Ben Chapman -
The Gillman!!!
This month, we're proud to present a true icon on Icons Of Fright. Ben Chapman played 'The Gillman' in Universal's 'Creature From The Black Lagoon'. And with his portrayal of the monster, carved himself a place in horror history right along side Universal monster greats Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. He currently resides in Hawaii, and Icon's own Mike C. caught up with him to hear about what went into making a classic! Read on, folks! - by Mike C. 4/05

We read on your website that you were raised in Tahiti. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood in Tahiti?

Yes, my mom and dad were dual citizens because they were naturalized citizens. They were born and raised in Tahiti, and I am Tahitian. Dad left Tahiti as a seaman on a yacht but became a Merchant Marine officer during World War 2. He had 2 ships torpedoed from under him. They were on a trip to the mainland, and I was born here, but I returned when I was young. I’m a duel citizen, I carry French and American passports, I have my whole life. Been a citizen of both countries.

What brought you back to the States?

Well, Tahiti is French, and I was raised there in the 30's, and with the war in Europe the United States wasn’t at war yet, there was no Pearl Harbor yet. So the French government asked all aliens to return to their respective countries. My mom and dad were put in a precarious situation. We owned property, that was our home, but they were American citizens. So even though they were born and raised there and they were French citizens also, the French government told them they’d have to go back to the United States. So, we emigrated up here and we landed in San Francisco. I came up here with my older sister in 1940. Then my other sister came up, then my mom. We lived in San Francisco where I went to high school.

What did you do after high school?

I moved down to Southern California in 1948, I think. I always came from a show business family, and while I was down there I happened to be at a luau and my brother-in-law was a famous musician there. So I went and watched the show and when the show was over my brother-in-law got up there and said, "Now, ladies and gentlemen, before we go any further, we have a special guest in the audience who’s one of the best dancers to come out of Tahiti."

So I’m sitting there looking around for this person. I’m going "wow, I wonder who this is". So he says, "With a little encouragement we can get him to come up here to dance for us.", and he points at me. I’d danced, but never on-stage. I was familiar with the music, so it wasn’t something I didn’t know. They started the music and went up and danced, got a big hand and came off. That started my show business career. From there it led to a movie called "Pagan Love Song".

In the interim I lived in Santa Monica and Malibu. I had a friend who had joined the Marine Reserve in 1948. We were driving around one night and he said, "Benny, I got to go to the Reserve meeting, come with me.". So I go down there with him and a Sargent came up to me and explained what it was to be a Reserve and he said, "Why don’t you join.". Sure, I said, I’m an adventurer, so I joined. Come 1950 was the Korean War and they activated everybody. So I wound up in Korea.

How long were you in Korea?

Let’s see - we did the Inchon Landing August or September of 1950 and I came home the next year, March or April. I’m a member of the Aloha Chapter Chosen Few.

A very famous Marine battle took place at the Chosen Reservoir in the month of November and part of December. It got down to 40 below zero. The military said it was a bad situation and everyone should pull out – like a retreat. That’s where there’s a very famous quote coming from our commanding officer, General Oliver P. Smith (better known as "Skinny Smith) of the First Marine Division, "Retreat, Hell!". The Marine Corp never retreats. So, they pulled out and left us up there alone. The Chinese came down with 20 divisions and they surrounded us. When they found out they had the USMC surrounded, the word was "No prisoners. Kill everyone of them." So we fought our way out and we did make our way out.

I came back and was stationed out in Long Beach, California at the Navel Base down there. I finally got discharged in March 1952.

So what happened after Korea and your time in the Marines?

I went back into the business, dancing, again in Hollywood. How it came about, I did this one big show at the Palladium in Hollywood. I usually opened the show. There was a women in the audience who owned a hotel along with her brother. They were going to open a nightclub, across from the Chinese Theater, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and call it the Islander Room.

So I opened up there, and one night my dancing partner, Tani Marsh, came in and said there are some people coming here from Universal Studios, and they want to look at us. They were doing a musical short for the Miss Universe girls of 1952. So they came in and we did our show. In those days nightclubs weren’t anything like they were today. You did two shows a night and it was very nice. After the show, we all went up to the table where they were and we sat down. They said to come down to the studio the next day because they liked what they saw.

