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

steel comic

Part 2: The One Hundred and Twenty Million Dollar Man

Kenny Johnson: I got a call one day from Quincy Jones. He called to say he had this Warner Brothers property, this comic book called Steel, about a black guy who’s not quite a superhero, but he becomes a hero. And there had not been a black male lead in anything like that at that time.

Leonard Armato: There weren’t really any black action heroes, you know what I mean? And so that was a little bit of a challenge. And really the truth is we had to fight the whole time for budget; to get the best script, to get the best director, to get the best production budget. So all that stuff was hard.

Kenny Johnson: But it really appealed to me. I was raised in a really bigoted, anti-Semitic household so whenever I have the chance to strike back at intolerance and prejudice as I did in Alien Nation. I try to chip away at that. So anyway, the idea that this black guy who had created weaponry in the service fights back against street gangs with a suit of armor. It was sort of a poor man’s Iron Man.

Leonard Armato: Iron Man is really just a modern day version of Steel, but with a white guy in the suit instead of a black guy. And a bigger budget. Now, Iron Man is beautifully produced and Robert Downey Jr. is awesome—taking nothing about from him–but my point is that the idea of Steel, which was Quincy’s idea, was a great one.

Kenny Johnson: So I said, “That sounds like fun, Quincy. Who’s going to star?” And he said, “Well, we’ve got Shaquille O’Neal attached.” And I said, “That’s great, Quincy, but who’s going to star?”

Venita Ozols-Graham: Shaq had just done Shazaam, or Kazaam, or whatever it was called.

Kenny Johnson: And he had just signed the $120 million contract with the Lakers.

Venita Ozols- Graham: At the same time he was trying to launch his rap career, so I think he was just trying to conquer the world of entertainment.

Leonard Armato: When Shaquille came out of college, it was apparent to me that he was quite remarkable and had the capability to be the first athlete that could transcend sport and also incorporate into his world marketing, entertainment and technology. So we did a lot of things in the advertising world, you know? And then we branched out into the original content world, which is the world of Hollywood. We started developing various projects and then we decided that it would be an interesting opportunity to go into acting.

Kenny Johnson: They [the producers and the studio] had a tremendous faith in Shaq. So I thought maybe they knew something that I don’t know. Maybe their marketing has their finger on the pulse. I didn’t really think so, but then again these people had made a lot more movies than I had. And they were offering me really nice money to write and direct.


Even though this wasn’t the ideal film project that Johnson had in mind, Steel was a chance for him to escape the noose-like pigeonhole of being the “TV sci-fi guy.” And unlike the only other theatrical film he had directed [Short Circuit 2], this time he’d have the creative control to write a script from scratch. 

Venita Ozols-Graham: Kenny wrote it and I remember thinking: this is not what I expected. This is really cute. It was more like a family film, like a Disney superhero movie. It was an oddball, you know what I’m saying? This was about a guy who inadvertently became a superhero because of his ability to do something and because of his big heart. And it was a super sweet movie.

Kenny Johnson: The movie didn’t really have anything to do with the comic. I looked at the comic book and it was extremely violent. There were blood and brains scattered all over the wall. You know it was really ugly with these weapons. So I had to create weapons that would give me flash and bang but would not spread people’s brains all over the wall. The human stuff is always what’s the most important. So I wrote a script that everybody really liked. And I met with Shaq and I really liked him a lot. He was only 24 years old at the time, and he was a good guy. But all the way along, I kept going back to Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and Billy Gerber, who were the co-presidents of Warner and saying, “look guys: I’ll be able to get a performance out of Shaq, that’s not a problem. I’ve got a lot of theater training and I can do that. But we really need to put some stars around him.” Mumble, mumble; it never happened.

Leonard Armato: And see, part of the problem that we had is that Warner Brothers wasn’t willing to pony up a big enough budget for a movie starring an African American guy. That was a time when there was no precedent for that.

