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100 New Yorkers of the 1970s By Max Millard Characters: 5367

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Who is the most widely read author in the world today?

Not counting Chairman Mao, whose quotations are required reading for one-fourth of the earth's population, the honor probably belongs to a dapper, soft-spoken man in his early 60s who could walk from his Westside apartment all the way to Times Square without being recognized. He is not a familiar figure on book jackets or talk shows because Lee Falk happens to be a comic strip writer. His two creations, The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, are published in more than 500 newspapers in 40 countries. His daily readership: close to 100 million.

"One of the few places in the world where my strips don't run is in New York City," says Falk, leaning gently forward in his chair. "They ran in the New York Journal American for 25 years. That was the biggest afternoon paper in America until the newspaper strike, about 10 years ago. Then it folded, as did most of New York's papers; we were left with the Times, the Post, and the Daily News. But my strips do run in El Diario, the Spanish-language newspaper, and in the New York News World."

He arrived in New York from Missouri during the Great Depression,

while still in his teens, carrying a sample strip he had written and drawn.

King Features bought Mandrake the Magician and two years later added

The Phantom to their syndicate.

In the beginning, Falk did both the drawing and the writing himself. "Then for a long time I used to make rough sketches and give them to my artists," he recalls. "Now I just give a description of each panel. I might say 'close-up' or 'long shot' like you do in a film. Then I put in the dialogue. … Some of my early artists are dead. They've gone on to their reward - to that big bar up in the sky, where all artists go. … Now there's one group drawing my strips on Long Island, and another one on Cape Cod. Very often I don't see them from one year to the next. Collaboration works best that way."

Since giving up his drawing pad, Falk has increased his literary output many times over. Besides doing all the writing for his strips for the past 40-odd years - which now takes up but a small part of his time - he has written five novels and a dozen plays. He owns five theatres; he has directed about 100 plays and produced 300. None of his own dramatic works has been a big commercial success, although one is currently doing well in Paris. Then there was the comedy that he co-authored with a young American he met in Rome just before World War II. "It almost made it to Broadway," says Falk. "It was redone about two years ago on the West Coast. My collaborator was there to see it too; we've remained friends to t

his day. You may have heard of the man. He's a senator from California, the senate majority whip. His name is Alan Cranston. … You see, it's best to save the punch line for the end."

Another of Falk's main pastimes is travel. He has visited enough islands, jungles, and out-of-the-way places to keep the story ideas flowing for years to come, but his appetite is still unwhetted. Early this year he toured Scandinavia, when "they were making a big fuss about the Phantom's marriage. There were so many press conferences to attend. One guy made me wear a mask, and the next day as I got on the plane, there was my picture on the front page. I said, 'But your paper doesn't even run The Phantom.' He said, 'The Phantom belongs to all of Norway.'"

In April of this year, Lee and his wife Elizabeth, a cosmetics executive turned mystery writer, spent three weeks in the People's Republic of China. Ironically, although that is one of the few places in the world where Falk's name is completely unknown, neither he nor anyone else in his touring group could escape the public eye. "They were fascinated by seeing us, because for a whole generation the Chinese have been shut off from foreign visitors. They crowded around us 10 deep, and held up their babies."

An action-oriented man who loves to play tennis, ride his bicycle, and go swimming, Falk has lived on the West Side for over 20 years because "I find the East Side a little too chichi for my tastes." Another Westside characteristic he likes is the abundance of Puerto Rican residents: "They're very sweet, gentle people. … [Deputy Mayor] Herman Badillo is an old friend of mine. He knew my comic strips from Puerto Rico."

Lee Falk estimates that "over a period of 40 years I must have written about 800 to 1,000 stories. They would fill this whole room." Where does he get his inspiration? "A lot of it comes from my travels. It's all grist for the mill. Now and then I see something in the news and adapt it to my features. For example, once I saw a story in Life magazine about a Swiss scientist who was experimenting with back-breeding. He managed to breed some European cattle back to the original aurochs, which has been extinct for several hundred years. … I put his idea into Mandrake. A scientist started with a lizard and ended up with a dinosaur."

The veteran storyteller never gets tired of spinning his yarns. "I enjoy it. It's something I can do. … Both The Phantom and Mandrake are translated into about 20 languages. After all these years, they're bigger than ever - except in this country, because we've lost so many papers."

********

WESTSIDER BARRY FARBER

Radio talkmaster and linguist

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