So, we went in and it was going to be the dance troupe in the short. The director came up to me, you know... because I’m 6'5", and said, "Would you mind playing the Chief?" They showed the film to the executive at the studio and asked "Who’s that young guy who played the Chief?". They said, "His name is Ben Chapman, his cousin used to be one our stars." Now, I had a cousin who was a very famous star in the 40's named Jon Hall, he did 'Hurricane', and a television show 'Ramar of the Jungle'.

In those days it was a studio system where you became a contractee and they owned you. They paid you whether you worked or not. So they asked me if I wanted a contract. I said, yes, but under one condition–that I could still dance, because you’re not supposed to work anyplace else. So they were thinking about bringing back the tropical movies that my cousin used to do and they would groom me to do it. Anyhow, so there I am, under contract at Universal. I used to come in and say hello and walk around. I would go down to the casting office.

I walked in one day and this woman named Jonni Rennick, a casting director at Universal, said, "Bennie, can I talk to you about something? Has the studio talked to you about this movie they’re going to do about the Amazon and something about a creature. I believe it’s in Brazil. There’s going to be some swimming and I know you, Ben, you’re half fish." I was a free-diver. I could hold my breath three to four minutes. Well, that’s when I was young. {laughs}

I said, "I have no idea what you’re talking about". She made a few phone calls and I came back the next day. She took me up to this office and told me to sit down. She was there talking and they would turn around and look at me, then look back. This one gentleman turned to me and said, "Would you mind standing up". I stood up. He said, "Now turn around." I did and sat down. The gentleman who told me to stand turned out to be Jack Arnold, the director.

I came back the next day and was making, like $125 a week, and they re-wrote a new contract for me for $300 a week, because I was going to have to do some stunts. Now, I didn’t do the swimming because there was no place in Southern California that would have clear water. It was also going to be much cheaper to hire a second unit to go to Florida. Ricou Browning doubled me, and Ginger Stanley did Julie. Those people you see under the water are not us, they’re doubles. Ginger Stanley and Ricou Browning did the beautiful swimming scenes. Ricou went on to create "Flipper", and direct many swimming scenes in the movies.

Wasn’t there also another double for the fire scene?

Yes, for the fire scene that was done on the stage. They had a big pool and constructed part of the boat there. So I wanted to do it myself. I said, "I can do that". They didn’t want to take a chance in case I got burned. So, Al Wyatt did that. In fact, he was Rock Hudson’s double.

I heard somewhere that Rock Hudson would bring people to see the costume and you would be hiding.

Yea, they’d call me and tell me Rock was going to bring some people by the set. I would get in the lake and, it was a man-made lake only 6 feet deep. I’d get out in the middle of the lake and all I’d do is leave the top of my head and eyes, like an alligator. All you’d see is like a little rock or ball floating. They’d be pointing and I would start swimming in close, closer, closer until I could get into about three feet of water, but still only the top of my head showing. Then I’d arrange my feet and legs and arms so that I could spring straight up and go "ROAAARRRR!". They’d see this thing come out of the water. The studio said, "Don’t it anymore", they were afraid someone was going to have a heart attack and they’d have a lawsuit, because it was frightening to look at.

Do you know why Universal decided to go with "Creature", because it’s kind of different from a lot of movies in the 50's. It seemed to be the era of the Atomic Age monster and the giant bugs.

William Allan, who was the producer, had this story for many years. Originally it was called "The Beastie". He wanted to get this project done. He tried it before and it didn’t work. Universal Studios, as you know, has a big following starting with Lon Chaney Sr., with the Hunchback, Phantom of the Opera. Then came the 30's with Boris and Bela with Frankenstein, Dracula. Then Jr. did the Wolfman in the 40's. Now it was the 50's and they were going to give it one more shot.

Those others must have seemed hard to follow, no?

When I did get the assignment it didn’t dawn on me until I was sitting home, "Oh my god, we have to follow those guys. I don’t want to be the first one to fall on his face". I sat down and tried to figure out what made the others so successful. They’re all different but there has to be a common denominator. It finally dawned on me - they all have Beauty and the Beast. They were all in love with women. I said, "Ah! That’s in!". So I went in the studio and was talking to Jack Arnold, and asked, "How do you want me to play him." He said, "Just don’t make him a cartoon." I told him about Beauty and the Beast, and that was fine. Even today you read reviews and they feel sorry for the creature, because [the humans], they were the bad guys.

You were acting in a costume, do you think your background in dance helped?

