Stan Lee: Classic Film Fan
December 28, 2018
For the past eight years, I worked for Stan Lee. Stan (beat) Lee, I'd repeat, when inevitably asked "Stanley who?" I rarely revealed who my boss was when meeting new folks; that fact was usually unveiled by a well-meaning friend.
Since Stan’s passing in mid-November, countless tributes have been composed from all over the world—I’ve even written a few myself. This one is a little different, because I was one of the only people who worked for Stan in recent years who wasn’t a fan of comic books or superhero movies. That’s not to say I don’t respect the art form or what Stan contributed to it—quite the contrary—the genre and medium just aren’t my cup of tea.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles about Stan that have been posted elsewhere online, he and I shared a love of classic movies. I relished chatting with him on the subject; that was my way of bonding with him, and it was a special connection to me because so few people engaged him on the topic. Movies, along with literature, were one of the biggest influences on young Stan. He certainly discussed the impact classic Hollywood had upon him and his future work, whether with TCM (during a 2012 podcast taping I'm kicking myself for missing) or the Criterion Collection. Famous names connected to classic Hollywood interviewed him in our office, though focusing more on his legacy, like Leonard Maltin and Ben Mankiewicz. (When Mankiewicz visited, I had to work up the courage to tell him that I’m a TCM fan. I don't think he was expecting a comment of that sort from anyone in our office, save for maybe Stan.)
Early Hulk exhibiting some Frankenstein vibes.
Stan had a pristine recollection of the tales and movies that spurred his creativity, including Tarzan, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Frankenstein. The latter two, in particular, he cited as influencing the creation of the Hulk in the 1960s. Stan even worked as an usher in New York City’s Rivoli Theater during the 1930s, and I can imagine how many movies he watched. (One of my favorite tales, a quintessential Stan story, was how he helped First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to her seat one day and tripped right in front of her. To his surprise, she was the one who helped him up!) He even dabbled in acting, working with the WPA Federal Theatre project during the Great Depression, though I think he said he joined because a girl he liked got involved first...
Over the years, I jotted Stan/classic movie-related nuggets down. In looking for this document, I came across a set of questions that I always wanted to ask him for this blog. Though I shared occasional chats with Stan about old Hollywood, I was always timid to schedule an “official” interview, even though he would have been happy to do so. Luckily, throughout the years most of my questions were answered, either from Stan himself, through conversations with co-workers, or in the marvelous book The Stan Lee Story, which just debuted from Taschen.
That said, below is a randomly assorted collection of topics I either spoke with Stan about, overheard, or always wanted to ask but never got the chance to, in honor of what would have been his 96th birthday today. I hope you enjoy hearing about these subjects as much as I did.
The Adventures of Robin Hood / Errol Flynn
Stan’s favorite movie? The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Not only did he have the poster in his office, but a portrait of Errol Flynn as the title character also hung on his wall. Flynn’s swashbuckling bravery and dashing appearance appealed to Stan, and I frequently heard him refer to Flynn as one of his favorite actors. During one conversation I shared with Stan, he told me I should read Flynn’s biography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, because I was still young enough to do so. Flynn and his eventful history intrigued Stan, and though he thought Flynn’s book would be “interesting,” he unfortunately never got the chance to read it. Following his advice, I bought a copy last month. It’s on my reading list, Stan!
Stan dressed as Robin Hood for an Arclight Cinemas campaign in 2014. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
When Arclight Cinemas asked Stan to choose a movie character to portray for a 2014 ad campaign, he naturally chose Flynn in Robin Hood. I was on set, watching Stan transform into a (very old!) version of Flynn, complete with a dark wig, matching mustache and goatee. Honestly, I don’t remember much of the conversation between makeup, takes and interviews that day, but I do recall Stan smiling a lot, especially when he got to pose with the bow and arrow!
Stan, third from left, receives the National Medal of Arts in 2008. Olivia de Havilland is the fifth from the left.
Stan actually shared another connection to The Adventures of Robin Hood: He received the National Medal of Arts in 2008 alongside star Olivia de Havilland. I made it a point to ask him about meeting de Havilland, but he replied that unfortunately he didn’t get a chance to talk to her, which is a shame. How often is it that you get to meet the co-star of your favorite movie?! I was a bit disappointed in Stan for that!
Not long after Stan and Marvel’s fame skyrocketed in the early 1960s, Italian director Federico Fellini asked to meet with him. Roy Thomas, Stan's successor as Editor in Chief of Marvel Comics and author of The Stan Lee Story, recalled Fellini sweeping into the office with an entourage and a cape over his shoulders; well, he said he’s not sure of that last part, though I do recall hearing that anecdote before, and it would have come from Stan himself. Man, I would love to know what Stan and Fellini spoke about!
