Real Florida: The return of the Gill Men!
By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer
It's a double Creature feature when the two men who played the monster meet for the first time in 50 years. Will fins fly?
Published November 23, 2003
[Photo: Universal International Pictures]
[Photos: Reggie Clark]
|Ricou Browning in costume during filming of Creature From the Black Lagoon
Universal International Pictures' The Creature (Ben Chapman in this
photo) never got the girl (Julia Adams) in 1954’s Creature From the
Julia Adams, 73, who played the leggy scientist Kay Lawrence, the
object of the Creature’s affections, signs autographs during
Browning, 73, left, and a smiling Ben Chapman, 75, pose with their
alter ego. Browning performed underwater as the Creature during filming
in 1953. Chapman was the Creature in the other scenes. Fans still
debate which actor should be credited as the “Ultimate Gill Man.”
Langston, left, and fans wait for autographs. Several hundred visit
Wakulla Springs for the annual Creaturefest weekend. Langston, who
works in the park’s gift shop, was getting autographs for fellow
WAKULLA SPRINGS - There should be a soundtrack for this story
about the Gill Man. The soundtrack should be scary and dramatic - maybe
with a creaky zither oooweeeoooweeing in the background only to be
replaced, at the unbearably tense moments, by braying trumpets. Well,
if not trumpets, something really loud, a chorus of out-of-tune
violins, a kettle drum and perhaps a threatening oboe.
When Creature From the Black Lagoon was filmed in North Florida a
half-century ago, Hollywood took its horror movies seriously. Color?
Who needed color? The cigar-chomping moguls knew cheapo black-and-white
would suffice. They knew a good story when they heard one, maybe a
story about an expedition gone awry, with idealistic scientists butting
heads with a venal businessman who wants to exploit the exciting
discovery. Of course, there had to be a beautiful swimsuit-clad woman
in peril - in peril not from some computer-generated yawner of a
monster like in horror films today, but a flesh-and-blood creature in a
sturdy rubber suit that looked half human, half ugly toad. And, for
heaven's sake, the monster had gills. Terrible, slimy, pulsating gills!
BAH BAH BAAAH!
What you just heard were violins and kettle drums and oboes tuning
up. It's the cue that Ricou Browning is emerging from the water.
Ricou Browning is 73 but still looks scary. He has dark,
penetrating eyes and big arms and shoulders. He doesn't smile much. In
fact, if he dislikes a question he'll tell you. If he takes an instant
dislike to you - that can happen - he will not spare your feelings.
BAH BAH BAAAH!
Ricou Browning played the Creature 50 years ago this fall. That is,
he performed as the Creature when the Creature was swimming underwater
at Wakulla Springs, a few minutes from Tallahassee. There was another
actor who played the Creature during out-of-the-water scenes filmed in
Hollywood. We will explain the two-Creature controversy a little later.
For now, let us concentrate on Ricou.
His head just popped out of the water in the swimming area at
Wakulla Springs State Park. His broad shoulders come next. Then emerges
his goose-bumped torso - the water is 72 degrees, after all. It's the
Gill Man! And he's coming this way. Will he be in a good mood?
BAH BAH BAAAH!
"Water's cold," he says amicably. "But it feels refreshing."
What a relief. A good mood.
"This place, it's still beautiful," he says. Behind him,
vodka-clear water boils out of the deepest, most powerful spring in
North America. "I don't think it's changed since we made the movie."
* * *
Dan Wester, director of the Tallahassee Film Society, conducts what
he calls the Creaturefest every fall. At 39, Wester wasn't around when
Creature From the Black Lagoon was made, but it remains among his
favorite horror films, up there with those other (and more famous)
Universal International Picture offerings, Dracula, Frankenstein and
"Creature was the last of the great monster pics," Wester says. "It really holds up as a film."
Creature enjoys a large cult following among fans of the genre.
Internet pages are devoted to it. Grown men and women, including some
who appear perfectly normal, collectCreature movie posters. A few brave
souls manage to make a living selling Creature toys and photographs.
Several hundred descend on Wakulla Springs for the annual
Creaturefest weekend. They come to meet kindred souls and to visit the
Florida shrine where the coolest scenes in the movie were filmed. Of
course, they hope to meet movie stars, at least the ones who are still
Ben Chapman, who played the monster out of the water, never misses
one. At 75, he lives in Hawaii and eats and breathes his most famous
role. He has his own Web page - it includes a photo of his Universal
contract and his life's daily minutia - and likes to brag that he, and
nobody else, deserves to be called the "original creature." He's a
staple at autograph shows all over the country.
