How Did This Get Made: Steel (An Oral History)

steel oral history

Iron Man – Robert Downey Jr. + Shaq = How Did This Get Made?!?!

Nobody sets out to make an unsuccessful movie. But the truth is, it happens all the time. And when it does, there’s often a fun misadventure or cautionary tale lurking somewhere behind the scenes. This is that story for the Shaquille O’Neal superhero movie Steel.

Steel Oral History

How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Steel edition of the HDTGM podcast here

Synopsis: When someone starts arming common criminals with the super-secret weapon than John Henry Irons (Shaquille O’Neal) designed for the military, Irons welds together a suit of armor and tries to save his city.

Tagline: Heroes Don’t Come Any Bigger

In the summer of 1993, Shaquille O’Neal commemorated his lifelong love of Superman with a tattoo left arm. That same summer—mere months after the iconic Man of Steel had been murdered in the DC Universe—four “Supermen” stepped forward to fill the void and protect the city of Metropolis. One of those four heroes was an African-American ex-weapons designer who went by the moniker “Steel.” This character caught the attention of music producer Quincy Jones and his partner David Salzman, who liked the idea of bringing a role model like Steel to the big screen. And after a conversation with basketball super agent Leonard Armato, Jones felt he had found the perfect guy for the part in Shaquille O’Neal.

For Shaq, the Superman superfan, this was not a difficult sell. “Shaq thought it was cool,” recalls Leonard Armato. “You get to make this iron suit, you come in and save the city. It’s a superhero movie. Why wouldn’t you like it, you know?” So Shaq was on board and so too was Warner Brothers. But what happened next was no slam dunk.

Here’s what happened, as told by those who made it happen…

steel movie poster

Featuring:

  • Mark Allan Co-Producer
  • Leonard Armato Executive Producer (Shaquille O’Neal’s former agent)
  • Irma P. Hall Actor (Grandma Odessa)
  • Mark Irwin Director of Photography
  • Kenny Johnson Writer/Director
  • Venita Ozols-Graham Assistant Director, Associate Producer

steel oral history

Part 1: Evolution of a Shadow

Kenny Johnson: Back in college, I was not much of a writer. And I really didn’t think I was for many, many years. I was at Carnegie Mellon—though it was then the Carnegie Institute of Technology—and I managed to piece together a short film just before I graduated college there. Which was interesting to do in a school with no film equipment. But I came up with a very simple little psychological thriller that could be shot in the wonderful sort of neoclassic fine arts building at school. Just this sort of grandiose cavern of arches and vaulted ceilings. Very appropriate place for a spooky situation at night that plays upon a young woman’s paranoia and fears. Ended up being 30 minutes long. It was called Evolution of a Shadow.  And so with my film under my arm, I went to New York and they basically said: Why did you come to New York?

Johnson came to New York because he was already on the east coast, though probably even more so because he had no contacts out west. 

Kenny Johnson: I figured they made some movies in New York, but unfortunately not that many at that time in the world. So I ended up in TV at first. Started as a production assistant at CBS and within a year I had secured a directing job at WPIX, the largest independent station in New York. I was 22 years old, producing and directing TV in New York. It was not what I wanted to be doing—not the dramatic film work I sought—but listen: I got a job and I was married with kids so I needed it.

About a year after that, Johnson was approached by Roger Aires who was then the executive producer of the world’s first daytime talk variety program. 

Kenny Johnson: This was shortly before Nixon hired Roger to be his media advisor. And I said, “No thanks, Roger. I appreciate the offer, but I really want to make movies.” He said he’d let me do a lot of film work and it’d be great experience and yada yada yada…Roger’s very seductive. So I joined The Mike Douglas Show as a Producer and soon took it over as Executive Producer.

During Johnson’s tenure, The Mike Douglass Show excelled, but it was not what the young filmmaker wanted to be doing. So at 25, he decided it was time to move. And, as luck would have it, he now had a contact in Los Angeles. 

Kenny Johnson: My college friend. A kid named Steven Bochco. Steve was a year younger than me in college and had gone out to Hollywood and gotten his foot in the door at Universal, where he was a fledgling staff writer. This was long before he created Hill Street Blues, LA Law, NYPD Blue and everything else. But at least I had Steve out there and a couple other friends. So I packed up, moved out there and was ready to make movies. But then California basically said: What are you talking about? You’re a talk show producer.

Despite the cold water splashed on his dream, Johnson stayed in LA (in Bochco’s guest room, actually) and tried to make it work. A mission that was aided greatly after Bochco persuaded Johnson to start writing. 

