You Should Thank Me for This 1997 Blockbuster Film

Henrik Thor Larsen's Ovalia Egg Chair in white and red.
Henrik Thor Larsen’s iconic Ovalia Egg Chair, a variation of which is in the first Men in Black

In honor of the upcoming release of the sequel, Men in Black: International, I thought it was a good time to tell the story about how, over twenty-five years ago, I potentially, unwittingly, had a hand in getting Tommy Lee Jones to star in the first film.

It must have been 1995, and I was college-student working part-time in a San Antonio comic book store called The Collector’s Asylum. (Fun side note: I am pretty certain it was because of the name of the store and what it specialized in that I was dismissed for jury duty at the age of eighteen, fresh out of high school.) It was a fun job, and a few of my close friends worked there, too, adding to the joy. One of the interesting facets of San Antonio at the time, as I knew from a former girlfriend – a drama student – was that Tommy Lee Jones hung out around town and could often be seen. I also knew from her that he hated being noticed in public. I, obviously, had never run into him myself…until one fateful Saturday.

By all measures, it was a strangely calm Saturday at the store. I was working at the register, when in walked a man and two teenage boys. The man told one of the boys, “Okay, go browse and find a birthday gift.” I looked at the man, and even lit from behind by sunlight, it was unmistakably Tommy Lee Jones. His haggard expression indicated he saw me looking at him, and he casually dropped the sunglasses he had resting on his head over his eyes. Anyone who knows me can attest I am not a smooth person nor am I adept in any social situation. But because I knew Jones did not like public scrutiny, I never acknowledged who he was. I did expect one of the customers to notice and start rushing up to him, but amazingly, none did and, pretty shortly, the store cleared out except for Jones, his son (presumably) and his son’s friend (also presumably).

My shift had just started, as I was scheduled to close the store that night. The owner was working in the back office, at a table with full view outside the door to the shop floor. I presume Jones was feeling confident I wouldn’t start gushing that he was a famous person and ask for his autograph, because approached me and asked if he could use the restroom. I pointed him to where it was beyond the back office, and as he went back there, I heard him ask the owner where the bathroom was. I braced for his outburst — OHMYGODTommyLeeJones — but nothing happened. After a minute or two, the owner came out from back, walked up to me, noted a few things I needed to take care of during my shift, told me to call him if I encountered any problems, and then left. How he had missed Tommy Lee Jones, I had no idea.

Jones came back to the store floor, and was browsing and killing time as the two boys shopped. The store continued to be strangely empty, and he started to relax. To my surprise, he approached me and asked if we had any back issues of a specific comic called Men in Black. Despite my love for and study of comics, I had never heard of it. I told him I would go check our backstock and see if we had any. I went into the storage room, and began looking through the numerous long boxes we used to store and replenish our floor supply of back issues. To my surprise, there were three issues of this little-known title from the equally little-known publisher Aircel. (I wish I could remember what specific issues of the comic we had, but it was such an unexpected request, I honestly cannot recall.) I showed him the three issues and he immediately said, “I’ll take them.” I shrugged, thinking, Man, he must really love comics. That’s cool. This was fresh off his portrayal of Two-Face in Batman Forever, so I had no other idea about why he might want these three floppy issues. Yes, I’m kind of an idiot.

The three of them only stayed in the store another fifteen minutes or so, and as more customers began to trickle in, he gathered the two boys, and paid for all the goods. None of the new customers recognized him, and he was able to leave the store without incident. I like to think he appreciated me not calling him out, and just letting him be a normal person for a brief time. (I’m probably projecting here.) As I closed out the register after my shift ended that night, I noticed he had paid with a credit card and signed the slip. So I took the receipt copy and taped it to the cash register so the owner would see it first thing in the morning when he returned to open the store.

I will never forget the next morning: I had no classes, so I was sleeping in, and my phone rang. When I groggily picked it up, the owner immediately said, “What’s up with this fake credit card receipt from Tommy Lee Jones?”
“It’s not fake. He came into the store.”
“What?! Dang, I can’t believe I missed that,” the owner said despondently.
“You were here! He asked you where the bathroom was,” I said. “I can’t believe you didn’t say anything to him!”
There was a pause. “Oh, shit. That was Tommy Lee Jones? I didn’t even look up when he asked me, I was doing paperwork.”
“I can’t believe you missed him,” I laughed.

And, thus, my encounter with a famous actor ended. Or so I thought.
Imagine my surprise, when, a year later, this strange comedy sci-fi film titled Men in Black was announced starring Will Smith and…Tommy Lee Jones. I have no knowledge of how exactly the time-frame behind film production works, but I have always imagined that Jones came into the comic store at a critical moment when he was deciding whether to take the part or not. (If anyone has insider knowledge of this process as it relates to MiB specifically, please comment below!) That being said, I did find this remark in a Metro UK post interesting:

Tommy Lee Jones was initially sceptical [sic] about taking the role of Agent K having been left disappointed by the first draft of the script. In fact, the actor was only convinced to come on board when executive producer Steven Spielberg personally promised him that a rewrite would better capture the tone of the original comic. [Emphasis mine]

Read more: https://metro.co.uk/2017/07/02/men-in-black-20th-anniversary-20-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-sci-fi-comedy-6736070/?ito=cbshare

Granted, I would need to look up attribution to support this website’s claim, but if true, it is interesting that he was most compelled to sign on to the role only if it took an approach similar to the original comics. I wonder where he got those original comics?

I have told this story many times in the year’s since, but never written it down until now. But I will end this the way I have always ended this tale: everyone has me to personally thank for Men in Black getting made. You’re welcome.

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