Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Master Magicians and Phantoms: An Interview with Lee Falk, Part II

We continue our interview with Lee Falk (1911-1999), creator of the Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, first conducted in 1996.

What did you think of the Mandrake radio show?

It was pretty good. I had nothing to do with it, because I was in the Army. They had permission, of course. But it was rather good. I met the man who played Mandrake in the Army.

Raymond Edward Johnson?

Raymond Edward Johnson! He was a very distinguished stage actor, he played Jefferson on Broadway.  I met Ray when I was a corporal in the Army, down in Virginia. He was kinda a blue guy when he got in the Army. He had already done Mandrake. I pulled him in, and helped him get through his first few days of military life.

Johnson was one of these very successful radio actors who would do maybe half dozen shows a day, going from one studio to the next.  He was one of the few who did that. He was also the host of Inner Sanctum. He was a very successful stage actor, too. He then got Muscular Dystrophy. And over the years, I just lost track of him.

Last time I saw him was at the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention, out in Newark, New Jersey. They have them every October. Now you see, I was also a theater director, and this convention invited me over to direct a recreation of the old Mandrake radio show. And Raymond Edward Johnson, it turns out, is a favorite of these people! He's wheeled out on a bed, and he can't move at all, except for his head a little. So they prop this script up in front of his bed, and we did Mandrake that way. He was amazing; his voice was so strong and so good! He sounded exactly the same. His mind was still sound, after all these years. He is just an amazing man.

Now what about the Mandrake movie serial?

I didn't like it. That was also made when I was in the Army, by Columbia. In those days, I was told later, that Republic made much better serials. At the time, I thought Columbia was the bigger name. But Columbia bought both Mandrake and the Phantom. I had nothing to do with it. King Features acted as my agent through all of that, and they paid a little royalties, very little. I remember I came back on a three day pass to see some of them, and thought Mandrake was just terrible. There were some good actors in it, oddly enough, Warren Hull played Mandrake, a good actor at that time, and Lothar was reduced in size to about five foot seven! He wore a turban to make him Egyptian, instead of a tall black man. There may have been some race thing going on there, I don't know.

But it was badly and unimaginatively done. Here you have a magician, an illusionist. And with trick photography you could've done things, made chairs move across the floor, all kinds of things even without the present technology, to sell the idea of magic and illusion. But they didn't. It became a cops and robbers thing, with lots of automobiles chasing round, and all that. Mandrake didn't even wear a mustache, and that disappointed me. I thought they just did a bad job, though Hull was a good actor.

Mandrake is one of the most impressive looking characters in comic strips. Look at him, and you think of Warren William, or young John Barrymore.

You're so right! Those are the men I wanted to play him in the movies. Warren William was a matinee idol of that period, and he would've been perfect. Same for Douglas Fairbanks Jr., there were quite a few of them who could've done it. It would've been wonderful at that time. I know Doug Fairbanks, by the way. He's now close to 90, and still upright. He's terrific.

I just ran into him at a festival honoring Buster Keaton, and he looks just remarkable.

Isn't he, though?  He still has his charm, as always. Charming and bright, a very gracious man. My wife directed him something, and was friendly with him, and she always thought he was an enchanting man.

Didn't Fellini plan to make a Mandrake film at one point?

Yes, he did. He loved Mandrake. I first met Fellini, when he was 17. When I first came to Italy, I was in my early 20s. Mandrake was already established in Italy. I went to visit the publisher in Florence, just to say hello. They didn't put him out in newspapers, but in big albums, in Italian.

This publishing house originally was created by the man who did Pinocchio. Collodi, was his name, I think. Based on the success of Pinocchio, they created a little publishing house. Then they put out Mandrake, and later, the Phantom. So when I went there, I met this little group of 15 people, or so. One of them was a 17 year old Fellini. Years later, I didn't remember him, but he always remembered me, the young American cartoonist, he would not forget that. Years later I returned to Italy, and I, of course, later, I knew who he was by reputation. And we met again, this is the early 1960s, and we became good friends. I saw him whenever I was in Rome, and he'd visit whenever he was in New York. And for years, he wanted to make a Mandrake film. Every time I saw him, he brought it up.

But there were always conflicts. Mandrake, at the time, was optioned by somebody else. Or he was otherwise busy. And this went on for thirty or forty years, and somehow, it just never got made. He wanted Marcello Mastroianni for Mandrake, he wanted Claudia Cardanale for Narda, which I thought was marvelous. When he died two years ago, I hadn't seen him in several years. But a lady named Chandlers wrote of very good biography of him, called I, Fellini. For 12 years she taped his talk, and the whole book is just his talk. A fascinating book. She told me that just a few months before he died, he was still talking of doing a Mandrake film. It never happened, and I'm so sorry about it. I remember that people, at the time, told me, that if he did it, he'd change it. And I'd say, any changes he made would've been for the better!

