As disappointed as Eastern Michigan University alumnus/actor Michael Bailey Smith was back in 1993 when he learned The Fantastic Four movie he co-starred in wouldn’t be released, he realizes it was a blessing in disguise when looking back.
“Historically, comic book films (in that era) were bad,” said Smith, 64, an Alpena native who lives in Los Angeles. “(Being unreleased) was a blessing in disguise because it became a cult hit. It had legs after that. If it was released, it would have bombed, went away, and nobody would have thought of it.”
Based on Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four created by the late Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year – Smith played Ben Grimm, the alter-ego of the Thing, a super-strong hero with a rocky appearance. The movie would’ve adapted the origin story of the FF, a family of super-heroes who get their powers via cosmic rays while on a space shuttle.
“At its core, the FF is an extended family drama, which is something that anyone and everyone can relate,” said former Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco, who wrote the comic from 1991-96.
Grass Roots at its Finest
The movie co-starred Alex Hyde-White (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) as Reed Richards, alias Mr. Fantastic, the FF’s leader and Ben’s best friend; Rebecca Staab Chronicle Mysteries as Susan Richards, alias the Invisible Woman, Reed’s wife; Jay Underwood (Not Quite Human) as Johnny Storm, alias the Human Torch, Susan’s brother; Carl Ciarfalio (Out for Justice) as the Thing; and Joseph Culp (Mad Men) as Dr. Doom, the FF’s greatest enemy.
In the mid-1980s, Constantin Films optioned the rights to adapt the FF into a movie. In 1992, it was about to lose its option unless production began by a certain date. Production started but without a big budget. Producer Bernd Eichinger (Resident Evil) enlisted Detroit native/B-movie maestro Roger Corman (The Little Shop of Horrors), who’s made a career making movies on a shoestring budget.
“Alex and I hired a publicist and promoted it. It was in Entertainment Weekly,” recalled Smith. “We had a premiere set up (on Jan. 19, 1994) at the Mall of America with proceeds benefiting the Children’s Miracle Network and Ronald McDonald House… One time we were flying back from Florida, Corman had a copy of the trailer. People on the plane cheered. It was grass roots at its finest.”
From Shelved to Cult Classic
However, the film was shelved in late 1993 and everyone involved was ordered to cease and desist promoting it. While it’s remained unreleased to this day, The Fantastic Four has amassed a strong cult following. Bootlegged copies are sold at comic-cons. It can also be seen in its entirety on YouTube. In 2015, DOOMED! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four was released. This documentary chronicled the dubious history of The Fantastic Four.
“We believed we had something special. For a million bucks, we did a pretty good job, but the film was shelved,” said Smith.
In 2005, a movie was actually released – Fantastic Four was followed by 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Both films received mixed reviews yet performed well at the box office. In 2015, Fantastic Four served as a reboot, which was a critical and commercial failure.
Smith explained how he dealt with the news once he and his castmates learned it wouldn’t be released.
“I have to give a lot of credit to playing football at EMU,” he said. “From my experience, we didn’t do a lot of winning. It was something that taught you to never give up. There’s always another game, another practice, another play. No matter what happens, if you want to achieve something, you do what it takes to make it happen. I live by that to this day.”