I’ve known Stan Lee since childhood. He was my friend. An adult, yes, but an adult with the good sense to know his jokes were bad, who would let you spoil your dinner. The kind of guy who always seemed to be trying a little too hard, but was so endearing you couldn’t help but like him.
Of course, I never actually met Stan Lee. I only knew Stan through the letter columns in the back of comics, most of which were published before I was born. I was a poor kid in a small town, and I experienced comics through the collections of older kids, and from stacks in the back of used book stores. The editors in the letter pages – Stan Lee and Tom DeFalco, mostly – were characters as important to me as Spider-Man and The Thing. I don’t remember at what point I became aware of Stan “The Man” beyond the page – early enough that I recognized him in an episode of Muppet Babies – but grin, the mustache, the voice are as iconic to me as Abe Lincoln’s stovepipe hat or Fred Rogers’ cardigan.
When the chance came to audition for Off The Quill’s production of King Kirby, Stan was the only part I wanted to play.
King Kirby dramatizes the life of Jack Kirby, the artist behind and co-creator (or outright creator) of many of the characters of comic’s Silver Age. It’s a story comics nerds know well, but for the rest of the world it’s overshadowed by the characters themselves. And it’s a story that doesn’t always reflect well on Stan.
How do you play him? How do you create a beloved icon, live, on stage, when every audience member knows what he looks and sounds like? How do you show that audience a side of the man they’ve never seen before? How do you become Stan Lee?
The first step was to realize that Stan Lee is himself a character – the greatest creation of Stanley Lieber, the frustrated novelist who created the pen name to protect his writerly reputation. The Stan I knew from letter pages, the Stan of movie cameos and relentless salesmanship of the Marvel empire is a fiction, and if Stanley could fudge things to create Stan, so could I.
The first thing was the voice. Stan’s voice has changed a lot as he’s aged, and the distinctive gravel was much more subdued in the 60s when the play mostly portrays him, but it’s part of the iconography, so I let the gravel show up a little early. Stan’s voice is deep, and grows more so when he’s telling a story, but when excited it can go up like a bird’s. With the thick Bronx-by-way-of-Manhattan accent and the gravel, making my voice any deeper doesn’t turn me into Stan Lee, it turns me into Harvey Fierstein, so that’s out. But the bird-like rises on excited turns of phrase remain.
Of course there is the image of the man – the omnipresent grin, the mustache, the sunglasses. Our costumer and props designer have allowed me to inhabit the myriad Stans: leisure suit Stan and cardigan Stan, the relaxed Stan who slumps in his chair during interviews and conventions, the excited Stan who flutters his fingers, and punctuates each catchphrase with a gesture.
And oh the catchphrases! “‘Nuff Said!” “Face front!” And of course “Excelsior!,” which is pronounced with a G, a Z, and an elongated second syllable: egg-ZELL-see-oyah! The script is littered with them, and the fun comes in emphasizing them or throwing them away like easter eggs for true believers.
Finally, there is just the energy of Stan Lee. Whatever else I wanted to evoke of the guy, however else the script wants to change our image of him, I had to make sure that the Stan I knew as a kid, the avuncular teller of tall tales, was there on stage. Stan had creative failings, and yes he fought undeservedly with Jack Kirby, and yes in a sea of shy artists Stan played the self-serving huckster. But he was also a friend to the hopeless nerds of the world, a guy who, at the end of the day, just wanted to be liked.
It’s not always been easy to make it all work, and sometimes intimidating. But every time I put on the glasses, and slick the hair back, I get gleeful. I get to play Stan Lee.
Face it, Tiger. I won the jackpot.
–By Erik Harrison