April 2nd, 2014
Master Magicians and Phantoms: Interview with Lee Falk, Part II
by Fred Fredericks
A couple of weeks ago, we published Part One of a four-part interview with the legendary comic strip creator, Lee Falk. This interview was conducted in 1996, and Part Two is published today with permission from The Jade Sphinx.
The Jade Sphinx continues his 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.
To read the complete interview, click here