Leon Harrison Gross, more known by the alias of Lee Falk, (April 28, 1911 - March 13, 1999) was an American writer, best known as the creator of the popular comic strip superheroes The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, who at the height of their popularity secured him over a hundred million readers every single day. He was also a playwright and theatrical producer, and contributed to a series of novels based on The Phantom. Several famous film stars appeared in his plays, like Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Chico Marx, and Ethel Waters.
Leon was born in St. Louis, where he spent his childhood and youth. His mother was called Elanore Aleina (a name he would later on, in some form, use in both Mandrake and Phantom stories), and his father was Benjamin Gross. Both of his parents were Jewish. However, Albert Gross died when Leon was a small baby. Eleanor married Albert Epstein, who became Leon's father figure in life.
Leon reportedly changed his surname after leaving college. It is not known why he took the name "Falk", but "Lee" had been his nickname since childhood. His brother, Leslie, also took the name "Falk".
When he began his comics writing career, his official biography claimed that he was an experienced world traveller who had studied with Eastern mystics, etc. In fact, he had simply made it up in order to seem more like the right kind of person to be writing about globe-trotting heroes like Mandrake and the Phantom; the trip to New York to pitch Mandrake the Magician to King Features Syndicate was at the time the farthest he'd been from home. In later life, however, he became an experienced world traveller for real - at least partly, he said, to avoid the embarrassment of having his bluff inadvertently called by genuine travellers wanting to swap anecdotes.
During World War 2, Lee also worked as chief of propaganda for the new radio station KMOX in Illinois, where he became the leader of the radio foreign language division of the Office of War Information.
Lee Falk married three times, with Louise Kanaseriff, Constance Morehead Lilienthal, and Elizabeth Moxley (interestingly, he married Elizabeth, a respected stage-director, not long before he decided to marry the Phantom and his longtime girlfriend Diana Palmer in The Phantom strip). Elizabeth would sometimes help Lee with the scripts in his last years. She also finished his last Phantom stories after he died. Lee became the father of three children, Valerie (daughter of Louise Kanaseriff), and Diane and Conley (children of Constance Moorehead Lilienthal).
Lee died because of heart failure in 1999. He lived the last years of his life in New York, in a luxury apartment not far from Central Park. He also had a summer house on Cape Cod. He literally wrote his comic strips from 1934 to the last days of his life, when in hospital he tore off his oxygen mask to dictate his stories. However, his two characters, Mandrake and, in particular, The Phantom, are still active and popular, both in comic books (the newest addition of the Phantom coming from Moonstone Books) and comic strips. New movie versions of his two creations are also on the schedule.
Creating Mandrake and The Phantom
Lee had a fascination for stage magicians ever since he was a kid. Lee, according to himself, sketched the first few Mandrake strips himself. When asked why the magician looked so much like himself, he replied, “Well, of course he did. I was alone in a room with a mirror when I drew him!” The Phantom was inspired by Falk’s fascination for myths and legends, like the ones about El Cid, King Arthur, Nordic and Greek folklore, and popular fictional characters like Tarzan and Mowgli from The Jungle Book. Falk originally tinkered with the idea of calling his character The Gray Ghost, but finally decided that he preferred The Phantom. Lee revealed in an interview that Robin Hood, who often wore tights in the stories about him, inspired the skin-tight costume of the Phantom, which is known to have influenced the entire superhero-industry. In the A&E Phantom biography, he also told that Greek busts inspired the idea of the Phantom’s pupils not showing when he wore his mask. The Greek busts had no pupils, which Falk felt gave them an inhuman, interesting look. It is known that the look of the Phantom inspired the look of what has today become known as superheroes.
Lee thought that his comic strips would last a few weeks at best. Still, he ended up writing them for 65 years, until the last days of his life.
Lee's biggest passion was the theatre. During a lifetime, he ran 5 theaters, and produced around 300 plays, and directed 100 of them. He wrote around 12 plays, two of them musicals; "Happy Dollar" and "Mandrake the Magician", based on his comic strip creation. After Lee's death, his widow Elizabeth directed a musical called "Mandrake the Magician and the Enchantress", which was written by Lee (it was reportedly essentially the same as the previous "Mandrake the Magician" musical). Some of his plays starred well known actors like Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Basil Rathbone, Chico Marx, Ethel Waters, Paul Newman, Ezio Pinza, James Mason, Jack Warner, Shelley Winters, Farley Granger, Eve Arden, Alexis Smith, Victor Jory, Cedric Hardwicke, Eva Marie Saint, Eva Gabor, Sarah Churchill, James Donn, Eddie Bracken, Ann Corio, Robert Wilcox, and Paul Robeson.
The actors were all paid to perform, but many of them worked on fractions on what they would normally earn with their movie work. Lee was proud to tell that Marlon Brando turned down an offer of $10 000 a week to act on Broadway, in favour of working for Lee in Boston in 1953 in the play "Arms and the Man". His Boston contract was less than $500 a week.
Awards and recognition
Lee won many awards for his dedication to the field of writing for comics and theatre. Here are a selected few of them:
- The Yellow Kid award (1971)
- The Roman Lifetime Achievement Award
- The Adamson Statue for best foreign comics creator (Sweden, 1977)
- The Golden Adamson (Sweden, 1986)
In May 1994, his birthplace St. Louis honoured him with The Lee Falk Day.
Lee Falk has also been a candidate for the St. Louis Walk of Fame many times, but has so far not reached enough votes from the commitee. Some of his fans have started an online campaign to give him this star.
"I give 100% of my time to theatre, and what's left goes to comics..."
(When asked about his age): "Just plain old."
"My only politics is up with democracy and down with dictatorships."
"Each artist, out of his own interests and imagination, creates his own world in his strip - this is true of Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, Popeye, all good strips. And you accomplish this not by imitating others - you come up with your own idea. To me, The Phantom and Mandrake are very real - much more than the people walking around whom I don't see very much. You have to believe in your own characters."
"I think the art of writing a comic strip is closer to the theatre and to film technique than any other writing I know."
"The Phantom is a marvelous role model because he wins against evil. Evil does not triumph against the Phantom... He hates dictatorship and is in favour of democracy. He is also opposed to any violation of human rights."
"Billy Zane is the Phantom the world have known and loved for 60 years". (on Billy Zane's performance in The Phantom movie)