How Stan Lee Went From The Voice Of Marvel To Cameo King

(Welcome to Role Call, where we examine two performances from an actor – their first defining role and their most recent/last – to get a sense of who they are.)

My Stan Lee story is the same as everyone else's. I was milling around the Marriott Marquis at one of a hundred sponsored parties at Comic-Con when the Marvel legend walked up to me, struck up a conversation, and chit chatted for a few minutes before moseying along to a comfy lobby couch nearby. I don't remember if he had a drink. I don't remember what we talked about. I remember that I shook his hand.

I also remember that there was no force field between Stan Lee the persona and Stan Lee and person. He's the celebrity most comfortable with celebrity that I've ever met – at once energized by the attention without being desperate for it or to avoid it. He was treated like oxygen at Comic-Con: some people gasped and flailed for him while others took him as a casual component of the atmosphere.

Obviously he wasn't an actor so much as a person hired to play himself in movies. Yet his on-screen personality fascinates because of its singularity. Famous people have been hired to drop in as themselves with a wink and nod since Hollywood's early days, but Lee created a story engine that would, half a century later, morph into a cinematic powerhouse that held him as its mascot, good luck charm, and ever-present unnamed character.

Hot Dog Vendor. Man in Fair. Security Guard. Bus Driver. Man in Times Square. Old men going about their daily business who didn't need a name because we knew intimately the man wearing their clothes.

For a man who wasn't an actor, he sure had a lot of acting credits. Over 100, in fact. No one else had his career. He was credited again and again not as "Himself," but as "Stan Lee," and I'd like to explore that distinction.

His Early Role: People Watcher at the Mall

Lee signed on to narrate The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends animated series. His comforting, dulcet tones offered familiarity to fans. Who better to set up each week's story?

His cameo career got started when he played himself in an episode of Muppet Babies where Rowlf and Skeeter became Spider-Dog and Spider-Girl, but get in a web-slinging spat that results in silly string flying into Lee's face. Watching it now, Lee was just as game for the gag then as he was in recent years. Nothing changed. The warmth. The affable entertainer. Mr. Rogers gets a lot of well-earned praise for embodying optimism and good-natured helpfulness, but, despite his failings, Lee was also consistently a creator aware that his stories were aimed at children. He embraced that.

Since he was already world famous and getting hired specifically to be himself, Lee didn't have a breakout role, but he had something like it in Mallrats.

Worshipped by writer/director Keven Smith, Lee shows up in the film in two forms. Initially he's an affable stranger engaging Brodie (Jason Lee) in a conversation about two lovers shopping for lingerie who look particularly smitten with each other. Then it turns out he actually is Stan Lee, the Stan Lee, and not just Stan Lee playing Old Man in Mall or something. Like the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, Lee stomps into the movie Deus Ex Machina style, ripping the twin raptors of Brodie's self-doubt and assholery from the air with his sage advice about arrested development, immature emotions, and superheroes reflecting his inner angels and demons.

The Persona: Stan Lee

It's fitting that he played the most poignant version of himself early on in his acting career because there's no improving on it. Lee's appearance in the movie as wizened elder (who's also in it for the cash) gave comic book fans a jolt of love, and gave people who knew of The Hulk and the X-Men a chance to meet their maker.

How he floats into the scene in Mallrats reminds me completely of how I encountered him at Comic-Con. He just appears and strikes up an interesting conversation. It's a subtle thing, but that makes his cameos something different from almost all others. He's not just lending his fame to a moment while doing what a movie needs him to do; he's lending his fame to a moment while doing exactly what he would do in real life, which happens to be what the movie needs him to do.

In other words, Smith didn't write a fictional approximation of Stan Lee for Lee to appear as; Lee appeared as a real version of himself in a fictional setting. Everything orbiting Lee was fake, but he remained genuinely himself.

His Latest Role: The Watcher

A few years after doing the most talking he'd ever do in a movie, Lee unofficially started his side hustle as a permanent fixture in Marvel blockbusters as a hot dog vendor in X-Men. He palled around with Lou Ferrigno as security guards in Hulk, saved a woman from falling debris in Spider-Man 2, and delivered a package for "Tony Stank" in Civil War, but this list belies the fact that his mug showed up consistently in Marvel movies before the MCU as we know it was launched.

In that time, Lee has created three types cameos.

  • Regular Joe: the random old man who drops in with a one-liner, misses a fight behind him, or destroys a truck trying to pull Thor's hammer from the ground.
  • Famous Person: this happens twice in Iron Man movies, where Lee ostensibly plays Hugh Hefner and Larry King. The meta gag is apparently supposed to be that he's Stan Lee getting mistaken for these other older male celebrities, but it reads in the moment as if he's playing those figures, complete with their trademark wardrobe choices instead of his.
  • Stan Lee: Beyond appearing as either security guards and bus drivers or Stan Lee who's taken a job as a security guard or bus driver, Lee played himself trying to get into the Richards/Storm wedding in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, but was rejected just as he was in the comic book version, with the bouncer not believing he is who he claims to be. Lee playing the astronaut in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 complicates all of this, suggesting that he's playing Stan Lee in all of these movies while spying for The Watchers.
  • The New Persona: Stan Lee

    Regardless, he's Stan Lee. His appearance takes you out of the world of the movie immediately, but he naturally belongs there, and we're always happy when he shows up.

    Talking to him at Comic-Con is like shooting the breeze with a high school mascot and remembering there's a human under the fluffy monster suit.

    Since he's not an actor, and because he's Stan Lee, his persona is singular. But some cameos are more personal than others. It's jarring to look back at his Iron Man drop-ins. Lee as Hugh Hefner and Larry King doesn't make sense. Lee as a mailman or organic beverage enthusiast gets closer, and offers some comedy. But, as someone who's been on the receiving in of an out-of-the-blue Lee chit chat, the appearances where he initiates conversation with Spider-Man or a lovelorn Mall Rat are the truest. They aren't merely instances of Lee showing up in his trademark glasses to say something funny or crack wise with Lou Ferrigno. They're instances of Lee showing up genuinely as himself. A sign that he naturally belongs in that universe.

    I agree with Tom Spurgeon, who wrote for the Chicago Tribune in a warts-and-all obituary that argues Lee was Lee's best creation:

    "Lee's true saving grace may have been that he was so disproportionately famous compared to his contemporaries in the business that his desires couldn't help but shape comics. He longed to transcend the medium, while also maintaining the possibly misguided belief that Hollywood success would legitimize the funnybooks that made him famous. He lived long enough to see Marvel's characters grow into billion-dollar properties, even as he played cameo roles in the films that drove their popularity, linking their cinematic present to their pen and ink past."

    Silly as they are, Lee's cameos also provided a vital connective tissue for super fans and for those who Google "Who's the old man in all the Marvel movies?" If "Stan Lee" is a persona he cultivated for fame, his magic trick was living it every second he spent in public. The goofy grandpa with fantastical stories. A being we thought would be eternal because his creations certainly will be, and because he was so thoroughly, physically linked to those creations now that they're on screen.

    In other words, it will be awful to watch the first MCU movie he isn't in.