Kenny Johnson: He made me do it and I discovered that I could write, and I could write pretty fast. So I became a great writer of unproduced screenplays. In the meantime, Steve had been introducing me around to the guys at Universal, including a guy named Stephen Cannell, who was also one of the Young Turks. He was a story editor on a show called Adam 12. Bless his heart; he gave me a couple of writing assignments and ultimately a directing assignment on Adam 12…So I was starting to get my foot in the door when Bochco shared a script of mine [about Hollywood stuntmen] with Harve Bennett, who had a couple of episodic television shows going.

One of which was called The Six Million Dollar Man.

The Six Million Dollar Man.

Kenny Johnson: The show was in its first full season, so they were desperately looking for scripts in a hurry. So Herb and I kind of hit it off and he asked if I had any ideas for them. I said, “Well, it’s probably the most obvious idea you’ve already thought of, but why don’t we do the Bride of Frankenstein?” You know, you’ve got this sort of monster kind of man, shouldn’t he have a mate? Shouldn’t there be a Bionic Woman?

Bennett loved the idea of a Bionic Woman and hired Johnson to write up the episode. 

Kenny Johnson: So I did. And in the course of it, Harve asked me to join the Six Million Dollar Man. Meanwhile, the Bionic Woman went on the air and the ratings for the Six Mill just skyrocketed with the character I had created. After Return of the Bionic Woman, ABC realized they had a goldmine and Fred Silverman, who was running the network, said, “Kenny, I’d like you to spin this off into a series.”

300full-the-return-of-the-six--million--dollar-man-and-the-bionic-woman-artwork

Venita Ozols-Graham: As a trainee, my very first show ever was Bionic Woman. And Kenny was the executive producer of that. I didn’t meet him the first day—I think it was maybe 5 days into the show—but I was a baby. And I remember being awed by him. So that was my first time meeting Kenny—as an assistant director trainee running around—and then I was on a bunch of other shows with him because you sort of run in packs and clicks when you get along with people.

Kenny Johnson: Around the time I dropped away from Bionic Woman, Frank Price, who was running Universal at the time, came up to me and said they’d just acquired the rights to the Marvel Comics superheroes. Which one would I like to do? And I said, “None of them, Frank. I don’t like spandex and primary colors. It’s just not what I want to do.” I was trained in classic theater and I wanted to do the classics! [laughing] And I was really planning to say no, but my wife Susie (the most literate woman I know) had given me a coy of Les Miserables, which I was in the middle of reading. And I remember sitting at home and saying to myself: ah, shit. There’s a way to take Victor Hugo—this concept of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert pursuing him—and a little bit of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde and this ludicrous thing called The Incredible Hulk and turn it into a series. And so I went to Frank and I said, “Okay, I’ll do the Hulk if you like this concept I came up with and will let me cast it how I’d like.” And I proceeded to write the pilot for The Incredible Hulk in seven days, the whole thing story and script, and we shot the white pages of my first draft. No revisions.

The Incredible Hulk

Johnson’s two-hour pilot movie aired on CBS in November 1977. It was then picked up and ran for five seasons (as well as led to three made-for-television movies).  

Kenny Johnson: After that, I went to Warner Brothers where I was working on a feature idea—inspired by a Sinclair Lewis novel from the 30s called It Can’t Happen here—and so I wrote this script about a fascist takeover over the United States. And I was talking to Brandon Tartikoff, Brandon was then President of NBC, and he wanted to read my script. And I said that, “this wasn’t a small TV project; this was a big feature!” But I let him read the script and he flipped out. He said, “I really love this, but I’m worried that Americans won’t go for this idea of a grassroots fascist takeover.  Couldn’t it be an outside foe like the Soviets or the Chinese?” Nah, I didn’t think that would work. And then Jeff Sagansky, Brandon’s Vice President at the time, who was sitting in the corner said, “How about aliens Kenny?” Aliens? More sci-fi? Ugh. But I went home that night, thought about it and realized that Jeff had been right. I could tell the story I wanted to tell about power, and how a spectrum of people respond to its influence, by using the outside force of aliens.

v miniseries

In May 1983, NBC aired an original miniseries called “V.” 80 million people tuned in. And instead of veering away from science fiction, Johnson swerved closer to the pigeonhole. He next co-created a show called Shadow Chasers for ABC and then followed that up by developing an adaptation of Alien Nation for Fox. 

Venita Ozols-Graham: I had heard that Kenny was looking for a 1st AD on Alien Nation, so I contacted him and said, “I know that you know me—or at least that you’re aware of me—and I’d love to interview for the job.” So he said come on in and I did. But what he didn’t know—and what I hid at the time—was that I was four months pregnant. I knew that by the end of the show I’d be very, very big, but I also knew that I could do it and make it work. I just, you know, didn’t want to be turned down because of that. So I didn’t tell him about and he hired me. And then we just worked together fist and glove—we’d finish each other’s sentences—and from then on, I pretty much worked on all of his projects. Including, of course, Steel.

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