazy to make love to her in an abandoned warehouse. Solly interrupts, and fights Crazy to get him to talk. As he is losing, Crazy lies, saying Vinnie killed the gang members. Vinnie packs up his things and leaves, but bumps into the Stompers and in time for the rumble. As the two gangs wait for Boogaloo to show up, Solly drives up, ready to arrest Vinnie. On the rooftop of a nearby building, Crazy begins shooting randomly towards the street, causing both gangs to begin shooting at each other. Vinnie tries to run and is shot at by Solly. Crazy jumps off the rooftop, landing on Solly, killing himself and Solly. As Roz calls up a radio station to make a memorial request in honor of Vinnie, he stands up and walks away, leaving Brooklyn.
As the mysterious man finishes his story, he claims he left because he was heartbroken over the death of Crazy. The woman knows he is lying. She reveals that she is Roz, and that the man is Vinnie, returned after 30 years. Roz angrily berates him for abandoning her and the gang just to save his own skin. Roz tells him that her husband will soon come looking for her, and he hates to see her with another man. She gives Vinnie a second chance, if he will fight for her like she wished he did before. But she's bluffing. At first Vinnie imagines himself walking out on her again, but then embraces Roz telling her "I've been waiting for you."Richard Romanus as Vinnie Genzianna, leader of the Stompers. A cool, stylish young man. Though he definitely has his problems, he does seem to care about those he is close to and at least tries to be strong and respectful.
David Proval as Crazy Shapiro - Vinnie's best friend. While a loyal friend, he lives up to his name.
Tina Bowman as Rozzie Featherschneid - Vinnie's girlfriend. A strong-willed, beautiful and kind young woman with the looks that all the other boys admire.
Jesse Welles as Eva - Rozzie's best friend. Nice, cute, but a heavy eater.
Philip M. Thomas as Boogaloo and Chaplin
Frank DeKova as Old Vinnie Genzianna
Angelo Grisanti as Solly
Candy Candido as Sal
After production concluded on Harlem Nights, Bakshi wanted to distinguish himself artistically by producing a film in which live action and animated characters would interact. Bakshi began writing the screenplay for Hey Good Lookin' while editing Coonskin, and storyboarding a proposed series for ABC. The characters of Vinnie and Crazy Shapiro were based upon Bakshi's high school friends, Norman Darrer and Allen Schechterman. Warner Bros. had previously agreed to distribute Fritz the Cat before pulling their funding from that film, but were eager to option the screenplay for Hey Good Lookin', and greenlit the film in 1973. Several African American animators, including graffiti artists, were hired by Bakshi's studio, at a time when black animators were not widely employed by major animation studios. Following controversy over the film Coonskin, some black animators left Bakshi's studio in embarrassment, resulting in production problems for Hey Good Lookin'.
Principal photography began in 1974. The budget was $1.5 million. Pre-production lasted one week, including casting. Grittier sequences were shot on the streets of New York City, while less serious locations were shot on Warner Bros.' sound stages in Los Angeles. According to Bakshi, "What I would do is dress guys up, live-action guys. Very strange dudes! The weirdest guys I could find. Having them talk to animated characters in front of candy stores, discussing girlfriends and such. It was very surrealistic." Yaphet Kotto and the glam punk band New York Dolls were cast in the live action sequences, with the New York Dolls playing homosexuals. Mean Streets actors Richard Romanus and David Proval were cast as the voices of Vinnie and Crazy Shapiro. Much of the shooting of live action sequences and recording of animated dialogue involved improvisation, with Bakshi setting up the premise of the scene and allowing his actors to create their own dialogue. During the "rumble" sequence, the actors playing the Chaplains were filmed popping and performing styles of dance which later evolved into breakdancing, dance styles which were unheard of in the 1970s studio system.
Bakshi had selected a number of songs from his own record collection for the film's soundtrack, which were not used in the film due to the high costs of licensing the songs. The film was initially scored by singer Dan Hicks, who became involved with the production of the film in 1974. Because of the delay of the film's release, Hicks' label released the material from these sessions under the title It Happened One Bite. When the film was released in 1982, it had been rescored by John Madara.
