What Hollywood Taught Stan Lee & Me About The Death Of Racism: by Eric Blakeney
Racism is finally in the global crosshairs and I can’t help but think back to all the times I foolishly thought we’d seen the last of it.
My first days in Hollywood come to mind. I’d hit town armed with a stack of spec scripts that I just knew would change the industry and I was on a mission to attach myself to the perfect agent. Well, any agent.
The hunt for decent representation is a demoralising labour fraught with heartbreak and loomed over by one terrible irony. By the time you are successful enough to land a big agent, your career is already so incandescent you don’t really need one. But there you go.
I don’t remember who pointed me to the office of Don Kopoloff. Don had a cubby on Sunset Boulevard above the building next door to Scandia, a relic of Old Hollywood famous for their Swedish meatballs. To me, this was as glamorous as it gets.
Don was all of the Hollywood clichés of the small-time agent grubbing for table scraps for his fringe clients. One of the multitudes of Broadway Danny Rose types that people the lower rungs of show business. You could always tell if a potential job was real if Don took the trouble to put on his toupee.
Don’s biggest client was Stan Lee. At that time, a has-been who was treated politely but never taken seriously, but I didn’t know this. As far as I was concerned you couldn’t get any grander than the King of the Marvel universe. I was in awe.
Don gave my latest script to Stan who was so impressed he summoned me to his Hollywood Hills home for a meeting.
I drove up to the eyrie, perched above Sunset Boulevard, in my ’71 Buick convertible, wearing a leather bomber jacket, Isadora Duncan length silk scarf, and World War One leather flying helmet.
Stan had seen me pull up and, delighted by my rickety road warrior, insisted we go cruising. He strapped on my flying helmet and we dive-bombed along Mulholland Drive into the Valley. I assumed we’d head straight to a bar, but Stan explained that he was a milkshake man. He’d acquired the habit as a too thin young man who was forever trying to bulk up. Chocolate shakes were his drink of choice.
We immediately hit it off. Stan had grandiose stories to tell and I was an equally grandiose listener. He was a captivating tour guide of the Marvel universe, though never discussed the politics of this world and would ignore critics of his path to success. He only cared about creating cool new characters. And being famous. Stan really liked being famous.
But Stan was no scene-hogging megalomaniac. He was genuinely curious and prodded me continually for my own stories. I had little to offer in my portfolio of un-produced screenplays and unpublished short stories, but I could hold my own with Rabelaisian yarns as a budding Bukowski among the LA demimonde. Stan ate it up. If I had to choose one word to describe Stan it would have to be “exuberant.” I could pick many others, but exuberant will do.
He called me the day after our first meeting full of exuberance, delighted by a discovery he’d just made. Could I come over straight away? I fired up the Buick and drove up.
When I arrived, Stan was about as tickled as a fellah could be, chuckling to himself. He told me that he’d always liked the sound of the word gormless and had been misusing it forever. He’d thought it meant forceful and full of power and would employ it to describe larger than life personas. Having just met me in my Mad Max drag, he characterised me to his wife Joan as gormless. She’d insisted he was misusing the word so he looked it up and, darn if Joan wasn’t right! I shrugged and said he was probably using the word correctly to describe me. He smacked me on the shoulder, grabbed my flying helmet and said, “let’s get to work!”
Thus began a tradition of sitting at counters, Stan slugging back chocolate shakes while I slammed White Russians — which were kind of like shakes — and scheming together to take over Hollywood. We’d throw ideas back and forth and invariably Stan would begin a lament I would hear on more than one occasion.
“Blakeney” — he never called me by my first name — “I don’t understand why Hollywood won’t make a big budget Spiderman movie. I know it would work!”
The 80s were not an appreciative decade for Marvel superheroes and I could only nod politely, knowing inside that Spiderman’s time had come and gone with a corny 70s made-for-television movie.
We batted around ideas until finally Stan and I agreed the time was right to bring black superhero Luke Cage to the big screen. We both agreed that racism was finally being put to rest and the world was ready for black superheroes. We fantasised about casting Carl Weathers, the actor who played Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies, as Luke Cage.
We partnered with the great producer Jere Henshaw, who’d been an early champion of Star Wars at FOX. Jere called Carl Weathers’ reps and got a very positive commitment. Then he arranged for us to bring the project to MGM. The buzz was strong. I was going to do my first Hollywood movie!
Stan, Jere, and I met with the two heads of the studio and gave an inspired pitch. The execs loved it. Stan, Jere, and I exchanged furtive smiles. We had this! Umm, hang on a second. It was that time of the pitch when execs bring their sober judgment to the festivities. I would later come to recognise this amicable executioner’s expression, but I was too new to the game at this point. It seemed there was just one teeny problem.
The demographics. This was the first time I’d heard the term. The execs explained to us that while black audiences were the largest action movie ticket buyers, market research had revealed that they didn’t like watching black heroes and preferred them as sidekicks or bad guys.
Our jaws hung open. I glanced quickly at my older mentors for confirmation that this was all show biz executive humour. It wasn’t. They passed.
We walked out with heads hung low. Jere said goodbye. Stan and I got into the Buick and went to a local watering hole. After Christ knows how many milkshakes and White Russians, Stan turned to me and at a loss for words over our racist beat down, reverted to his old lament, “Blakeney, I don’t understand why Hollywood won’t do a big budget Spiderman movie. I know it would work!”
Stan was right about everything. Well, except racism being over in America. Technology eventually caught up to filmmaking and now the entire Marvel universe rules Hollywood. One of the biggest films of the last decade was a black Superhero movie, and Luke Cage also made it to TV series.
Stan was a true original and I was happy to see Hollywood finally show him the respect he so deserved. Sadly, my late friend never got to attend racism’s funeral. But we fight on, superheroes that we are.