He said Mandrake influenced him very much. He loved the whole world of illusion. His second film is called, The White Sheik, a very funny film. It's based on an Italian tradition of comic strips, where there are illustrated stories, illustrated with photographs that have dialogue balloons. It's a terrific film.

What was the origin of The Phantom?

The Phantom is combination of Tarzan, I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs, and also Kipling's Jungle Book. In fact, I sort of paid homage to that by calling The Phantom's pygmy friends The Bandar, which comes from the monkey tribe who were friends with Mowgli.

Was he an evolution for you, or did you create him complete and whole from the start? The whole myth of The Ghost Who Walks and The Man Who Cannot Die...

That all evolved. In the very first six months of it, I had a playboy named Jimmy Wallace, who at nights was The Phantom. He had a girlfriend named Diana, who The Phantom later married, some many years later. The original stories were about pirates, somehow this young heiress Diana got involved, and The Phantom was a Mystery Man who came at night and helped her. Then she'd dream about him during the day, never dreaming it was her old pal Jimmy Wallace who was just a friend. She was nice to Wallace, but that's all.

It started that way. And as it went on, I got the idea of a Jungle Man. I changed it without telling the reader! Jimmy Wallace just disappeared. And here was The Phantom, running through the jungle. Later on, I gave him a horse, and I just thought of him as a modern Tarzan. Gradually, the idea of the generations of The Phantom, where each successive son become The Phantom, creating the myth of a deathless avenger, and the stuff about the Skull Cave, all evolved in the first year.

I was just in Australia for two weeks during the filming of The Phantom movie, on The Gold Coast. This is The Phantom of 50 years ago.

He's a character with a very mythic quality.

Exactly. This is not accidental. Part of my reading was The Tales of Gods and Heroes, which is all about the mythic heroes of Western Europe, and also India and Asia. You see, The Phantom has always been the Number One adventure strip around the world, in terms of distribution and readership. And people continually ask me why. I hope that it's maybe because it's good. But I also think that people of various countries, and he's published in 25 languages, all have their own myths and heroes. And they all identify with The Phantom, because he's some of the old myths and legends modernized.

In one Phantom story, for example, I put him through the 12 tasks of Hercules. I had The Phantom do this in modern times, and that's the kind of things I do to keep him fresh. I update the tales of myths and heroes, and legends.

Another thing that kept him fresh was the idea of the generations of The Phantom. This is now the 21st Phantom. But I could always go back and tell stories of the first Phantom, or the tenth, and so forth. This gives me a lot of range. In fact, The Phantom almost stopped after the second Phantom. This was when the first son was sent out of the jungle, and back to the country of his mother, in this case, England. There, he was to be educated by monks. But the young man ran away and joined the Globe Theater in England to become an actor! So he ends up in the opening night of Romeo and Juliet, where he played Juliet! You see, they didn't allow women on stage in Shakespeare's time, and young men played women's parts.

His father, meanwhile, was a macho, big, powerful guy, comes roaring over there for the opening night, with Shakespeare shivering in the wings on opening night. The Phantom has the courtesy not to break up the show, but after the performance he goes backstage, pulls the wig off his son, and says: "You're coming back to the jungle with me!"

The son refuses, and the father goes back without him. He stays for awhile and becomes an actor, and then the father is fatally wounded, and the boy is sent for. He returns to the jungle, and goes through the ceremony and becomes the second Phantom. Blood is thicker than water.

What a terrific story.

I've done stories about all 21 Phantoms, I guess.

Now The Phantom is the first costumed hero in comic strips, right?

Yes, he is. He was number one. This was in 1936. There were a whole slew of them afterwards. I think Batman came about three years later.  A lot of young guys around read The Phantom, and it inspired them, I think. Batman is almost a take-off on The Phantom, what with the Batcave and the Skull Cave, and so forth.

Of my two strips, Mandrake was always harder to do. He is fantasy, and originally, he was the bigger of the two strips worldwide. Then gradually, The Phantom took over and became much bigger than Mandrake. Fantasy, as you may know, has a limited appeal to the realistic, and The Phantom, while he seems like a fantastic fellow, is a very realistic person. And the stories are more realistic, about real people. He's a remarkable hero. In all the 60 years I've done him, he's never shot anybody, never wounded anybody.

I was always against too much violence in comic strips. Some of the more recent ones, through the years, comic books particularly, which I've read from World War II on, got very rough.

I think they are too rough, and the whole industry's a mess.

They've brought out all of these things! They're drawn very well, but the writing is disturbing in most of them. There're exceptions, of course, but the gore is inexcusable.

It's inexcusable, and it seems to take all the fun out of it.

I think so. I think they're just awful, and they get wilder and wilder trying to get story ideas. A friend of mine was doing the inking on one of them; you had four or five guys lying down that the Punisher has knocked down. He then shoots them all in the head to make sure they're dead! They're just unbelievably bad.

More Lee Falk tomorrow!

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