Kenny Johnson: At least if you want Shaq to play the lead, you gotta let me surround him with a cast that’ll open the movie. If you can’t open the movie, it doesn’t matter, you know? I kept begging them to let me raise the budget. It was really like a cheapie movie at the time–like $21 million—but they wouldn’t budge. So that was a problem and then the other issue was that the movie needed to be done in a hurry. Because we had to shoot it between the Olympics—where Shaq was playing on the US basketball team—and the beginning of the basketball season for the Lakers. So the good news is I was able to get it rolling very, very quickly.

To make sure the film finished on-time and on-budget, Warner Brothers brought on to be the line producer on Steel. 

Mark Allan: Doing what I do—being a line producer—it’s always a hard job. Because you’re always in the middle. You gave your word to the studio that you were going to spend X amount of dollars. But you also want to give the director and allow him to do his creative dream, so you try your best not to say no. And by the end, either the director wants to kill you or the studio wants to fire you.

And in an effort to avoid either fate, one of the things Allan did was bring on one of the hottest cinematographers working in Hollywood: Mark Irwin, whose recent credits included Scream, Passenger 57 and Dumb & Dumber. 

Mark Irwin: With Quincy Jones producing, Richard Roundtree playing Uncle Joe—I mean, this is Shaft! What can I say? This is the man—there was no reason to think that this was going to be a turkey.

Part 3: Larger then Larger-than-life

Venita Ozols-Graham: Have you ever met Shaq in real life? Seven feet tall and built like a brick house. His hands, oh my gosh, his hands were like baseball mitts.

Leonard Armato: He’s absolutely huge. Larger than larger-than-life.

Venita Ozols-Graham: And people just warm up to him and love him. Because Shaquille is like this Big Jolly Brown Giant. And he’s genuinely that. He’s great at playing Shaquille. But, sadly, he’s not a good actor.

Kenny Johnson: And didn’t profess to be either. He was an honest kid. So I called one of my college friends, Ben Martin, a fine director and a really good acting teacher. Ben, hey, it’s Kenny. Can I hire you for a month or so to get with Shaq? Go to the Olympics with him? And in between games get in the hotel room with him and go through the scenes? And that’s exactly what he did.

Mark Irwin: I mean, Shaquille is many things to many to many people; as a basketball player, as a personality, as an analyst. But as an actor he’s…a basketball player. So it was great to have him surrounded by other actors. Richard Roundtree, of course, as Uncle Joe. Annabeth Gish. Charles Napier. Irma Hall.

Irma Hall: I played Shaquille’s grandmother [Grandma Odessa] and at the time I had two very young grandchildren so I thought it would be a fun part to play. I was also familiar with the comic because I used to collect comic books. I had all these Superman comics since fro when I was a little girl. I just liked comics like kids do, I guess. And this movie sounded like a fun thing to do.

Kenny Johnson: Fun is important. Whenever I start a movie, I always get the crew together and I tell them, “Look, gang, we’re here to two do things: To make the most artistic product we can make given the money we’ve been given; and the second reason we’re here is to have a good time.” And that feeling pervades the whole set.

Venita Ozols-Graham: The first thing that Kenny does is he addresses everybody on the first day of every show. And he takes us all in and says, “Okay. You are now my family. And as a family, I want to tell you—and I mean this with my whole heart—if you have what you think is a good idea, tell me. I don’t care if you’re the wardrobe person, the craft service person, the producer whatever, when it’s an opportune moment—like obviously don’t step in and interrupt me if I’m talking to an actor—but when it’s an opportune moment if you really think it’s a good idea, just wave your hand and call me over. And if it’s good, not only will I use it, but I’ll shout “Hey! Charlie had a good idea” and I’ll tell everybody.” And he did and he does. He encourages everybody to truly be their best. And then some. That’s a special talent that most people don’t have.

Mark Allan: Kenny was so great, he would do whatever it takes. He was one of the nicest and hardest working directors I have had the pleasure to work with. He was always prepared for every day, each shot. He was a very hard working director, always aware of the schedule- and budget -and great to the crew. I remember the first time I got the script, he delivered it to my house on a Sunday. “Hi,” he says, this guy who I’ve never met before. “Just wanted to deliver the script. By the way, I’m Kenny the director.” You’re the director? And you’re personally delivering scripts? On a Sunday? [laughing] I think Kenny was happy to have the chance to do a feature film. And basically would have done anything. You have to remember that back then people thought a different way about television. Like if you were doing television it meant your movie career was over.

