Monday, April 20, 2015

“Co-Creator”: the not-secret play about Bill Finger

On 4/9/15, I had the pure pleasure of attending Co-Creator, the world’s second play focusing on the creation of Batman and the world’s first play focusing on Bill Finger’s role in the creation of Batman.

The show ran at the Arctic Playhouse in West Warwick, RI. Final show of its initial run was 4/18/15.

It was written and directed by the inexhaustible Lenny Schwartz, who has served the same multi-hyphenate role for several other biographical plays on luminaries including Charles M. Schulz and Lucille Ball. (Below are interviews with Lenny and two cast members.)

While watching I had to put myself in a continuous pinch. Was I really watching the second play in as many years in which Bill Finger was a character?

I have high expectations when it comes to entertainment—especially Bill Finger entertainment. So I was thrilled that
I found the play to be a delight. I rarely see theater, and even more rarely local theater, but it was clear how much effort Lenny put into the show (on a tight schedule, too). Only a couple of instances of factual inaccuracy stood out to me, but so minor that they had no real bearing on the narrative. The acting was solid and mature; the performers seemed to assume their roles with heart. While I did find Bill’s self-pitying comments a bit overdone, overall, I felt that the script struck an authentic tone.

Among the
(perhaps paraphrased) lines I particularly appreciated:

  • Bob Kane to Bill: “I hate being the bad guy.”
  • Portia Finger (Bill’s first wife) to Bill: “Bob Kane didn’t do anything to you. You did this to yourself.”
  • Bill to his son Fred: “I’m your co-creator, too.”
  • Marc Nobleman (the character) said a version of a line that Marc Nobleman (the guy writing this) has said numerous times: “Bill brought out the detective in Batman, and then in me.”
  • Bob Kane’s last scene—which is the last scene of the play—was equal parts clever and tragic.

The play even mentioned (more than once) that Bill could not drive, a detail that only a thorough researcher would come across.

Eerily, the night I saw the play, the game show Jeopardy! ran a clue about Bob Kane…and that clue egregiously left out Bill.

Scenes from the play:

introducing the play holding my book

 Bob and Bill

 Jerry Robinson joins them.

 Bill and his first wife Portia

 Bill being confronted by Marc and Roberto

Bill and his son Fred 

Scenes from the Q&A after the show:

 talking with the young man who played young Fred

 first wife Portia, Bill, me, second wife Lyn (then known as Edith)

 with Anthony, who played the character with my name

 with Lenny

I interviewed Lenny and two of his stars, the actors playing Bill and me.

Interview 1 of 3: Lenny Schwartz, playwright/director

Do you remember how you found out about Bill Finger?

In 1992, I worked for the now-defunct Adam Pinhead World of Comics. This was the summer of Batman Returns. My boss Curtis got into a fight with a customer telling him how Bob Kane was a thief and how Bill Finger was the real creative force behind the Batman. This led to an almost-fistfight. My boss eventually threw the guy out. I was intrigued. Who was Bill Finger? Over the years I would learn little bits and pieces about Bill. The more I learned the more it seemed like the biggest crime of all time happened and nobody was doing anything about it.

What inspired you to make him the subject of a play?

It seemed to me that not many people were doing anything about getting Bill’s story out there save for a select few like yourself, Roberto Williams, Arlen Schumer, and Athena Finger. I wanted to be one of those people. Something had to be done. I actually wanted to do a film and I even wrote a screenplay for it. I’d still like to have that filmed one day and will try to do so. The story needed to be told immediately or as immediately as I possibly could. So here we are.
I wanted to also give as honest and intelligent interpretation of Bill’s life as possible. Without glossing over it or backing away. He deserves that.

When casting Bill, how did you describe to actors what you were looking for?

I was looking for someone who can play the struggle Bill went through…somebody who can act without even saying the words. I didn’t want it to have huge overly dramatic moments throughout…[more of a] quiet struggle. I needed to cast someone who can show the physical effects of what Bill was going through. Through just a look, a movement. And luckily Chris Ferreira came out for the role. He was fantastic.

Did you consider other titles instead of Co-Creator?

I did. Bill Got Fingered was one. Fingered was another, believe it or not. (Someone once told me that’s where the phrase came from). I settled on
Co-Creator because it just put it out there. No apologies. Bill Finger is the Co-Creator of Batman. End of story.

Were any characters harder than others to write?

The Marc Nobleman character was a pain in the a**. I tried to get into his head but it was nothing but bitterness and darkness. It almost brought the whole play down like a house of cards. Imagine writing a character like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Pretty close to that.

In all seriousness, they are all hard to write in a way. You want to honor the people…but the best way of honoring them is to be as truthful as you can be. Brutal honesty. And then you just go for it. 

Was there anything you wanted to include in the play but didn’t, and if so, why? 

There were a lot more characters I wanted to include, and I wanted to show what happened after Bill’s death with Fred and Athena—who they are and the people they became and how they dealt with the legacy—but alas, there is only so much you can include. I also would like it if people saw the play and then felt compelled to learn more and seek out these things for themselves. That’s the dream at least.

How would you compare writing Co-Creator with writing your other biographical plays?

The format is a little different on this one. I try [to vary] what I do with each bio-play even if slightly. This one, though, was pretty much a marathon. I wrote the screenplay in two months…and when it was time to turn it into a play, I took five weeks (working with the actor who played Bob Kane, Brad Kirton…he was my editor and sounding board). Usually a bio play takes me a few years to write; the Buster Keaton one was 12 years, the Marx Brothers one three years, six for Charles Schulz, two for Lucille Ball. This one by comparison was a whirlwind. But when you are passionate about something like this, it’s never work. We went right from that writing to auditions, rehearsals, show. I am proud to have told Bill’s story the best way I know how.

What statement are you making with your final scene? Did you plan for the last person on stage to be Bob Kane, or did it just work out that way?

I don’t [want to] give away too much for those who haven’t seen or read it. I also enjoy when the audience comes to their own conclusions. That said, that final scene shows that no matter what Bob says, no matter how many lawyers he has, that “Batman created by Bob Kane” are just words. Words that the play examines. Words that the play shows are a falsity.

My goal for the play was that anyone who ever sees the words “Batman created by Bob Kane” in a comic book, in a movie, on a cartoon…my goal was for that person to see those words and feel a bit sick to their stomach.

Then I want them to remember Bill. And that it should read “Batman created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane.”

What do you feel your play has done that my book hasn’t? (Don’t be afraid—I welcome honesty!)

The book is amazing and this play would not be in its current form without your research and help.

It hits an audience which the book won’t, whether or not people read young adult books or books for all ages. It’s a different audience—those who like to see a live performance rather than read. A book is also a singular experience whereas a live show is a community watching the same thing.

The play also gets into Bill’s head more. You had a page count, I didn’t. So I was able to delve deeper into his state of mind, his hopes, fears, emotions.

Both have the same goal: to have as many people as possible recognize Bill and his accomplishments.

Can you share reactions from people who attended the play, such as Bill’s granddaughter Athena, poster designer Arlen Schumer, and/or anyone else you choose?

Athena Finger has been very supportive about the show. Without her, too, this play would not be possible. She enjoyed it and was a delight, but I imagine it was hard for her. This is her legacy stolen away from her family. To see that? I can’t even imagine. I applaud her for watching it and being supportive. She is the heir of Batman. There will be a few things I will be talking to her about for upcoming productions and possible publication (making a few things smoother). But she’s been there from the beginning. I probably sounded like a nut, but she was kind, warm, and lovely.

Arlen Schumer! What a guy. He loved the show. He had a suggestion I will be implementing that I won’t say. But man, what a gentleman. He loved the show and had so many kind things to say. He’s been a good friend.

Same with Roberto Williams. (He wrote the play Fathers of the Dark Knight.) He’s been a great friend. He loved it, too. So supportive. Here is a guy I randomly emailed and the next thing I know he has me at his place in Brooklyn eating dinner. I am glad to have met all three of these people. And his wife Zaida. And yourself and your father, Marc!

What has been the most rewarding reaction in the media? In the audience?

The most interesting thing is how people are shocked this happened. How this could happen.

The media has been very supportive! We had billboards across the state from Cardi’s Furniture. I was on TV promoting it. The nicest thing is that both the comic book community (the toughest critics in the world) and [the] casual theatergoer embraced the play. That’s the best, man.

What’s next for the play? Are you going to try to mount any productions elsewhere or license it?

There will be a future for the play and I’m working very actively on that. It will be published; it’s just a matter of how. The immediate goal is to get other productions mounted. I am working on one such one as we speak…and of course you will be the first to know.

Bill Finger’s story must be told. If anyone reading this would like to license it, let me know. I’ll make it affordable for all. On this, it’s not about the money. It’s about as many people seeing the story as possible. And I am very determined.

Also, I have the screenplay ready to go. And it will get made one day. And yes, I am saying this in case Steven Spielberg reads the blog. I will push this project until Bill’s name is up there as co-creator of Batman. And maybe even beyond that.

What’s next beyond Bill Finger?

I have a play in NYC for the 2015 Planet Connections Theatre Festivity called Crystal Romance. I have written and will be directing that. It is a hardcore look at meth addiction and will play at Tom Noonan’s Paradise Factory June 26-28, 2015

Then in the fall I have a new show I have written and directed called The Social Avenger. I have worked on that for six years. It’s a 90-minute comedy. God help us all.

Anything you’d like to add?

I can’t believe the response the show has gotten. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank my Arctic Playhouse partners Jim Belanger, Lloyd Felix, and Davis Vieira. And Arlen. And Roberto. And Athena. And you, Marc.

I want to thank the cast and crew, too. Without them, I have nothing.

Arlen said the best thing to me when I thanked him. “We’re all in this together.”

And we are.

I met so many people. So many good people.

And we all have Bill to thank for bringing us together.

Interview 2 of 3: Christopher Ferreira, “Bill Finger”

What did you know about Bill Finger before you heard of this play?

I had known who Bill Finger was. I knew the story of how Bob Kane cut Finger out of the deal and I knew that Finger came up with much of the designs and story for Batman. I did not know much more beyond that. Upon getting the role, I began to do in-depth research into Bill Finger’s personal life, who he was as a person, and the historic details behind the creation of Batman. I also reread all of the original Batman stories that Bill and Bob worked on together to get into the head of Bill Finger as much as possible.  

Did you audition solely for the Bill role?

I knew that Lenny was writing this play. And when I auditioned I knew what to expect because I’ve worked with Lenny many times in the past. I certainly did not expect to get Bill Finger right off the “bat.” Part of me thought I was right for the Bob Kane character. But thank God I didn’t have to play that evil bastard. : ) When I went for the audition, I was mostly asked to read the Bill Finger part and I thought that was a good sign. It was probably one of the happiest moments of my life when I looked at the cast list the next day to see that I had been cast as Bill.

How did you prepare for playing Bill?

I did as much research into the man as I could, starting with Lenny’s script, looking up biographies online, starting up a dialogue with you, and reading anything I could find on him.
I spoke with Lenny and you at great lengths as well to really get into the head of Bill Finger. I also went back and reread the entire Batman Archives from Detective #27 through the original solo Batman books and beyond. I read all of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s original comics strips in order to get a clear picture of what was driving these two men.

Now that you’ve embodied Bill, how would you describe his character? Do you feel he is at all to blame for what happened to him?

That’s a little hard to comment on. Yes, I think part of the blame lies in Bill’s humble character and the fact that he was a work-for-hire. But the fact is that Bob Kane knew they had created something timeless and something marketable and the next day went to DC Comics by himself to cut the deal and write the contract, hence cutting Bill Finger out of it. Bill was an honest man. He probably knew what Bob Kane did was wrong and dishonest but I don’t think that at the time Bill had any idea that Batman would become so commercially successful. He didn’t stand up for himself and didn’t stand up to Bob. Ultimately, Bob is to blame for being a sneak and brokering the deal at DC without Bill, but Bill could have stood up and fought back for himself.  :)   

What was the hardest scene in the play to perform? If different, what was the most emotional scene?

The hardest scenes were my scenes with Lyn (Bill Finger’s second wife) because at that point in Bill’s life he was just emotionally destroyed and distant. The most emotional scene was where Jerry Bails (the comic book historian) interviews Bill about the creation of Batman. I could just imagine the regret and sadness Bill carried with him at this point and Jerry brings this all back to the surface in a raw scene that essentially rips layer after layer off of Bill Finger, ultimately leaving him fully exposed emotionally and mentally. He comes apart in this scene because he opens up in a way he never did and for the first time the audience sees how broken this man is and how what happened to him in his past has not only shaped his identity but also is the reason for his misery and regret. It’s a very powerful scene and my fellow actor, Dave Almeida, brought a great gravitas to the role of Jerry Bails that fed me as an actor.