Much of the cinematography was shot at night, because Bakshi felt that the daylight made the scenes less believable. Bakshi recounts that during the first day of shooting, the actors were unable to play their roles naturally, but began casually talking and acting the way he wanted their characters to act when the cameras were off, including flirting with an actress. However, the camera man was not around to capture these events, so Bakshi filmed them himself. When Bakshi excitedly told William A. Fraker about this, Fraker quit the production, and was replaced by a young cinematographer who had never worked in film before.
During the post-production of the film, Bakshi found that the cost of the optical effect required to complete live-action scenes with animated characters was larger than the film's budget. In order to complete these scenes cost effectively, Bakshi and his camera man Ted C. Bemiller purchased a 35 mm camera to project the footage onto the glass under the animation camera, which was reflected onto where the animation was shot. The same technique was used for the rotoscoped scenes in The Lord of the Rings. According to Bakshi, "The illusion I attempted to create was that of a completely live-action film. Making it work almost drove us crazy."
A three-minute promo of the live-action version of Hey Good Lookin' was screened at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival; a print of this promo is owned by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The film was initially scheduled for a Christmas 1975 release, but was moved to the summers of 1976 and later 1977, before ultimately being postponed indefinitely. Warner Bros. was concerned about any controversy the film would encounter as a result of the backlash over the film Coonskin, despite the fact that Hey Good Lookin' did not contain any political content. The studio also felt that the film was "unreleasable" because of its combination of live-action and animation, but would not spend further money on the project. Bakshi financed the film's completion himself out of the director's fees for other projects he headed from 1976 until 1982, such as: Wizards, The Lord of the Rings, and American Pop.
Warner Bros. president Frank Wells told film trades that Hey Good Lookin' needed to be "fine-tuned", claiming that Bakshi needed to revamp the dialogue and reshoot some scenes because they had not tested well with market research audiences. During production meetings, Wells told Bakshi that he had not fulfilled his contractual obligations and had used more live-action than he said he would; Bakshi's lawyer was able to convince the studio not to sue him.
The majority of the live action footage was deleted; because Bakshi wanted to keep the breakdancing sequences, he used rotoscoping to animate the footage, but did not animate all of the movements for budgetary reasons. Little dialogue from the 1974 cut of the film was retained in the animated version, which instead featured newly recorded dialogue by Proval, Romanus, and Philip Michael Thomas, who had starred in Coonskin.
Following the success of Heavy Metal and American Pop, Warner Bros. became excited about the second version of Hey Good Lookin', forming a specialty division for the film's distribution. The film opened in New York City on October 1, 1982, and was released in Los Angeles in January 1983. Although it went largely unnoticed by the American public, it received respectable business in foreign markets.
In a brief review, Vincent Canby wrote that it was "not exactly incoherent, but whatever it originally had on its mind seems to have slipped away". Leonard Maltin wrote that the film is "more interesting visually than Bakshi's other later films, [...] but as entertainment it's vulgar and pointless."
Animation historian Jerry Beck wrote that "the beginning of the film is quite promising, with a garbage can discussing life on the streets with some garbage. This is an example of what Bakshi did best—- using the medium of animation to comment on society. Unfortunately, he doesn't do it enough in this film. There is a wildly imaginative fantasy sequence during the climax, when the character named Crazy starts hallucinating during a rooftop shooting spree. This scene almost justifies the whole film. But otherwise, this is a rehash of ideas better explored in Coonskin, Heavy Traffic, and Fritz the Cat."
Hey Good Lookin' developed a cult following through cable television airings and home video. Quentin Tarantino stated that he preferred Hey Good Lookin' to Ralph Bakshi's Heavy Traffic. The 1975 version of the film remains unreleased, although Warner Bros. owns a complete print.
Though a soundtrack album was not originally released at the time of the film's theatrical distribution, a compact disc release of music from the film was produced in 2006 and released through the independent record label That Philly Sound. The film is available to buy and rent on iTunes or as a manufacture-on-demand DVD release through the Warner Archive Collection.