Yea, because I used body motion - I couldn’t use anything else. You know, the tilting of the head, or whatever. The movement of the body. We got what we wanted - because there is a very famous movie, 'The Seven Year Itch', with Marilyn Monroe. Well, she has a thing about the Creature all through the movie. Just before the scene where, you know, her skirt blows on the grating, as she’s coming out of the theater, on the marquee - 'Creature from the Black Lagoon', with a big standee of me holding Julie. Marilyn says, "I felt so sorry for the creature." We were very amazed, because that’s a 20th Century Fox movie, and they usually mention only their own movies. We were very flattered.

What was it like to work inside the suit?

It was very comfortable.

Was the process you had to go through?

The foundation of is like a one-piece body stocking. It zips up the back. It was like a leotard. So what they did was, each piece was molded separately. The lower part from just below the knee down, the feet, were like boots. They came up to the knees. Then they’d zip of the back and snap the dorsal fin closed. Same for the helmet. That’s it, it’s very simple. But it took a long time to get into. About 2-3 hours, because it has to fit like an outer layer of skin, because you don’t want a fold that’s not supposed to be there.

Was it hot?

Oh yea. I mean, if I wasn’t in the water, yes. If I was working the sound stage I had a guy with a hose, and if I got too hot I’d just walk up to him and he’d hose me down.

Did you have to do a screen test in the costume for the studio to approve?

No, we took some photos, but not really a screen test. He was very top secret. When they were constructing him nobody was allowed in makeup. They didn’t want anyone to see what he was going to look like until the day they released him.

What was the reaction to the costume?

People loved it, cameras were going crazy. They had all the press and the publicity guys. I have a few pictures with Julie, and she had never seen me in costume before that. They told me later that she turned later and asked, "Is that Ben". I would look down at her and just go "Uhhhhgggghh". And she kept asking me "Ben, is that you?". I put my arm around her and thought she was going to have a heart attack.

How long were you in the suit for?

The longest was about 14 hours. I couldn’t take it off. I could take the hands off, but as far as the body suit, I could not get out of it. I had to watch my diet! Once I’m in, I’m in.

What was the atmosphere like?

It was interesting, it was fun. You got up in the morning and couldn’t wait to get to work. It was like a big family. There are some shows you work on and think, "Oh, shit." We were all relaxed, there was never an ounce of ego on that set. I feel very fortunate that I had the chance to do it.

After the production wrapped, you were the one who was involved in promoting the film?

No, none of us. There was female, Millicent Patrick. She did the artwork for the Creature. I thought they would send me. They didn’t send any of us.

Why weren’t you credited in the movie?

The reason they didn’t credit, and this is crazy, is the studio wanted to give the impression, the illusion, that it was a real creature. If you see the original Frankenstein, Boris doesn’t get credit. It’s a question mark in the credit. I looked at the studio and asked if they thought the people were that stupid, and they said, "You’d be surprised what people believe".

Do you remember the first time you saw the finished film?

It was up at the Pickwick Theater in Los Angeles. We went to see the movie - and there was a big long line.

How well did the 3-D work?

Well - the only way you should see this movie is on a large screen in 3-D. Those small screens like a multiplex? Doesn’t work too good. But from the old big screen that thing just leaps out. You actually do start ducking. If you have a chance, they do it every once in a while. Recently at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, a famous old theater. Julie went, she was the guest of honor. The had 750 people sitting outside who couldn’t get in, they had to run it twice, with the original projectors. It’s not like today. They need a double projector.

What do you think keeps the "Creature" alive, so to speak, all these years?

The story still holds up today. The story is about trying to find out where man came from. When you play the movie today it’s still just as interesting. Also, Julie and myself want to thank all you loyal fans of "The Creature". Without all of you, we wouldn’t be sitting here and the Gillman would've been buried and forgotten a long time ago.

Julie said it, "You know we’re set in stone now." And it’s true, we belong to the Universal family. You know when they show Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, you see the Gillman. He will be there forever. We’re very grateful.

You see the formula used a lot today too, don’t you?

Yes, we were the first ones, we set the precedent. If you look at a lot of the monsters that you see today. They all have that scaly body, two arms and two legs. And that movie with Jon Voight, 'Anaconda', was a rip-off of the 'Creature'. They went right in with the boat and everything. All they had was an anaconda instead of a gill-man. It was the same thing. We’ve been copied so many times. Some people think we’d get insulted, I say no, if anything I’m very flattered they would use my character. Ever seen Jeepers Creepers?

Yes, I’ve seen them both.