Venita Ozols-Graham: I think it happens almost all the time, to be honest with you. I think it happens with actors, it happens to directors, it happens to everybody. You sort of get good at something and then that’s how everybody sees you, you know? And you’re suddenly a cog in the machine and that’s your part.

With Steel, Johnson had hoped to change that perception. And, for better or worse, a lot of those hopes rested with Shaquille O’Neal. 


Kenny Johnson: It’s funny because Shaq was only 24 years old, but he’s 7’1” so you sort of lose track of the fact that he’s just a kid. He’s giant. And when we first started working together, he’d never look at me in the eye. And he explained it to me and said, “Listen, Kenny. You gotta understand how I was raised: my step-father was a drill sergeant and you never looked the Sergeant in the eye. Because if you did that was an act of aggression and if you did, he’d clock you.” So I told Shaq: I guarantee I’m not going to throw any punches at you.

Venita Ozols-Graham: You’ve probably already picked up by now that Kenny’s a really special person.

Kenny Johnson: But still, Shaq was kind of tentative. Another week or two goes by and he was still walking on eggs when he was around me. What’s the matter? What’s wrong? When are you going to start screaming? What do you mean? And he said: well that’s what directors do, man. They scream…no Shaq, that’s not me. That’s not going to happen. And he said: no, some day you’re going to crack. I know it. No, no. And one day I had driven myself to work that day, so I drove in and I had this little two-seater Mercedes, a 1971 little coupe that I’d had for about 30 years. And so I was on the set and Shaq came walking up and he said, “Sorry about your car, man.” What do you mean. “One of the teamsters backed a car into it. It’s just wrecked.” Really? Your car is just smashed. It’s awful. And I said, “well, what a drag. Well come on, let’s rehearse.” “Wait a minute, aren’t you going to start screaming?” “What is my screaming going to accomplish? If the transpo guys had an accident with my car, I know that they’ll take care of it. C’mon, let’s get to work.” Finally, at that point, he began to realize that I was serious that that’s the way that I work.

Mark Allan: And the way things worked with Shaq was a little unusual. He had one requirement in his contract, because when he was in Orlando he was the worst free-throw shooter in the league. So part of his deal was that at every location there had to be professional—basically in one of the trucks was a basket—so that in between takes he could practice. He had a coach and basically he was endlessly free-throwing.

Venita Ozols-Graham: Yeah, that was kind of annoying for me on production. Because when we needed him, we needed him. But he had to play basketball. The funny thing is that there were a bunch of crewmembers who were actually better at making baskets than he was. You know, because he’s not exactly the best freethower in the world. He’s just not. So people loved playing with Shaq, but the problem was they could never get past him. That was the challenge.

Mark Irwin: The challenge for us in dealing with Shaq’s size was, literally, the aspect ratio. The shape of the frame. So we did a lot of over-shoulder angles, that was kind of the deal. And we’d often arrange to have him sitting, or have those around him standing on a step. So we tried to make it organic, as much as we could…and to make it look natural was part of it. Annabeth Gish was in a wheelchair, though. So now we’re trying to shoot a scene with Shaq where the people around him are sitting…And the difference between them is huge. So we tried to keep things moving, and have him kneel or lean; that felt more organic. And he was very good about it. He understood. And Kenny was very aware of the ground he was walking on. In the sense that this is a superhero and he was very determined to make him a working class superhero.

Mark Irwin: Kenny wanted Shaq to be part of the world that he lived in. He wanted to keep it grounded and shoot in the neighborhood. In South Central. And remember, this was twenty years ago: there were gang wars in Los Angeles.

Mark Allan: And we needed Shaq to be as inconspicuous as possible. So we really had to shoot it at night.

Irma Hall: The funny thing was that a lot of the people in the community, the street people, they didn’t realize that it was a movie set.

Which would eventually lead to a problem…

Continue Reading Steel Oral History >>

Cool Posts From Around the Web: