Man in Black

updated 10/13/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1997 01:00AM

SOMETIMES LOWELL CUNNINGHAM just has to open the door and bask in the soft interior glow of his new refrigerator. To the resolutely low-key man behind Men in Black, it beats the hot lights of showbiz. He had his fill of those when his obscure comic-book series about alien-busters J and K was turned into the $240 million-grossing movie starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. "They sprayed my hair so it wouldn't move," says Cunningham, 38, of his walk-on role in one of the film's crowd scenes. "I had to wash it twice to be able to even go to bed that night."

In the modest Knoxville, Tenn., townhouse he shares with fiancée Dorothy Tompkins, a microbiologist, Cunningham sleeps easy. Over the past five years he has been living frugally (save for the fridge and two computers) off the low "six-figure sum" he received from Columbia Pictures for the MIB idea. He now has a five-year contract with Marvel Comics to bring Men in Black back to print, plus a deal with Columbia Tristar Television that puts Men into the WB Network's Saturday morning cartoon lineup on Oct. 11.

Cunningham, the son of an accountant and a state office worker, was a philosophy major at the University of Tennessee when a buddy told him of the belief, held in some UFO circles, that there exists a secret government agency ferreting out aliens among us. He sent an outline to a small California publisher and went on to write six comic books over the next two years.

Cunningham—a skeptic of the MIB theory—believes the continuing popularity of J and K reflects a desire for security. "It's satisfying to think there's someone out there who's in control," he figures. On the other hand, who's to say the MIB are totally fiction? "When I was a teenager, there was Watergate, so I understand paranoia."

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