The legendary comics creator’s movie history began long before the MCU
Lloyd Kaufman was shocked at how easy it was to convince Stan Lee of anything. By the tail end of the 1960s, Lee had become a cult icon as the face of Marvel Comics over the course of the decade.
He was written of lovingly in trendy media outlets like The Village Voice and New York magazine. He regularly spoke to auditoriums full of rapt college students. He hadn’t quite assumed the look, speaking style, or place in mainstream culture that he eventually came to be known for, but his voice and face were ubiquitous if you were a Marvelhead — and Kaufman was very much one of those.
He’d just graduated from Yale (“The only thing I learned there, aside from drugs and a smattering of Chinese Studies, which was my major, were comic books,” he says) and wanted to make it in motion pictures. So when he had the wild idea to combine his interests and see if Lee would do a movie with him, he looked up Marvel in the phone book and rolled the dice. “I called up and then he got on the phone,” Kaufman recalled to me. “I said, ‘I’m a big fan. I wanna make movies.’” In Kaufman’s recollection, Stan’s reply was swift: “Come on over.”
As I learned while researching my book, True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, Stan long dreamed of becoming an actor. He’d grown up gawking at Errol Flynn flicks in the 1930s at the many movie houses in his Bronx neighborhood. As a teen, he participated in a WPA theatrical group. After Spider-Man got big, he’d half-joke about wanting to play Spidey’s blowhard boss, J. Jonah Jameson, in a film adaptation. And when he finally started to brush up against Hollywood after achieving comic-book fame, he said yes to just about any opportunity to make his presence felt in the world of cinema.
Within months of first making contact, Stan and Kaufman were hammering out a screenplay for a movie about a vengeful sorceress called Night of the Witch, though it never got produced. They then spoke of other movies, none of which materialized. But their friendship endured through the decades, as Stan became a world-famous cultural icon and Kaufman became one of the great pioneers of defiantly schlocky cinema at his studio, Troma Entertainment. And that’s why, if you look in the right place, you can see Stan make cameos in movies with titles like Return to Nuke ’Em High Volume 1, The Toxic Avenger IV: Citizen Toxie, and Return to Return to Nuke ’Em High AKA Vol. 2 [sic].
Stan Lee in Return to Nuke ’Em High Volume 1 (2013)
That willingness to appear in just about any kind of flick eventually led to his globally beloved cameos in Marvel movies and other high-profile filmed fiction. But it also led to a lot of bizarre appearances in B- and Z-grade movies that have been largely forgotten, if they were even noticed in the first place. Indeed, his final cameo was not, as is popularly assumed, in Avengers: Endgame, but rather in a friend of a friend’s micro-budget indie outing.
These cameos, far from being peripheral to our understanding of Stan, are in fact a key to interpreting his psyche, his endless pursuit of recognition, and his often-depressing place in the vicious food chain of the entertainment industry.
Early days and evil ambulances
By the late ’80s, Stan wasn’t a total stranger to the screen. He’d met famed French auteur Alain Resnais and did some voiceover for Resnais’s 1973 art film L’an 01 (“The Year 01”). The children’s cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, which had debuted in 1981, featured enthusiastic narration from Stan, complete with his signature signoff, “Excelsior!”
The year 1989 brought his first Marvel-movie cameo (sort of) in the form of a wordless appearance as a member of the jury in the made-for-TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk. But it was around that time that Stan shot his first onscreen appearance in a feature film. It would prove to be the bizarre beginning of a career shift that altered the course of Stan’s life and legacy, and his willingness to go along with it had much to do with his love of flattery.
The Ambulance, out a year after Hulk, was hardly the biggest splash of 1990. Written and directed by Larry Cohen — screenwriter for classic blaxploitation flicks Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem and writer/director of sci-fi and horror curios like It’s Alive, It Lives Again and A Return to Salem’s Lot — it has one of the weirder premises you’ll ever heard of for a thriller.
Eric Roberts plays a man who, in the opening scene, catcalls a woman on the street and succeeds in charming her, only to see her abruptly collapse and be carted away by an antiquated ambulance. As it turns out, an evil doctor is poisoning people and then having them picked up by this sinister vehicle, after which they’re brought to a facility to undergo horrific medical testing. The movie follows Roberts’s quest to solve and stop this Mengele-like crime spree.
Lee in The Ambulance (1990)
But this questing takes Roberts away from his job as … a comic-book artist. As we see early on, he works at a nameless comics publisher, implied to be Marvel by the presence of massive pictures of Marvel superheroes on the walls of its bullpen (although the hero Roberts draws is the decidedly made-up and thus copyright-free “Doctor Strong”). What’s more, his editor is a man named Stan. According to producer Robert Katz (Cohen died in early 2019), the editor was based on Stan Lee, but he and Cohen — both longtime Marvel fans — initially planned to cast a pro actor in the role. “We had him in mind from the beginning but we had no idea that he would wanna do it,” Katz recalls. Then they had an idea: why not give it a shot?