Julia Adams, who played the beautiful scientist Kay Lawrence, is a
good sport, too. At 73, she is still poised and attractive. In the old
days, as a publicity stunt, her studio insured her long legs for
$500,000. Alas, they were hidden by slacks whenever she emerged to sign
autographs at Wakulla. The still athletic Ginger Stanley, 72, who
doubled for Adams in the spectacular underwater scenes filmed at
Wakulla Springs, is a regular at Creaturefest, too. The Orlando
resident persuaded her old friend Ricou Browning to give it a try.
Browning, who lives near Fort Lauderdale, had never attended a
Creaturefest before. Oh, he's not embarrassed about making a horror
movie - he made an honest $500 a week as Ben Chapman's double. It's
just that he is bewildered by the Cult of the Gill Man: all those fans
who argue the merits of a horror movie in Internet chat rooms and who
take sides about which actor, Browning or Chapman, should be credited
as the "ultimate Gill Man."
As fans step forward to take his photograph, he says, "I'm not sure why I'm even here. Maybe it'll be fun. Maybe it won't."
Another reason for indifference might be his personality - a little prickly - and his own rich resume.
In the 1940s, Browning helped start the tourist attraction and
starred as a "merman" at Weeki Wachee. During its 1950s heyday he was
public relations director at Silver Springs, where he also performed as
the underwater Gill Man in the movie sequels Revenge of the Creature
and The Creature Walks Among Us. In Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under
the Sea, he played an anonymous diver in Nemo's crew. In Miami, he
invented Flipper, writing the movie screenplay and directing the
popular television show. He directed the underwater scenes in the films
Never Say Never Again and Thunderball.
"Only Sean Connery can be James Bond to me," he says. "He's a very nice man, and he became a very good diver."
Yet it's his role as the Gill Man that seems to fascinate. He's always asked why he thinks the movie remains so popular.
"I have no idea," he says.
Perhaps it's the Beauty and the Beast angle, a fan suggests. You know, like in King Kong.
"Could be," he says. "Well, listen, I need to go take a shower."
BAH BAH BAAAH!
Before he can escape, a couple of guys approach him. They say they
are documentary filmmakers from New York. If you were making a movie,
and looking for actors to play the roles of New York filmmakers, they'd
be perfect. They're tough-talking
-what-we're-all-about-in-your-face kind of guys. In the Florida heat,
one even wears a leather jacket.
They tell Ricou they want him to give him the opportunity to be in
their upcoming documentary masterpiece: Fifty Years of The Creature.
"Get out of my face with your (censored) New York ways," hisses Ricou Browning.
BAH BAH BAAAH!
The censored word isn't obscene. It's just the kind of unpleasant description you might hear in The Sopranos.
"I KNOW somebody in the Mafia," says one of the trembling-with-rage
New Yorkers a little later. "If Ricou Browning said that to him, Ricou
would be dead right now."
BAH BAH BAAAH!
* * *
Ricou Browning was born in Fort Pierce, grew up in Jensen Beach and
went to Florida State University. He got a job lifeguarding at nearby
Wakulla Springs, which was managed by a Florida legend named Newt
Perry, who taught everybody who was anybody how to swim and dive and
breathe air through a hose.
Later, on Perry's behalf, Browning scouted out a pond on U.S. 19 in
Hernando County. "I dove in and it was full of abandoned cars and
refrigerators," he says, "but we cleaned it up." Mermaids soon were
wowing tourists at Weeki Wachee. As a merman, Browning helped train
them to breathe out of hoses and dive deep without breaking their
eardrums. One pretty blond girl, just out of high school, hated the
part of the show when she had to dive to an underwater cave. That's
because a huge catfish lurked inside the mouth, looking menacing.
"One day the catfish just disappeared," the girl - Creature From
the Black Lagoon's underwater love interest Ginger Stanley - says five
decades later. "Ricou took care of it. Ricou was the kind of guy who
took care of problems."
When Hollywood scouts came to Florida in 1953 to look for an
underwater location for an upcoming horror movie, Ricou was hired to
show them around. He took them to Wakulla Springs, where the Hollywood
big shots fell in love with the primeval forest and river. They wanted
to test their underwater cameras and asked him to go for a swim. They
were so impressed with his prowess they offered him the role as Ben
Chapman's underwater Gill Man double. Browning got them to hire his
mermaid pal, Ginger Stanley.
