Lee Falk

Lee Falk

Infobox Comics creator

imagesize =
caption =
birthname = Leon Harrison Gross
birthdate = birth date|1911|4|28
location = St. Louis
deathdate = dda|1999|3|13|1911|4|28
deathplace = New York City
nationality = American
area = Writer
alias =
notable works = The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician
awards = Adamson Award, Silver T-Square Award, The Yellow Kid Award, The Roman Lifetime Achievement Award

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 day. He was also a playwright and theatrical director/producer, leading him to direct actors such as Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Paul Newman, Chico Marx, and Ethel Waters. Falk also contributed to a series of novels about the Phantom.

Life and career

Falk was born in St. Louis, where he spent his childhood and youth. His mother was Eleanor Alina (a name he would later on, in some form, use in both Mandrake and Phantom stories), and his father was Benjamin Gross. Benjamin Gross died when Falk was a child, and Eleanor remarried to Albert Falk Epstein, who became Falk's father figure in life.

Falk changed his surname after leaving college. He took the middle name of his stepfather, 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 II, Falk 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 Moorehead 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.Falk became the father of three children, Valerie (daughter of Louise Kanaseriff), and Diane and Conley (children of Constance Moorehead Lilienthal).

Falk died of heart failure in 1999. He lived the last years of his life in New York, in an apartment with a panoramic view of the New York skyline and Central Park; he spent his summers in a 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 to the Phantom coming from Moonstone Books) and comic strips. New movie versions of both his creations are also on the schedule, with "Mandrake" set to premiere in 2008.

Creating Mandrake and The Phantom

Falk had a fascination for stage magicians ever since he was a kid. Falk, 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 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 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 explained 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 the "superhero".

Falk 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 biggest passion was the theatre. During a lifetime, he ran five theaters, and produced around 300 plays, and directed 100 of them. He wrote twelve plays, two of them musicals; "Happy Dollar" and "Mandrake the Magician", based on his comic strip creation. After Falk's death, his widow Elizabeth directed a musical called "Mandrake the Magician and the Enchantress", which was written by Falk, and was essentially the same as the previous "Mandrake the Magician" musical. Some of his plays starred well known actors like 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.

The actors were all paid to perform, but many of them worked on fractions on what they would normally earn with their movie work. Falk was proud to tell that Marlon Brando turned down an offer of $10,000 a week to act on Broadway, in favor of working for Falk in Boston in 1953 in the play "Arms and the Man". His Boston contract was less than $500 a week.

Awards and recognition

Falk 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 Award for best foreign comics creator (Sweden, 1977)
*The Golden Adamson (Sweden, 1986)
*Silver T-Square Award (Reuben Award, 1986)
*In May 1994, his birthplace St. Louis honored him with Lee Falk Day.

On the premiere of The Phantom movie starring Billy Zane, Falk received a letter from President Bill Clinton, congratulating him with his achievements.

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 committee.


"I give 100% of my time to theatre, and what's left goes to comics..."

(When asked about his age): "Never older than age thirty-nine."

"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."

"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 favor of democracy. He is also opposed to any violation of human rights."


* [http://www.deepwoods.org/lee_falk.html Lee Falk: Father of the Phantom]

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