In real life, Stan was no longer editing comic books by that point. He’d been in Los Angeles full-time since 1980, trying to get Marvel adaptations off the ground, usually to no avail. He was languishing in disuse at the company he’d helped build and was constantly trying to find off-ramps to non-Marvel fame, be it in movies, TV, or even children’s books. So when Cohen and Katz used a tangential social connection to get Stan’s phone number and called him directly, he was only too willing to listen to the pitch. “We told him that both Larry and I would love him to be in the movie,” Katz says, “and he was excited.”
The film was shooting in New York City, so they flew him back east and he showed up alone to the set with no entourage whatsoever, much to the men’s surprise. Similarly surprising was the fact that few on the set seemed to even know who he was — evidence that his fame was at a low ebb. Nevertheless, he was, by all accounts, great to work with. “Stan was charming,” recalls Katz’s producing partner, Moctesuma Esparza. “He was self-effacing. He was just a regular guy, hanging out.” They had him do his lines, which were nothing special, just exposition and conflict for the Roberts character, and then it was all over. The fanboys said their farewells and Stan the Man was back to La-La Land.
Stan attended the premiere of The Ambulance, which was perhaps the greatest delight of the whole experience for him: “People came over and congratulated him and knew who he was and were really thrilled he was in it,” Katz remembers. “He loved the attention and we loved the fact that he loved it.” He spoke to Cohen and Katz and made one request: as Katz recalls, “All he said to us was, ‘Find some more roles for me!’” Although nothing else materialized between the three men, more roles were indeed in the offing for Stan.
A little help for my friends
Shaun Irons and Stan used to have a ball while Irons was working as Stan’s assistant at Marvel in Hollywood, although the best parts had nothing to do with work. “I’d come into work and play Spider-Man pinball in his office,” Irons later recalled. “We’d go out to lunch some days in his Rolls Royce. We’d go out to the Friar’s Club and say hello to Milton Berle and things like that. It was a kind of weird, Old Hollywood world.” In other words, they got along. And so, when Irons and his friend Blair Murphy decided to make a micro-budget vampire movie in the early ’90s, there was hope that they might get some geeky star wattage involved.
Murphy, by coincidence, was working for superstar comics writer/artist Frank Miller, and the lads concocted a mild con. “Shaun said to Stan, ‘Hey, if you do this movie, Frank Miller wants to be in it with you,” Murphy says. “I said to Frank Miller, ‘If you do this movie, Stan Lee wants to do it with you.’ They both were like, ‘Oh, okay!’ That’s how they both ended up in the movie, this zero-budget indie movie.” This was the beginning of the next stage of Stan’s cameo journey, one in which loyalty to his friends was a major driving factor behind his appearances.
Lee in Jugular Wine: A Vampire Odyssey (1994)
Murphy’s movie, for which he sat in the director’s chair, was titled Jugular Wine: A Vampire Odyssey. It followed the trials and tribulations of an academic, played by Irons, who travels to Native American territory in Alaska to meet a colony of vampires and comes back with health issues that lead him to suspect he, himself, is becoming a bloodsucker.
Stan was to play Irons’ boss at his university (Miller was cast as a coworker) and came to shoot his scenes at a lecture hall in Santa Monica and at a janky house that Murphy and his friends had dismantled and reconstituted as a fake office. “He walked in and said, ‘I’m One-Take Lee, that’s what they call me!” says Murphy. “We’d give him the line, he’d say it with great enthusiasm, and that was it.”
It was supposed to be a simple shoot, but both Murphy and Irons say Stan didn’t totally get how to do it. “Sometimes, he’d be looking at the wrong person,” Irons said. “He was supposed to be looking at me, over here, but he’d go, ‘Why aren’t you up there with those Indians?’ while looking at the wrong person.” Murphy concurs: “His eyeline was completely wrong, so we had to flip the shot, because after one take he was like, ‘We got this! Let’s move on.’” Irons pointed out that this led to problems in post-production. “Blair later had to kind of edit around that,” he says. “But his energy was certainly highly watchable and entertaining.”
Jugular Wine had an extremely limited release in 1994 and is probably only suitable for the Stan Lee completist. But if you tune into it, you’ll get to see Smilin’ Stan in a truly bizarre scene where he’s reeling from a vampire visit and, glassy eyed, shouts, “They were like angels! Shimmering, radiant!”
Much less serious were Stan’s Troma cameos, which began, coincidentally, right when his big-budget cameos were starting up. The year 2000 saw the release of X-Men, in which Stan plays a silent hot-dog vendor who sees a mutant crawling out from the ocean — an appearance as unobtrusive as it was uninteresting. Far on the other end of the spectrum was his bookend narration for Kaufman’s aforementioned Citizen Toxie, the fourth installment in the Toxic Avenger series of films, which follow a horrifically deformed New Jersey superhero known as Toxie.
As Kaufman recalls, Stan had long been a fan of the franchise, even once telling him, “In the same way that Spider-Man put a new face on the superhero comics, Toxie put a new face on the movie superhero, because he’s got skin problems and he can’t keep a job and he loves his mother and he’s faithful to his significant other and gets bullied. He’s trying to find his identity.”
