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

By Jeremy Meltingtallow

Today we post the final installment of The Jade Sphinx’s throwback interview from 1996 with the incomparable Lee Falk (1911-1999), the creator of The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician!


What do you think of the recent incarnations of The Phantom, like the cartoon series Phantom 2040, or Defenders of the Earth?

First off, the animator of Defenders of the Earth concentrated on Mandrake, The Phantom, and Flash Gordon. They figured the kids would like something in a future time, with interesting technology and what not. So they grouped them with Flash in the future. I rather reluctantly agreed, thinking that maybe that was the way of the future, so let’s do it. We made The Phantom the 25th generation of the character, and the great-grandson of Mandrake. But when the animators depicted them, they just used the three, Mandrake, The Phantom, and Flash Gordon. I asked why they had excluded Lothar from it all. Here’s a hero who happens to be black, and millions of black and brown fans think of him as a role model. I argued that he had to be in the posters as well.

The show came out fairly well, in the end, I guess.

Now with Phantom 2040, they again wanted something that has futuristic technology. So I told them to set it ahead, with the 23rd Phantom. We had to set it in the future, because if there was any change in the current character, the Swedish and Scandinavian fans would be furious! They want the “classic Phantom.” So we worked around that by making this his grandson. We put some armor on his arms, and gave him futuristic weapons, but at least they didn’t change him too much. At first, they wanted to put wings on him! But it’s pretty well done.

What can you tell us about the new Phantom film?

The movie is to me, and I’m a bit prejudiced, just great. Billy Zane is the perfect Phantom, he looks wonderful. I saw the dailies everyday while I was on the set for two weeks.

Is the plot an adaptation of one of your stories?

Yes, several of them. It deals with pirates and it has all of the elements that Phantom fans expect. Jeffrey Boam did a terrific screenplay, and came up with an original gimmick for the story. I told him that in all the years where I’ve written over 1000 stories for the character, the twist he came up with was one I had never tried. It’s a good story.

Is it set in contemporary times?

It’s the 1930s, and the cities have a 30s feel. But the jungle scenes seem as if they could be any time, so it feels contemporary, too. But it is the “classic” Phantom, just as his fans like him best. Billy Zane is marvelous. They first showed me a picture he had done called Dead Calm. Do you know the film?

Yes, it’s a tight little shocker.

They did it about eight years ago, when he was 23, or 24. Billy played a psychopathic killer — but that’s not what I saw. What I saw was a nice looking young man, slim; a very strong actor. He also had charm and strength, and this is what I wanted for The Phantom. I didn’t want just a muscle man, I wanted that charm and elegance. He had all of that, but he was slim, didn’t really look like The Phantom, but rather like a young man. I figured, though, if he were good enough an actor, they would pad him up.

When I met Billy in January, he came over to say hello. He said he wanted me to see him before he went out on the set. And there was Billy, looking like The Phantom, without padding! It turns out that when he was hired by Paramount, in 1994, he went into training with a professional trainer, and did four hours a day for two years. So he wound up with a beautiful, powerful body, along with the same charm and elegance. He’s a good strong actor. The whole cast is good. Treat Williams plays the bad guy, and he’s a fine actor. Kristy Swanson plays Diana, the girlfriend. She was in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. She a beautiful girl. She’s also in Flowers in the Attic.

Based on the V. C. Andrews novel.

I must say you’re a knowledgeable young man! I had never heard of the novel. The other woman, the bad gal with the heart of gold, is Sallah. She’s based on a character in a story of mine called “The Sky Bandit,” from the 30s. It was about a female gang of sky pirates, and that’s well before feminism. Sallah is the number two gal, and I remember her very well because I designed her to look like Louise Brooks. Do you remember her? In the film, she has long black hair, which is a change, but Cathrine Zeta Jones, a beautiful English-Welsh actress, plays her. She wears a skin tight costume, and she’s magnificent. If I were 60 years younger, I’d marry her! They’re all fine.

You know, Sergio Leone wanted to do a Phantom picture. I had met him in Mexico, and he was an enormous man. He just loved The Phantom, and he wanted to do a jungle picture with pygmies, all of that. We met again at his house in Rome, but he died and nothing came of it.

What are your future plans?

Well, after more than 60 years, I’m still writing Mandrake and The Phantom. When I write a script, it’s like film script, broken into panels. I include descriptions of characters, place, and detail, as well as dialogue and narration. So my plans are just to go on living and working.