They have much in common, the masked superhero in purple tights and this elderly man in a silly tie, though it may not look that way at first.
The Phantom lives in the Skull Cave on the mythical jungle isle of Bengalla with his wolf, Devil; his white stallion, Hero; and Guran, his faithful turbaned servant. Lee Falk lives in this fabulous co-op on Central Park West with his third wife, Elizabeth, though a housekeeper does come in now and then.
The Phantom roams the world fighting ruthless criminals and bloodthirsty pirates with an occasional assist from the ghost of his father. Falk does travel quite a bit himself, but it’s mostly to give interviews, and to collect walking sticks.
He shows a cane made of the backbone of a shark from the Caribbean, a lamb horn from London, mahogany from Nairobi, silver from Peru, a 10,000-year-old fossil of a walrus tusk from Alaska, a Zulu cane from South Africa made out of colored telephone wires.
“This is a special one,” he says, and out of his umbrella stand he grabs an ivory cane from Spain, pulls on the handle and brandishes a sword.
Both Falk and the Phantom are legendary figures, both have been around a long, long time--and people aren’t sure that either really exists.
“It’s very irritating,” says the man who created “The Phantom” 60 years ago, a comic strip, now a new movie, that has not appeared for three decades in any of the major metropolitan dailies of the city where he lives. “Sixty million people read it every day,” he says. “Every taxi driver in Stockholm knows the Phantom. Dock workers in Trinidad. Shoeshine boys in Naples. And people in New York go, ‘So what are you doing these days, Lee?’ ”
Before there was Batman, before there was Superman, before the Green Hornet, the Shadow, the Lone Ranger--as his press releases put it--there was the Phantom. Started in 1936, the comic strip has yielded over the years a pirate’s fortune from spin-off comic books, serials, Saturday morning cartoons, a movie in 1943, a sequel in 1955.
And now comes a new Hollywood version, which Falk has already seen four times. “It’s based on my very first stories. The writer had some creativity of his own, but the characters are my characters.”
“The Phantom,” which opened nationwide Friday, stars Billy Zane, the latest incarnation of the man they call The Ghost Who Walks.
Falk seems like The Host Who Talks, sitting in his favorite chair repeating familiar stories in the same way he undoubtedly has told them for more than half a century. At 81, he is the kind of raconteur who responds to most questions as if they were interruptions, who in one breath recites a poem from John Donne and in the next tells a fart joke.
But there is nevertheless a reason to listen. It isn’t just that he stayed in San Simeon with his boss William Randolph Hearst or visited in Rome with his former employee Federico Fellini (who worked for him as a teenage illustrator).
It isn’t just that Falk happened to be dining in the Stork Club on the infamous night when elegant chanteuse Josephine Baker was kicked out because she was black, or that he met Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, or that, in his other life as a playwright, producer and director, he worked with Marlon Brando, Joan Blondell, Basil Rathbone and Chico Marx.
It’s also the reason why he has had such opportunities. Not only has Falk been writing “The Phantom” from the very beginning, he is also the man behind an even older comic strip, one he created two years earlier, “Mandrake the Magician.”
“He’s done both every day, daily and Sunday for a total of 122 years, if you put the two of them together. That’s older than the art form itself,” says Jerry Robinson, who cites the Yellow Kid in 1895 as the first comic strip. “Lee’s a pivotal figure in the history of comics, particularly in adventure strips.”
Robinson is no slouch in the field himself. He is not only the author of a definitive history called “The Comics,” not only the head of a worldwide syndicate for cartoonists, but also, more than 50 years ago, he was one of the illustrators of “Batman,” and created the character of the Joker. (“I liked Jack Nicholson’s performance,” he says of the film version. “I didn’t like the script much.”)
He and Falk have been friends for 40 years. “I don’t think any of the others are alive,” Robinson says. “His two comic strips have the distinction of being the oldest written continuously by the original creator.”
“That’s true,” says Falk, though he emphasizes that he is the author, not the illustrator. “It’s been 58 years since I’ve drawn a line. I consider myself a writer.”
He is also his own best promoter. Right now, he is sitting in front of a ceramic Phantom head, marketed in Australia, and wearing a purple Phantom tie. On each hand he has a solid gold replica of his superhero’s skull rings.
“This is the right hand,” he says, showing the one with a skull on it, that the Phantom punches permanently into the skin of bad guys to show that they are evil. “The left hand is closest to the heart,” he says, showing the ring with crossed sabers. “That means you’re protected by him.”
Falk clearly knows how to accommodate the changing times. “In the very beginning, the Phantom was the Ruler of the Jungle. I was influenced by ‘Tarzan,’ and Tarzan had been Lord of the Jungle. After World War II, he became Friend of the Jungle People.”
The head of the Jungle Patrol used to be white; now, in the strip, he is black. While the comic strip still features natives obviously African, the movie natives are Southeast Asian. “That’s because it was filmed in Thailand,” Falk says.
But he is proud to say that Franco banned his strip in Spain, Mussolini outlawed it in Italy, and in Nazi-occupied Norway, Falk says, the resistance smuggled in the strip as proof that, contrary to German propaganda, America remained unvanquished.
And, after half a century, so has Falk. “I won’t go into the whole story,” he says, beginning another one.