With the new Spider-Man film, and the Hot Wheels Spider-Man series, I got to thinking about everyone’s favorite arachnid hero. I lived the dream of many young boys when I went to work for Marvel Comics back in the late 1980s / early 1990s. With great characters like Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Ghost Rider, Captain America, the X-Men, and so many more, it was like a daily fantasy to go to work.
Once I joined the staff and made a few friends, I was introduced one day to Spider-Man himself. He bounced around the office and was gone but, at a later time, joined my co-workers and me after work – and out of costume. He was then introduced as “Spider-Steve.” Actor Stephen Vrattos was Marvel’s own official Spider-Man!
Stephen graduated from Boston University with a BFA in Performance. “BU’s Theatre Arts program was recognized as one of the best in the country,” he recalls, with such notable alumni as Faye Dunaway, Jason Alexander and Gina Davis. “I shared my classes with Marisa Tomei, acted on stage with Michael Chiklis, and watched Julianne Moore in such classics as The Glass Menagerie and Love’s Labors Lost.”
Shortly after graduation, Stephen moved to New York City to find his big break. “I was fortunate enough to get a job as a manager at Serendipity 3 (the same restaurant featured in Serendipity, starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale) a few days after my arrival.” He remembers customers like Tom Cruise, Darryl Hannah and Andy Warhol but, he says, “The proximity to the industry’s A-list did little to further my own dreams of stardom.”
“The restaurant did, however, prove to be the vehicle for my ‘big break’ into the world of superheroes.”
A co-worker, also an aspiring entertainer, was moonlighting as a character actor and approached Stephen about doing the same. “His boss at Marvel was desperate to find an actor to perform as Spider-Man in the annual Halloween parade in Rutland, Vermont a couple of weeks later. He knew I was a trained performer and saw that I had the right body type for the character.”
Already a rabid comic fan at the time, with a large collection of his own, Stephen found himself “suddenly presented with an opportunity to not only work for the company of my passion, but also portray its biggest star.”
Within a couple of days, Stephen’s audition went down at the old Marvel offices, 387 Park Avenue South in Manhattan. He recalls being escorted to a supply closet, handed a Spider-Man costume and, after suiting up, sent to perform for the Marvel staff under observation. His performance caught on, and the job stuck like good webbing. Stephen would spend the next 10 years as a Marvel character actor, predominantly portraying Spidey, but other characters as well – including Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin.
I asked Stephen to tell us about some of his more memorable appearances. “That first job in Rutland holds a special place in my heart,” he says, “if for no other reason than its being the catalyst for a memorable career. And every appearance no matter how seemingly insignificant stands out, whether on account of the fans I’ve met, the places I’ve visited across North America and Europe or the gig itself. But there are certainly some that stand at the front of the queue.
“My first visit to a children’s hospital occurred in St. John’s Newfoundland. There I met a terminally ill child from Quebec being treated for cancer. He was no more than seven and couldn’t speak or understand any English. I’m willing to bet he was no more aware of what was happening to him, why he was there, why he had to go through such painful treatment, why he lost his hair, etc. I was told his prognosis was not good.
“Ordinarily, the six years of French I studied in school would have helped me stumble through some awkward phrasing, so I could converse with the boy, but I suddenly found myself at a loss to remember any of it. No matter. The smile on the boy’s face and the sudden light in his eyes said more than any spoken word. He was thrilled to meet Spider-Man and couldn’t stop touching the costume as if to reassure himself the moment wasn’t all a dream.
“His mother acted as interpreter. ‘You’re my hero,’ he said. I replied that he was my hero. All at once, a bit of French popped into my head. ‘Je t’aime,’ I told him. He responded with a hug – weak, but it was the most powerful hug I’d ever felt. As I said my good-byes, I recognized why wearing a mask was good for more than just protecting an identity as tears filled my eyes.”
Stephen then changes gears to another recollection. “Then there were the moments which make me breathe a sigh of relief that picture-taking smart phones and social networking didn’t exist back when I wore the red-and-blue…” While performing at a street fair in Houston, Texas, he had a no place to change into costume. “Changing into the costume in a vehicle on the way to an appearance was not unusual.” In this case, many blocks of the city had to be shut down to car traffic due to the fair – so he had to walk about a quarter of a mile to get to the event area.
“It was a beautiful spring day, so I didn’t mind. As was often the case as Spidey, I would hop atop anything in the general vicinity and hunker in a crouch. People loved this, and it further strengthened an appearance beyond simply sitting behind a table signing autographs.”
Spotting a nearby newspaper vending machine, Stephen sprang into action – but it proved far less stable than he anticipated. “After a moment of trying to balance myself atop the rickety machine, I leapt off — catching the uniform just under my right butt cheek on a sharp corner.” With a ripping sound, he felt a draft in the now-exposed region.
“I stood stock-still, my buttocks pressed against the machine’s Plexiglas front. Fortunately, my host was carrying a light jacket, which I tied around my waste to hide my exposed posterior, and there it stayed for the entire appearance!”
Though he points out that, to most people, just the idea of wearing a skintight spandex costume is terrifying, he can recall a more frightening moment in the suit. At an appearance in Toronto at the city’s Exposition fairgrounds, he was told he’d be bungee-jumping as Spider-Man!
“As the crane inexorably rose to its 300-foot drop height, my heart was pounding. Far below, a huge mass of people awaited Spider-Man’s flight. And because I was everyone’s favorite Web-head, I wasn’t afforded the reactions of an average human to such a hair-raising stunt. I had to display the cool calm of someone who swings from a slender strand of webbing from atop Manhattan skyscrapers on a daily basis.
“When the signal called for my leap, I couldn’t hesitate. Still, I released a blood-curdling scream, exaggerating to the extreme as I fell, as I envisioned the playful superhero doing had he actually been jumping. This evoked a tremendous chuckle and cheer from my fans – while also allowing me to release the fear built up inside. The fall proved exhilarating and fun. But I still wouldn’t be in a hurry to repeat it!”
So when it comes to dream jobs, it’s hard to beat “Spider-Steve.” “I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to be Spider-Man,” he says. “I traveled across the country and Canada, and even Europe, meeting incredible people and being greeted with the biggest smiles anyone could imagine.”