This is one of the only photos I've found online of Stan and Alain Resnais, taken in 1971 at an Academy of Comic Book Arts meeting.
Alain Resnais shared a more personal and professional relationship with Stan, one that is documented and discussed at length in Stan’s interview with Criterion. The French director became friends with Stan in the late 1960s, and in early 1971, they penned a script together, The Monster Maker, an oddity set in the film world that interconnects the dangers of pollution. I’ve actually found some of their work in Stan’s archive and in our office (they collaborated on another script, too), including a copy of The Monster Maker. I suppose that I’m one of the few who has read it—at least, recently. And that’s all I’ll say about that! (Fun fact: I discovered some lovely telegrams from Resnais and Fellini to Stan in his archive at the American Heritage Center in Wyoming.)
Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel.
The Scarlet Pimpernel / Leslie Howard
Another movie and actor Stan cited frequently was Leslie Howard and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Stan said recently that he considered this film the first legitimate superhero movie (that he could recall), despite the fact that Howard’s character didn’t really have superpowers. He thought Howard was wonderful and greatly admired how he acted more the intellectual gentleman in this movie.
For a video we shot a few months ago, Stan recounted a sequence in the picture in which Howard speaks to a group of women, declaring: “Oh yes, as they say, the Scarlet Pimpernel, is he in heaven, or is he in hell? That damned elusive pimpernel,” but Stan recalled, thanks to the good ol’ Production Code, that “hell” was not allowed, so the line became: “Is he in heaven, or is he in [cough], that damned elusive pimpernel.” [Side note: Stan fought a valiant battle against the Comics Code Authority in the early 1970s, and I always found that organization very similar to the Production Code Administration.]
I also shared a conversation about this movie with Stan while he was resting during an interview set-up in our office, and as he was whisked away to continue the discussion, he turned to me and exclaimed: “The Scarlet Pimpernel!”, reminding me of the title, since I told him I hadn’t seen it. (I’m still working on that…)
Stan just standing next to two Golden Age stars holding their Oscars. No big deal.
Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers
Stan had a ton of photos in his office; he posed with Presidents (George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton), music stars (Ringo Starr), directors (James Cameron) and everyone in between. Even Dame Julie Andrews. (He made a cameo in 2004’s The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement.)
One photo I recall seeing only recently featured Stan, Jimmy Stewart, and a woman who was facing partially away from the camera. The picture probably dated in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and both Stewart and the woman held Oscars. Over this past year I finally took the time to examine the picture more thoroughly, and upon closer inspection, I discovered the Oscars were from 1940, and the woman was Ginger Rogers. I’m not certain of the occasion, but I know both Stewart and Stan were involved in the American Spirit Foundation, so I assume it was an event related to that endeavor. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to ask Stan about meeting them, or whether he was friends with either. (I secretly hope he was pals with them, of course.)
I’m not sure if I knew this before or not, but when I visited Stan’s archive at the American Heritage Center in Wyoming this past July, I learned the reason he decided to donate his papers there (which we always get asked about): Jack Benny. Apparently, when Stan heard that Benny’s collection was housed there, the decision was made. What’s good enough for Benny, one of Stan’s idols, would certainly be good enough for Stan.
I also just recently heard a new-to-me Stan story about Benny, shared by Stan’s assistant Mike after he passed away: Apparently, Stan based his public personality off the “conceited, miserly curmudgeon” character Benny frequently played on TV. As Mike wrote in a tribute to Stan: “His [Stan's] favorite compliment was being called 'adorable' for his impish humor and egotistical gags, which in actuality were gentle self-deprecations and homages to his idol Benny.” I totally see that now!
Stan with Barbara Eden. (This was not at the convention I saw her at, so it appears they met more than once.)
I Dream of Jeannie
This encounter was random but certainly memorable. We were backstage in a green room at LA Comic Con a few years ago when someone informed Stan that Barbara Eden wanted to meet him. He lit up. Hearing the word “meet,” I assumed they hadn’t made each other’s acquaintance, but they could have fooled me! She and Stan shared a short, warm conversation, and I recall both seeming very at ease with each other. At the time, I chalked it up to him being comfortable with someone of his generation, as he was frequently around much younger people at these shows, but whatever the reason for the comfort, it was a lovely exchange to witness.
Thank you for reading! Though I wish I had the chance to ask Stan more about older movies and stars (and new facts that I'm finding out after his passing, like him loving The Quiet Man!), I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to work with him all these years and share this classic movie admiration, among many other warm memories.