They did two memorable scenes. In one, Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams)
dives into the river for a dip. Of course, it's Ginger Stanley who
actually is doing the swimming. Stanley performs a beautiful underwater
ballet, her standard Weeki Wachee act. Unknown to her character, a few
feet below, lurks the Gill Man. Browning mimics her every graceful move.
It wasn't easy. Browning's costume, which cost $18,000, was heavy
and cumbersome. "Like swimming in an overcoat," Browning says now. He
wore no goggles or mask, yet he had to look through the eyeholes of the
costume. "It was like peeking through a keyhole, only everything was
At least he didn't worry about drowning during the ballet sequence.
In another scene, the Gill Man tucks the terrified Stanley under his
arm and dives for a cave 50 feet below. "We had to hold our breaths and
clear our ears without letting the audience know we were clearing our
ears while I swam straight down," Browning says. "When we got into the
cave, two assistants swam over with air hoses."
"We did it in one take," Stanley says, "didn't we, Ricou?"
"One take," he says. "Thank God. We could have drowned."
BAH BAH BAAAH!
* * *
Ken Ratliff never misses a Creaturefest. He'd driven all night from
Kentucky. "I loved the Creature movies," he says. He has also figured
how to make a buck out of his passion. He sells monster toys at
festivals and mall shows throughout the South. "I've got boxes and
boxes of monsters all over my house," he says. "My wife says, "Please,
at least don't store them in the bedroom.' It's an antiaphrodisiac."
Fans flock to his booth. They flock to booths selling old horror
movie posters (Invasion of the Saucer Men) and vintage magazines
(Fangora). Most fans, everyday folk, could be your next-door neighbors,
maybe even your kindly aunt and uncle. Others could be cast members
from Night of the Living Dead. They are partial to black clothing,
leather especially, and have a love for tattoos and body piercings. "I
came all the way from Gulfport, Miss.," declares Nick Leon, pierced
eyebrows undulating like an eel. "I loved the Creature. It's a pure
horror movie. Good monster."
Johnny Gilbert, 38, is a titan in the Cult of the Creature. The
Arizona resident makes his living managing parks. But his passion is
the Gill Man. "I was one of those kids who put together those plastic
models of movie monsters," says. "I never missed the midnight horror
movies on television. Those old monsters were our Pokemon. I grew up,
but now I'm having my second childhood."
He calls himself "The Arizona Gill Man." He buys, trades and sells
Gill Man items, everything from photographs to copies of the
screenplay. In his spare time, he sculpts statues of the Gill Man and
sells them for $85 a pop.
As he sells his statues, photographs and candles, Ben Chapman - who
jealously guards his reputation as "the original Gill Man" - is
developing a cramp in his writing hand signing autographs. He has
stacks of his own photograph and stacks of old posters. As he signs,
light glints off his pinky ring and its creepy Gill Man face.
"When the picture was finished," Chapman says, "the studio asked
the major stars to pose for publicity photos. I was the one who posed
as the Gill Man. Just me. If you have a photograph signed by someone
else it is of no value."
Ricou Browning has his own photographs to sign. They may not have
been the official studio version, but they are stills from the movie,
the underwater scenes. And he has a couple of personal photos showing
him posing in his costume with the monster's head under his arm.
He signs those.
"Uh, Mr. Browning, I loved you in the movie," an awe-struck fan
tells him. "I'd love to buy a couple of photographs and get your
"Sure," Browning says. "They're $20 each."
BAH BAH BAAAH!
Ben Chapman is a tall guy with a rubbery face. Born in California,
he grew up in Tahiti before moving back to San Francisco after high
school. Dark, handsome and athletic, he found work as a nightclub
dancer. One day he dropped by Universal Studio in Hollywood to say
"Somebody told me to stand up so I stood up. They told me to turn
around and I turned around. The next day they called me and offered me
the job of the Gill Man. I said, "What Gill Man?' "
Made in 19 days, the film was released in early 1954. It garnered
good reviews, though the New York Times sniffed, "It's a fishing
expedition that is necessary only if a viewer has lost his comic books."
But it was popular with audiences. Creature From the Black Lagoon,
made on a $600,000 budget, grossed $2-million by year's end.
"They just don't make movies like that anymore," Chapman laments.
