June 1996 saw the release of The Phantom, a rip-roaring adventure movie based on the 1930s comic book hero (best remembered by us 80s kids for his role in cartoon series Defenders of the Earth). With Billy Zane as the titular hero, Kristy Swanson as his love interest and Treat Williams as the bad guy, The Phantom wasn’t a big hit, but 25 years on it’s developed a bit of a cult following. Here are some facts about the movie you might not have known.
10. It could have been directed by Sergio Leone
As hard as it is to imagine now, the legendary Sergio Leone (director of A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West) was the first filmmaker to express interest in The Phantom. After declining the director’s chair on another comic strip adaptation, 1980 camp classic Flash Gordon, Leone spoke instead of his hopes to make a movie based around writer-artist Lee Falk’s purple-suited hero.
Interestingly, Leone suggested this could be the first of two such comic adaptations, to be followed by a movie based on Lee Falk’s other famous hero Mandrake the Magician. However, neither film came to pass, as Leone concentrated his efforts on Once Upon a Time in America.
9. Joe Dante developed the script as a spoof but “nobody seemed to notice it was written to be funny”
Before Simon Wincer landed the job, the first director attached to The Phantom was Joe Dante (Gremlins), who developed the script with screenwriter Jeffrey Boam. Dante says he and Boam approached the film as “kind of a spoof. We were a few weeks away from shooting in Australia when the plug was pulled over the budget and the presence of a winged demon at the climax.”
Paramount later dusted off the project without Dante (or the demon), but “nobody seemed to notice it was written to be funny, so it was – disastrously – played straight. Many unintentionally funny moments were cut after a raucous test screening.”
8. Bruce Campbell came close to playing the lead
For their square-jawed title character, the makers of The Phantom needed a suitably square-jawed actor, and one serious contender was Bruce Campbell, star of the Evil Dead series (including Army of Darkness, which had been a modest hit in 1992). Campbell screen-tested for the lead, the only other actor to do so besides Billy Zane – but unfortunately for him, Zane got the job.
Another actor said to have been considered early on was Kevin Smith – not the American filmmaker behind Mallrats, but the New Zealand actor of the same name. Smith was a sometime co-star of Bruce Campbell on TV adventure shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.
7. Zane spent 18 months getting in shape for the role
Whether he’s clad in the purple spandex suit, dressed in his street clothes as Kit Walker or bare-chested, viewers can hardly fail to note that Billy Zane was in impeccable physical condition when he played The Phantom. It was reported at the time that the actor spent an entire year and a half sculpting his physique accordingly.
Zane told the Chicago Tribune he worked out with a personal trainer for three hours a day, six days a week throughout the time, attributing his gains to “weight training, aerobics, martial arts and good deeds.”
6. It was Catherine Zeta-Jones’ first Hollywood movie
After finding fame in her native Britain via TV series The Darling Buds of May, Catherine Zeta-Jones relocated to Hollywood in the mid-90s. The Phantom gave the actress her first stateside role, as the air pirate Sala.
From there, Zeta-Jones was cast in 1996 TV mini-series Titanic (not to be confused with the 1997 movie), and soon thereafter really hit the big time with The Mask of Zorro. A few years later she was married to Michael Douglas, and won an Oscar for Chicago.
5. The villains were renamed the Sengh Brotherhood to avoid offending people named Singh
In the original Phantom comic strips, the purple-suited hero does battle with an evil crime syndicate descended from pirates known as the Singh Brotherhood. However, as Singh is one of the most common surnames in the world, the filmmakers were wary of causing offence.
For this reason, they tweaked the name to Sengh Brotherhood, and renamed Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s pirate villain Kabai Sengh.
4. Diana’s home was really the Playboy Mansion
A key sequence early in the film takes place at the mansion home of Kristy Swanson’s Diana Palmer and her family. While the interiors of this scene were shot on a studio set, a famous real-life mansion was used for the exteriors.
The house in question was the Playboy Mansion, the Los Angeles home of the late magazine publisher Hugh Hefner, who agreed to his home’s use in the film as he was a lifelong fan of The Phantom comics.
3. Billy Zane shaved his head to make sure the Phantom hood fit right
Movie hair and make-up artists have their ways with flattening hair for costumes like that of The Phantom. Even so, it was ultimately decided that things would be simpler if Billy Zane shaved his head completely in order to make sure the purple hood fit just right.
For this reason, all Zane’s scenes out of costume as Kit Walker (who has a full head of hair) had to be shot first.
2. Zane signed up to make two sequels that never happened
On release in June 1996, The Phantom met a largely positive response from critics, but failed to capture the interest of audiences. After costing $45 million to make, the film took less than half of that at the box office, rendering it a confirmed flop.
Billy Zane had originally been poised to reprise the role in two follow-up films, but the film’s commercial failure meant that these plans were immediately scrapped.
1. Avatar’s Sam Worthington was briefly linked to a Phantom reboot
In the years since The Phantom, the film’s reputation has grown, as has the general public’s taste for superhero movies. It’s not too surprising, then, that a new big screen take on The Phantom has been rumoured for some time.
Initially, studio Paramount were said to be pursuing a direct sequel with Zane, Swanson and Zeta-Jones returning, but this later changed to an outright reboot, with Avatar‘s Sam Worthington considered for the title role. Alas, neither project came to pass.