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How Stan Lee's 'Fantastic 4' cameo was brainstormed by pre-MCU Kevin Feige and a makeup artist

Before Iron Man, there was Willie Lumpkin.

By Josh Weiss
Stan Lee

Before Tony Stark... there was Willie Lumpkin. With so many Marvel Studios projects in development or on the verge of release, it's hard to imagine a world without Kevin Feige and the ever-expanding MCU franchise he originated more than a decade ago. All the way back in the Dark Ages that were the early-to-mid 2000s, Marvel's moviemaking machine was a disjointed operation of titles that were either massive hits (like X-Men and Spider-Man) or wild misfires (like Daredevil and Man-Thing).

It was on these early endeavors that Mr. Feige cut his cinematic teeth, learning the industry ropes from old pros like Laura Shuler Donner and Avi Arad on his journey to becoming the most lucrative producer in the history of the entertainment industry. While many facets of comic book filmmaking rapidly evolved with the onset of a shared cinematic universe in 2008 with the wide releases of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, one thing remained constant: Stan Lee cameos.

Prior to his passing in 2018, the man, the myth, and the legend almost never failed to pop up in a big screen adventure inspired by the heroes and villains he helped create alongside Jack Kirby. Most of the time, he just played a random dude in sunglasses, but other times, he tackled a character ripped straight out of the comics he wrote.

A prime example of this exception to the rule can be found in 2005's Fantastic Four, in which Lee unofficially joined the US Postal Service as Baxter Building mailman, Willie Lumpkin. It was a rather perfect choice, although it may come as a surprise to you that the idea was formed just mere days before Lee stepped on the set after a quick brainstorming session between Feige and longtime makeup effects artist, Bart Mixon, who oversaw Michael Chiklis's rocky transformation into The Thing.

"Kevin was the only other guy on set that I could talk comic books with because nobody else knew anything about that stuff," Mixon, a lifelong acolyte of the Marvel canon, tells SYFY WIRE during a larger conversation about his work on the 1990 television miniseries based on Stephen King's IT. "I remember one day, he was visibly excited, like, ‘Ooo, Stan Lee’s coming! He's gonna be here in a couple of days.’ And I'm like, ‘Oh, that's great. What's his cameo going to be this time?’ And he's like, ‘I don't know. We gotta think of something good.’ I go, ‘Well, he should be Willie Lumpkin.’ And you could literally see the light bulb go off over his head. He's like, ‘That's a great idea!’"

Mixon continues: "The next day, new script pages were out with the Willie Lumpkin character added. Originally, all his dialogue was [spoken by] the doorman for the Baxter Building, so unfortunately for that guy, they took some of his lines and gave them to Stan. For whatever reason, Stan refused to get rid of his sunglasses. He thought his sunglasses were his trademark. The costume or prop people tried to give him little round glasses like Willie Lumpkin wears in the comics, but Stan was not comfortable not having his trademark sunglasses."

Fifteen years prior, Mixon had a chance to interact with Kirby at a cast and crew screening for the now-infamous Captain America movie starring Matt Salinger as Steve Rogers. Cap's co-creator was allegedly none too pleased with the fact that the Star-Spangled hero only donned his iconic costume at the beginning and at the end. "Anytime there was an action scene where it was just Steve Rogers, Kirby's sitting there going, ‘Put the uniform on! Put the uniform on!’' Mixon recalls. "Through the whole movie, he's just muttering under his breath, ‘Put him in the suit!’ I thought that was kind of funny."

In recent years, the makeup artist and die-hard comic book fan has had a chance to work on a slew of high-profile MCU offerings like Captain America: Civil WarAvengers: Endgame, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. "Working on all the Marvel stuff has been a dream come true," he concludes. "Kevin Feige still talks to me when I see him on set, so at least I got that going for me..."

Looking for more sci-fi adventure in the meantime? Check out Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Warehouse 13, Eureka, SYFY's Resident Alien, Sliders, Intergalactic and more on Peacock now.