"It was a scary picture, but it was wholesome and there was a real
story. Not like the garbage today. You know, I just canceled my People
magazine. It's full of the same no-talent celebrities every issue. And
you know what? Actors today look like hoboes. Actresses look like
hookers. You want to ask them, "Don't you have a bleeping mirror?"'
Popular culture terrifies an old Gill Man.
"Who are those two you can't escape? Jen? Ben?"
He's talking about Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck.
"In 15 years nobody will remember them," Chapman declares. "But after 50 years, Creature From The Black Lagoon still rocks."
BAH BAH BAAAH!
Ben Chapman and Ricou Browning met for the first time when their
costumes were being developed in California a half-century ago. They
hadn't seen each other since.
Dan Wester, the director of the sponsoring Tallahassee Film Festival, looks around nervously.
"Given all that talk on the Internet about who's the real Creature,
we don't know if we're going to have a fistfight," he says.
No punches are thrown. They greet each other, shake hands, maybe
not warmly, but politely. No talk about "who's the real Creature" comes
"I think a lot of that talk has been stirred up by the Swimming
Creature versus the Walking Creature fans," Wester says. "All I can say
is some fans take this stuff very seriously."
A news photographer shows up. It will be a historic moment of
sorts: the first photo of the two Gill Men together. But neither Gill
Man looks enthused. They follow the photographer outside, anyway.
They amble to the spring, where the camera man has erected a
life-sized cardboard cutout of the Gill Man. The camera man wants his
guys to pose next to it, maybe shake hands or peer around it.
Ben Chapman, natural ham, gets into this new role with a mighty grin. Ricou Browning? Well, Ricou Browning is Ricou Browning.
"You want us to do what? Pose with that cardboard cutout?" he asks. "You must be into hokey stuff."
The photographer smiles nervously.
Browning poses grudgingly.
"If that picture appears in the paper I'll eat my hat," he says.
BAH BAH BAAAH!
- Research librarian Kitty Bennett contributed to this story.
- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 727 893-8727.
Gill Man trivia:
The director of Creature From the Black Lagoon was Jack Arnold, who
made a number of classic science-fiction films, including The
Incredible Shrinking Man and Tarantula.
The movie was originally released in 3-D.
The Gill Man, according to legend, can survive out of the water for only a few minutes at a time.
His blood composition is 35 percent white corpuscles or "halfway
between marine life and mammal," according to Ben Chapman, who played
the Gill Man in the out-of-the-water scenes.
Neither Chapman nor his swimming double, Ricou Browning, received a
credit in the film. "That was the idea of a publicity guy," Chapman
once told a film historian. "He didn't want the audience to see in the
credits that the Creature was a guy in a suit. He wanted 'em to look
for that credit, not find it, and say to themselves, "They didn't say
who played the Creature. They must've got a real one!' "
The Gill Man is taller and more powerful than a human.
The Gill Man isn't violent by nature. But he plays rough when bothered.
The human side of him wants a girlfriend, who unfortunately turns
out not to be a fish. Lock up your daughters: The Creature falls in
love with scientist Kay Lawrence (played by Julia Adams).
In Revenge of the Creature, the second film of the series, Clint Eastwood played a bit part as a lab technician.
The voice of the fan
The first showing of Creature From the Black Lagoon was a sneak
preview in Los Angeles on Jan. 7, 1954. Audience members were asked to
write comments about the movie on index cards. Here are a few of them:
"I'm a bundle of nerves, I'll never go swimming in a lagoon."
"As a result of this picture we have ulcers."
"The spookiest picture I have ever seen and screamed throughout."
"It's not the kind of picture a man of my age likes to see."
"Music crescendo a bit too obvious as crisis approaches from time to time."
The critics have their say.
Variety: "The below-water scraps between skin divers and the
prehistoric thing are thrilling and will pop goose pimples on the
Hollywood Reporter: "A good piece of science-fiction of the Beauty
and the Beast School. . . . Lovely Julia Adams reveals a gorgeous pair
Photoplay: "Short on science, the picture is long on excitement."
New York Times: "This adventure has no depth."
Gill Man on the Internet
Creaturefest Web site is www.creaturefest.com Ben Chapman's Web site address is www.the-reelgillman.com
Ken Ratliff's Web site address is www.monsterlandtoys.com
The Web site for soundtrack samples from Creature From the Black Lagoon is here.