|Born||Leon Harrison Gross|
April 28, 1911
St. Louis, Missouri
|Died||March 13, 1999 (aged 87)|
New York City
|Area(s)||Writer and cartoonist|
|The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician|
|Awards||Adamson Award, Silver T-Square Award, Yellow Kid Award, The Roman Lifetime Achievement Award|
Lee Falk (//), born Leon Harrison Gross (//; April 28, 1911 – March 13, 1999), was an American cartoonist, writer, theater director and producer, best known as the creator of the popular comic strips Mandrake the Magician (1934–2013) and The Phantom (1936–present). At the height of their popularity, these strips attracted over 100 million readers every day. Falk also wrote short stories, and he contributed to a series of pulp novels about The Phantom.
A playwright and theatrical director/producer, Falk directed actors such as Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Chico Marx and Ethel Waters.
Falk was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where he spent his boyhood and his youth. His mother was Eleanor Alina (a name he later, in some form, used in both his Mandrake the Magician and The Phantom story lines), and his father was Benjamin Gross. Both of his parents were Jewish. Lee was born and raised Jewish. Benjamin Gross died when Falk was just a boy, and after a time, his mother Eleanor married Albert Falk Epstein, who became the father figure for Lee Falk and his brother, Leslie. Falk changed his surname after leaving college. He took the middle name of his stepfather, but "Lee" had been his nickname since childhood, so he took that name also. His brother, Leslie, also took the name "Falk".
When Falk began his comic strip and comic book writing and drawing career, his official biography claimed that he was an experienced world traveler who had studied with Eastern mystics. In fact, Falk 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 the Magician and The Phantom. His trip to New York City to pitch Mandrake the Magician for publication by the King Features Syndicate was at that time the farthest that he had traveled from home in St. Louis. In later life, however, he became an experienced world traveler for real – at least partly, he said, to avoid the embarrassment of having his bluff inadvertently called by genuine travelers wanting to swap anecdotes.
During World War II, Falk also worked as chief of propaganda for the new radio station KMOX at St. Louis, where he became the leader of the radio foreign language division of the Office of War Information.
Lee Falk married three times, to Louise Kanaseriff, Constance Moorehead Lilienthal, and Elizabeth Moxley (he married Elizabeth, a respected stage-director, not long before he decided to depict the marriage of The Phantom to the character's longtime girlfriend Diana Palmer in Falk's The Phantom comic strip). Elizabeth also sometimes helped him with the scripts in his later years. She even finished his last The Phantom stories after he died. Falk became the father of three children, Valerie (his daughter with Louise Kanaseriff), and Diane and Conley (his daughter and son with Constance Moorehead Lilienthal).
Falk died on March 13, 1999.
Falk had had a fascination for stage magicians ever since he was a boy. Falk, according to his own recollections, sketched the first few Mandrake the Magician comic 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, such as the ones about El Cid, King Arthur, Nordic and Greek folklore heroes and popular fictional characters like "Tarzan" and "Mowgli" from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. He was fascinated by the Thugs of India, and hence based his first Phantom comic on the "Singh Brotherhood". Falk originally considered the idea of calling his character "The Gray Ghost", but finally decided that he preferred "The Phantom". Falk revealed in an interview that Robin Hood, who was often depicted as wearing tights, inspired the skin-tight costume of "The Phantom", which is known to have influenced the entire superhero-industry. In the A&E Network's Phantom biography program, Falk explained that Ancient Greek stone busts inspired the notion of pupils of the eyes of "The Phantom" not showing whenever he wore his mask. The old Greek busts had no eye pupils, which Falk felt gave them an inhuman, interesting look. It is also probable that the look of "The Phantom" inspired the look of what has today become known as the "superhero".
Falk originally thought that his comic strips would last a few weeks at best. However, he wrote them for more than six decades, until the last days of his life.
Falk's next large passion after cartooning was the theater and stage plays. During his lifetime, Falk ran five theaters, at one time or another, and he produced about 300 plays, and also directed about 100 of them. Falk wrote 12 plays, including two musicals: Happy Dollar and Mandrake the Magician, which were both based on his comic strip character. After Falk's death, his widow Elizabeth directed a musical called Mandrake the Magician and the Enchantress, which was written by Falk, and which was practically the same as his previous Mandrake the Magician musical. Some of his plays drew well-known actors and actresses such as Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Celeste Holm, Constance Moore, 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 to perform in them.
The actors and actresses were all paid for their work, but many of them worked on small fractions of what they would normally earn with their movie work. Falk was proud to state that Marlon Brando had turned down an offer of $10,000 a week to act in Broadway plays, in favor of working for Falk in Boston in the play, Arms and the Man. In 1953, Brando's contract for Falk's play paid less than $500 a week.
Falk won many awards for his dedication to the field of writing for comics and theatre. Here are a select few of them:
On the occasion of the premiere of the movie, The Phantom, which starred Billy Zane, Falk was congratulated by letter from President Bill Clinton with his best wishes.
Lee Falk has also been a candidate for a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame many times, and was so honored in a ceremony on what would have been his 104th birthday, April 28, 2015.