Well, Victor Salva became a good friend of mine. I was doing a show 4-5 months ago in Los Angeles. We got together, he came and sat with me while I was signing autographs and he told me straight out, "I’m one of your biggest fans. You know, really, my creeper, I copied his body from the Creature." He’s different, but there are some shots in Jeepers Creepers 2, where you see him more and it’s true.

That’s Jonathan Breck and he’s a good actor too.

Well, it’s true - you have to do everything with body motion. You know it’s how you move, walk, you know. We were very flattered when we found out about all these other movies that copied from us.

There’s another thing copied from Creature - if you remember, in the movie whenever the Gillman was around there was that special sound. You don’t see him, but you know he’s there, they’re playing his music. There’s a gentleman who made a movie that’s one of the all time highest grossing movies. 'Jaws'. You don’t see him, but you know he’s there. Steven Spielberg got that idea from 'Creature'.

What was the first horror convention that you did?

The very first one I did was about 10 years ago, a Hollywood collectors show.

Which cast mates have you reunited with?

Well, two years ago there was a Creature Fest in Tallahassee, Florida. Ricou Browning and Ginger Stanley were going to be there. Julie and myself had never been there - where the real lagoon was, and we’d never met Ginger Stanley. I’d met Ricou, but only because I’d be standing around while they where getting his suit ready. When we got there, the first day we had the press following us. One of the questions they had was, "Does it still look the same." We had to explain that we’d never been there.

Did Universal do anything special for the 50th Anniversary?

They brought out the Legacy DVD and they had a big to-do at one of the places. Me and Ricou where talking about how much the studio has made over the years–millions. The least they could have done was put the four of us together for the 50th Anniversary for a celebration at the studio. It’s not often you still have four of the major actors of a successful movie after 50 years.

Well, Ben, the studios today are run by soda companies.

Yea, they’re not the same today. They have no imagination like Louis B. Mayer, or Zanuck. That’s why the movies were great movies. I watch TCM and it’s hard to beat those movies. I very seldom go to movies anymore. There are some stars today, but the rest, they’re not stars. They’re celebrities, but they’re not stars. They could no more get up on a stage with a microphone and entertain. We never had bodyguards in those day. You’d see Clark Gable driving around in a pick-up truck. You’d be ashamed to have a bodyguard.

Are there any modern movie monsters that you like?

Well, I love Jeepers Creepers, even before I met Victor. I also love that one that Scharzenegger did, 'Predator'. He’s a dynamic looking guy, especially when he takes that helmet off. I did a show in Vegas a few years back and it was a big model show. There was the gillman crouched with his hand in a defensive way and across from him was Predator. The guy won second prize and I autographed it.

Have you any favorite pieces of memorabilia from over the years?

You know, I have an old saying, god gave us one thing, 20/20 hindsight. They made a bust of me, to mold the head. Inside of that mask is my face, so it fits perfect. So they asked if I wanted it, I said, "Ok, I’ll take it.". I took it home, and I lived on the beach in Malibu. I put it in front of the house, in the sand, colored it, and put dark glasses and a hat on it. It looked like a guy buried up to his shoulders. So we moved a couple years later and I didn’t take it. That thing today is worth a fortune.

Now the only merchandise I don’t like is when they put teeth in him. It changes his look, makes him look menacing. When you look at him standing there, he’s not menacing. He’s different, but when you put teeth in him I hate that.

Does Forry Ackerman really have one of the costumes?

We heard that Forry got one out of a garbage can, but we just can’t believe that it’s a real one. There are none that we know of, because it would have surfaced. If anyone would know I would know, Bob Burns would know. The latex deteriorates, and after 50 years, it’s powder.

Do you have any favorite fan moments?

My favorite moments are with kids. I’m an education advocate. I’ve met kids at Chiller when they were 7 and they’re 17 now. I’ve watched them grow up because they come to see me every year. I asked them how do they know about this movie made 50 years ago. They’ll tell me they’re parents own a cassette. I’ll put my hand out to shake hands. I ask if they like school, get good grades. I say, "The only thing I want you to do is make me proud. Now point to a picture. I’ll autograph it.". I’ll slide it over and Mom and Dad will ask how much, and I’ll ask the kid when his birthday is, and I’ll say, "Today’s close enough.". It’s not every kid, I have to have a special feeling for them.

Thanks so much for talking to us, Ben!!!

Special thanks to Ben Chapman!!!
Visit his site at: The-Reel
Original Artwork Courtesy of Steven Ciancanelli

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