What is your favorite scene in the play?

The scene with Jerry is my favorite for those reasons I mentioned. The scene where Batman is created is also another favorite because I get to live in that raw moment of excitement when a legend was born.   

If there were to be a film about Bill, who should play him (if you weren’t available, of course)?

Matt Damon could probably be a good fit—or Andrew Garfield or Toby Maguire because, like Peter Parker, Bill Finger was a beaten-down character.

What’s next for you?

I will be doing Summer Shakespeare in Westerly, RI.

Interview 3 of 3: Anthony Ambrosino, George Roussos and “Marc Nobleman”
How did you learn about this play?

Facebook! How else? I’m not an actor and this was my first play. I was looking for something fun and interesting to do and saw Lenny’s post.

What role(s) did you try out for?

It was supposed to just be an auditioning exercise. I never expected to be cast. Lenny knew this so I think he used me to read against the real actors that were coming in. I read as most of the male leads Bill, Bob, the editor. I think I read for everything except the parts he cast me as.

I noticed that one of your two roles has the same name as me. Did Lenny explain why he gave a character my name? If not, why do you think he did?

No, he never explained it to me and I had always just assumed that Marc was another figure in Bill Finger’s past like artist George Roussos.

Even though my scene as “you” was a bit of artistic license given that it didn’t happen, I think Lenny did a great job at surmising what probably often happened to Bill when he was recognized by the Batman fan base in his later years. Those same conversations over and over can be brutal, especially when it opens old wounds. Naming the character after you was a great homage to the work you’ve done in bringing Bill’s story to light. Without Marc Nobleman, there isn’t a “co-creator” and Bill’s story continues to get swept under the rug and lost to the ages.

I know “Marc” was a small part, but what did it mean to you to play it? (Please be candid; you won’t offend me no matter what!)

Unlike most of the cast who are huge fans of the genre, the character, and the creators, I came in totally ignorant. I’m a casual fan at best of Batman and comics in general. But I was truly blown away at the love everyone has shown for Bill Finger and his legacy. And the care in which this story and the characters have been handled. Once this really started to happen, I became more and more aware that we were working on something special and I didn’t want to let anyone down. It was actually really cool to portray real-life people. As you saw, I was given complete artistic license in portraying the alternate reality Marc Nobleman so I was able to have some fun with it. But anytime you can portray one of the good guys, it’s a great day. You uncovered history, are helping to write [sic] a wrong, and are fighting for the truth. I think your surname is very fitting.

What inspired the way your Marc character dressed?


I wanted to combine the look of the decade with someone [Stan Lee] who is a legend in comics.

In meeting me, did you think I’d be taller?

I was a little taken aback when I’d seen how well you had aged. I was expecting an old man. Not the strapping young stallion that came through the door.

In your experience, how has the public has responded to the play? Any surprising reactions?

I’m not so much surprised but I’d say I’m happy that there’s been such an interest in this story. I love when people want to talk after the show and they all say the same thing. “I had no idea...” That’s when I know we’ve done our job.

What was your favorite part of the experience?

The combination of bringing light to this story with the energy of doing it live on stage [for] an audience was incredible, but the human connections and camaraderie of the cast and crew I’ll carry with me always.

What is your day job?

I work in the film industry as a producer and director.

I also have a production company called Ambrosino-Delmenico. Throughout the show, I’ve been working in casting, so I kept trying to pilfer members of the cast for parts on an ABC pilot, sometimes forgetting they needed to be on stage for Co-Creator.

What’s next for you?

Back to the filmmaking grind. Living the dream.

Anything you’d like to add?

I just want to thank Lenny and the producers for giving me the opportunity. Thank the people like you who are continuing to tell this story. Thank my castmates for being great teachers and friends. Thank my wife for supporting me in doing this while we have a toddler and a six-month-old at home. And I wish we could all thank Bill Finger for creating this unbelievable fantasy world which we’ve all grown up with.

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