We all know Stan Lee the public figure, Smilin’ Stan, the Generalissimo, or as that funny guy who shows up in Marvel film cameos.
We all know his unmatched achievements in comics, co-creating so many landmark characters from The Fantastic Four, to Spider-Man, to the Avengers, to the X-Men.
We all know his unequalled output of comicbook classics from 1962 to 1972. Few if any fellow comicbook writers will ever be as prolific, though many shall continue to try.
But what was Stan Lee, the person as opposed to the public persona, really like?
As his Associate Editor and Chief Executive Assistant (Stan insisted on the “Chief” part) for just shy of twenty-four years, I am in a unique position to know. I got to see Stan on a daily basis for over two decades working as his assistant and editor on his beloved The Amazing Spider-Man newspaper comic strip.
Others have known Stan for longer, his beloved wife Joan and his dear daughter J. C., not to forget his brother Larry Lieber. Or his co-workers, including writer and editor Roy Thomas and artist Joe Sinnott, both still with us though time has taken away so many other of Stan’s peers.
There were tough times, such as the infamous Marvel bankruptcy of the late 1990’s and the death of his beloved wife Joan. There were great times as well. The premiere of the Spider-Man movie, for instance, and so many successful movies that followed it. Stan lived long enough to see the characters he co-created featured in the most successful run of films, much less superhero films, in history. This was something Stan wished for, worked hard for and finally saw come to light. Few get that privilege.
Stan’s spirit and go-getter energy buoyed him and those close to him, including me, through it all. Stan was already looking forward to the next thing, even as his many achievements continued to succeed, though a few fell inevitably to the wayside.
Stan Lee deliberately created a persona through which he reached his fans, promoted Marvel comicbooks and Marvel’s characters, and made countless public appearances from lecturing at colleges in the late 60’s and 70’s to his numerous convention appearances in the 21st century. This persona was Smilin’ Stan, the over the top pitch man whose “greatest fan” was always himself. The enthusiasm and love he had for Marvel and all the characters he created was real, but in truth he was a humble, hard-working man who believed that luck played the biggest role in his numerous successes.
Stan got the idea of using a public persona from one of his idols, comedian and radio and television star Jack Benny. Benny played the public part of a conceited, miserly curmudgeon whose faults were regularly exploited by his show’s cast of characters like wife Mary Livingston and young sidekick Dennis Day. Yet in real life, Benny was a generous, loyal and supportive figure in the entertainment industry beloved by all who knew him.
Stan has had that same general effect on all those who’ve known and worked with him. His favorite compliment was being called “adorable” for his impish humor and egotistical gags, which in actuality were gentle self-deprecations and homages to his idol Benny. Humor was the key. Stan loved humor and used it in everyday life.
Whether in the company of fellow celebrities or business partners, or standing on the stage in front of adoring fans, or even during doctor visits or at home, Stan used humor. More often than not those who met him were in nervous awe of Stan. Stan would jokingly acknowledge this, then make a crack that made everyone in the room laugh, instantly draining the tension and creating a relaxed, congenial atmosphere in which Stan thrived, as did all those he was with.
Stan was also a doting husband who called his wife from work at least once a day, if not more. No matter how important a meeting he was in, I was to connect him with his wife right away any time she called. Stan wrote heart-felt, private love poems to Joan every year for their anniversary and Valentine’s Day. As much as he was a bit of a workaholic, sitting at his typewriter or computer for hours every day, he always looked forward to going home. At home he’d sit with his wife and talk about what had happened that day, no matter it be memorable or mundane.
And not so secretly, he was a worrier. Once fellow voice actor Mark Hamill asked him how he kept so fit at his age, and Stan replied, “I worry! I worry intensely for about an hour each day. It’s even better than daily exercise!” Part of the reason Stan may have kept me around so long is Stan would share these worries with me and we’d figure out ways to quickly solve the endless little problems that came across his desk each day. Once these worries were dealt with, Stan could turn to his computer and write as he pursued his many creative endeavors.
Also, no matter what was worrying him at the time, when the cameras or recorders went on for an interview, Stan turned on his charming Smilin’ Stan personality and patiently answered questions he’d answered a thousand times before, often adding new insights. And as a voice actor and cameo actor, he was a natural, calling himself “One Take Lee” and often getting his scene or line of dialog down perfectly the first time.
Finally, he was a good and kind man, loyal to those who worked for him, whether his assistants, his co-workers, or the artists or writers working with him. Stan was always generous; in fact, he taught me to tip folks even more than they usually expect, a practice I keep to this day.
If anybody ever asks me how I could have done this for twenty-four years, I have to say I could not have but for the fact that Stan was always a great boss. In fact, he was “adorable!”
It has been my privilege, it has been my pleasure, to have worked with and known Stan Lee personally these many years.
– Mike Kelly, Chief Executive Assistant to Stan Lee for 24 years and Associate Editor of The Amazing Spider-Man newspaper comic strip