The movie is completely nuts, centered around a battle between Toxie and members of the “Diaper Mafia,” who are holding a bunch of developmentally disabled children (played by non-disabled adults doing horrific impressions) and their pregnant teacher (in reality a woman with an enormous pillow beneath her dress) hostage at the “Tromaville School for the Very Special.” There’s mishegoss involving an alternate universe, an obese sidekick named Lardass, and appearances from Lemmy Klimster of Mötörhead and a pre-fame James Gunn.
It’s all extremely and deliberately offensive, but Stan’s part is relatively tame: he bookends the movie with voiceover narration like “Due to the depletion of the ozone layer and the careless dumping of hazardous nuclear waste, thousands of people find themselves trapped in an evil parallel universe every year, and the numbers are rising.” He’s named in the credits as “Peter Parker.”
Can’t stop, won’t stop
Speaking of Peter Parker: two years later, Spider-Man premiered, complete with another Stan cameo, and Stan’s newfound career as a cameo artist was off to the races. He would go on to film more than 40 Marvel-movie appearances in movies of increasing cultural impact. But, somewhat astoundingly, that never, ever stopped him from cameoing in his friends’ low-rent pictures. As Stan’s life and career approached their endpoint, his continued appearances in these tiny outings suggested not just a love of fame and a love of his friends — though both were surely still present — but also of pure delight at being in such films, as opposed to the contemporaneous Marvel pictures, which he didn’t much care for.
He reunited with Murphy for a 2015 feature called Zombie Dream, which, coincidentally enough, starred Eric Roberts, with Roberts narrating a supposed dream he had about zombies and people portraying great figures from history, one of which is Stan as himself. His very brief sequence was shot at his offices in Beverly Hills and he doesn’t seem to totally get what the movie is, but he does do a trick where he swings his leg all the way over an office chair — no easy feat for a 93-year-old.
He returned to Troma for those two Return to Nuke ’Em High movies — released in 2013 and 2019, respectively — both of which are all about pearl-clutchingly trashy happenings at the titular high school. Stan appeared as the narrator, reading text like “We’ve learned that love conquers all, even if your partner is impregnated by water fowl. We’ve learned that bullying is wrong and singing public-domain barbershop songs while violently killing people — hey, that’s no way to go through life! After all, you might get slaughtered by a giant, mutated duck named Kevin.”
And the last movie to ever feature a Stan Lee cameo, 2019’s Jason Mewes-directed Madness in the Method, was a perfect example of this long-running thread in Stan’s career. Stan had been friends with writer/director/raconteur Kevin Smith since the mid-’90s, when he’d done a cameo for Smith’s Mallrats (which is not a B-movie, exactly, but isn’t far off), and when Smith’s friend Mewes (who plays Jay to Smith’s Silent Bob in Smith’s movies) wanted to make his directorial debut, that string of connections led to Stan agreeing to appear on screen as himself.
The movie’s plot is a little hard to describe, but suffice it to say Mewes plays a version of himself, trying to level up as an actor by going Method and getting caught up in a series of murders in the process. Stan is in one scene, standing above a dead body next to a cop. “Damn Hollywood,” he cries. “All these actors are turning it into a warzone!” He and the officer kibitz a bit, then Stan stomps off. His final words — the final words he’d ever utter in a movie — were “’Nuff said. I’m outta here. Upward and onward, Jim!”
Lee in Madness in the Method.
Image: Red Rock Entertainment
Taken together, all of these cameos paint a picture of a man who was fiercely loyal to his friends and willing to help them out, but also deeply desirous of any little bit of recognition he could get. Which force was more powerful as a push factor is impossible to say, but their combination led to a series of truly odd roles that are as much a part of his legacy as his spots in, say, the Avengers movies — for which, it should be said, he was also paid virtually nothing, not that that bothered Stan much. He was in it for the love of the game, and, to an extent, of himself.
According to people close to him, Stan actually didn’t much care for Marvel movies and rarely stayed after the red-carpet portions of their premieres. But Kaufman is proud to say Stan had no allergies to Troma. “He always asked for our movies, too,” Kaufman recalls. “He asked me to give them to him. He never criticized them. But he always wanted to see them.”
Just a few months before Stan died in 2018, while his life was in complete chaos due to elder abuse and grift, he and Kaufman nevertheless reunited to film a little video, now deleted from YouTube. In it, the two old friends reminisce, joke around, and, eventually, sing an old musical-theater ditty called “Who Can I Turn To?”
Though it was meant to be fun, the lyrics are eerily reminiscent of Stan’s own struggles at the end of his life, struggles brought about in no small part by his quest for recognition and validation, which led him to make 20 years’ worth of unwise business decisions and partnerships: “With no star to guide me / And no one beside me,” they sang, “I’ll go on my way and, after the day / The darkness will hide me.”
And yet, there is hope in that song, just as there was in every attempt Stan made at breaking big. He never became a great thespian or filmmaker, but he always found comfort while rolling around in the schlock. “And maybe tomorrow,” he crooned, “I’ll find what I’m after.”
True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee
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“A biography that reads like a thriller or a whodunit . . . scrupulously honest, deeply damning, and sometimes even heartbreaking.”—Neil Gaiman