Lee Falk Obituary - Frew Publications

Originally published in Frew's The Phantom #1226

LEE FALK 1911 - 1999

Lee Falk, the master creator of The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, is no longer with us. He passed away on Saturday 13 March 1999 in New York, USA aged 87 years.

Lee was active almost to the end, which came peacefully in hospital. He had battled ill-health for the past two years, but never once missed a deadline with scripts for both of his comics creations. Until his death, Lee remained the ultimate professional.

His passing removes the last link to the golden age of comics. His career, spanning 1934-1999, was the longest of any comics writer in the modern era and it is impossible to believe anybody will ever achieve a similar record of almost 65 years creating two of the most widely syndicated strips in the world.

Mandrake the Magician, which first appeared on 11 June, 1934 and The Phantom, which made its debut on 17 February 1936 set the standards of comics excellence and ushered in two completely new concepts.

The Phantom especially, was the most important development in comics, preceding as it did, Superman and Batman. The Phantom was the first masked and costumed hero and spawned the idea of similarly-garbed super heroes and countless imitations of his own, non-super hero status.

Lee Falk was born in St Louis, Missouri, on 12 April, 1911 and from his early days in High School, had a compulsion to write. He was a prolific contributor of stories, articles and poetry for his college newspaper. His first job was as a copywriter for a St Louis advertising agency and he combined this with writing and producing dramas for a St Louis radio station.

He had a love of live theatre and the stage acts of master magicians from an early age. It was this fascination which prompted him to begin plotting the comic strip adventures of Mandrake the Magician and early in 1934, he succeeded in selling the idea to the King Features Syndicate.

Lee not only wrote the first few weeks of Mandrake, but actually pencilled and inked the strips!

Lee, however, realised his limitations as an artist and always an admirer of Phil Davis whom he had first met in his St Louis advertising agency days, talked King Features into contracting the master artist to illustrate the daily and later, Sunday (commencing February 1935) strip.

Such was the success of Mandrake, that King Features invited Lee to create another adventure strip and well before the end of 1935, he had plotted The Phantom. For a brief time, he also pencilled the daily adventures of The Ghost Who Walks, but the great Ray Moore, then assisting Phil Davis on Mandrake, jumped at the chance of working full-time on The Phantom.

At their peak, Mandrake and The Phantom were syndicated to hundreds of newspapers in more than 60 countries and Lee was such a celebrity he was constantly in demand to make personal appearances. He always obliged.

As well, he somehow manage to write, produce and direct stage plays and at one time actually owned theatres in Massachusetts and Nassau, the Bahamas. One of his stage plays, Eris, was staged in Paris in 1966 and revived in 1973 by a French repertory company.

Lee was an enthusiastic world traveller. On one of his many trips to Europe, he was presented with a special award for his contribution to comics at the 1971 Comics Conference in Lucca, Italy.

Mandrake the Magician became a movie serial in 1939 and it came close to becoming a motion picture production in the 1960s when famous Italian director Federico Fellini actually cast Marcello Mastroianni in the lead role.

The Phantom made it to the screen in the early 1940s as a serial starring Tom Tyler and for many years, there was talk about the production of a feature motion picture. Lee, a stickler for honesty throughout his life, was insistent that his famous creation be portrayed with accuracy and dignity and it was probably the reason so many studios could never come to a firm decision.

In the late 1980s, two Australian enthusiasts, Bruce Sherlock and Peter Sjoquist took out an option for the movie, came to an arrangement with Paramount and in 1996, Lee finally saw The Phantom become a major motion picture with Billy Zane in the lead role.

To have met up with Lee as I have on a dozen or more occasions both in Australia and in the United States has been an honour. Despite our age difference we had a great rapport and I have always marvelled at the variety of things we discussed .... the comics form of course, but such diverse subjects as theatre, television, radio, the stage, great books, great actors, directors and writers, mythology, the art of magic, music of all types, ballet - even boxing.

What memories!

What a man!

Farewell, old friend

........ Jim Shepherd

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Bryan Shedden / guran@deepwoods.org
Last updated 9 April 1999