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Actor Interview:

Creature Featured: Talking With Ben Chapman aka The Gillman from ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’

By Owen Keehnen
6’5” Tahitian entertainer Ben Chapman was 25 years old when he donned the foam rubber suit as The Gillman and took the plunge in a role that would give him film immortality in the Universal Studios 1954 3-D monster classic ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’.

Owen: Hello Ben, thanks for talking with me.

Ben: My pleasure.

Owen: How did you go about being cast as The Gillman in ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’?

Ben: All my life I’ve always been at the right place at the right time. I was under contact to Universal Studios at the time.  So I came in one day and I was going to casting and a woman named Jonnie Rennick called me into her office and asked me if the studio had approached me about a new movie called ‘The Black Lagoon’. I told her no. So she made a few phone calls and asked me to come back the next day. When I came back she took me up to an office and I met these gentlemen one of which was Jack Arnold, the director. He looked me over and then went back to talking. We left and Jonnie asked me to come back the next day and when I returned she said, “You’ve got the part”. It was as simple as that.

Owen:The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ was filmed in black and white, what did The Gillman look like in living color?

Ben: The costume was a mossy green and the scales you see were highlighted in a gold and copper to give The Gillman a fish sheen.

Owen: What was the most uncomfortable part of the foam rubber costume?

Ben: Basically it was very comfortable because it was made of foam rubber and so very pliable. When we would work on a stage it was very hot. I was enclosed in the foam rubber and because the body breathes through the pores I would get so hot I would have to be hosed down. But if we were filming at the lake I’d just stay in the water all day.

Owen: The costume was created by the geniuses Bud Westmore, Jack Kevan, and Chris Mueller, who sculpted the head…

Ben: The man who was really responsible for putting the costume together was Jack Kevan. Bud Westmore got credit because he was the head of make-up at Universal and his name was on everything that came out of the studio. Kevan supervised the making of the costume and Chris Mueller did the head. Of course, if you notice he was a two-armed and two-legged amphibian. If you’ll notice since then how often that has been copied – that idea of a two-armed and two-legged scaly bodied monster.

Owen: Was it tough to see with head on?

Ben: No, there were three sets of eyes and they popped out of the helmet or mask. One had holes drilled where the iris is, one had holes drilled the size of the pupil, and one didn’t have holes. For long shots I could wear the ones with the larger holes where I could see. With closer shots I had to use the smaller holes and with very close I had to wear the set where I couldn’t see at all. To help me then there was someone with a flashlight and I would watch the light as he moved. Also I would rehearse my movements in a scene and try to duplicate the steps exactly.

Owen: There has been some confusion among Gillman/Creature fans as to what scenes feature you and which feature Ricou Browning. Is there an easy way to tell?

Ben: Ricou and I are friends. The best way I can describe this is the way the movie was cast. At Universal Studios in Hollywood there were Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Richard Carlson, and myself. In Florida for the underwater scenes, which were shit at Wakulla Springs about 40 miles from Tallahassee, there were four doubles. Ricou Browning doubled me, Ginger Stanley doubled Julia Adams underwater, Jack Betz did Richard Denning, and Stanley Crew was Richard Carlson. So when you see the movie anything below the surface of the water it is the doubles in Florida, and anything above the surface is us at Universal in Hollywood. That’s the best way to explain who did what.

Owen: Despite your dominant role and presence in the film Universal didn’t bill you as The Gillman. Was that upsetting at the time?

Ben: Yeah, but the idea was that when they showed the credits if they put Gillman/Ben Chapman then people would simply think “Oh that’s a guy in a costume.” So they wanted to give the illusion, with no credit, that The Gillman wasn’t an actor. If you go back to when ‘Frankenstein’ came out in 1931 with Boris Karloff, he didn’t get credit either. It simply said ‘The Monster’ and then they put a question mark. So Boris Karloff started out the same way.

Owen: And both movies are a part of that Universal Studios monster heritage. It must be a kick to be a part of that.

Ben: Oh definitely, are you kidding? ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ is now a classic and in the same Universal class as ‘Dracula’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘The Wolf Man’, ‘The Mummy’, etc.

Owen: Speaking of that, the movie is over 50 years old and remains a favorite. Do you have a theory regarding its popularity?

Ben: The movie never gets old because if you look at the story it’s basically man looking for where man came from. In other words their theory in the movie was man came from the sea. In real life many people believe that. That’s why in the movie they talk about the lungfish. At the very beginning Richard Carlson is doing the voice over and talking about the evolution of man from the sea. There’s a picture of the sea and the camera pans to the beach and there are footprints dragging on the sand. So that’s to me why it’s interesting. That theory never gets old.

Owen: You are also a favorite at conventions around the country. What are the best and the worst parts about that?

Ben: I love meeting fans. It gives me a chance to thank them. They are so important to me because without them The Gillman would have been gone a long time ago.

Owen: Do you recall the first time you saw the film?

Ben: I saw it at a premiere in West Los Angeles and I thought, “Wow, is that really me up there?” It was a full theater that night and it got a very positive reaction. Nobody knew who I was. I didn’t say anything. Here’s a bit of trivia for you – at the time of the movie’s release Universal Studios was on the verge of bankruptcy and the movie was so successful it saved the studio.

Owen: The film was also shot in 3D. What extra considerations were made to film the movie with that process?

Ben: When they shoot 3D it’s with two cameras. It’s the same idea as a human being having two eyes – with that you can judge depth, you have depth perception – but if you close one eye you cannot.

Owen: You were a Universal contract player and weren’t cast in ‘Revenge of the Creature’ or ‘The Creature Walks Among Us’ because you were no longer under contract. What was your time with the studio like?

Ben: Primarily I was an entertainer. I did nightclub work. I’m originally from Tahiti and I used to do Tahitian dancing and music. I got my contract after some studio executives saw me at a nightclub in Hollywood. We were asked to be in a musical short with 10 girls from the Miss Universe contest. The stars of the short were Pinky Lee, Mamie Van Doren, and Lisa Gaye, who was Debra Paget’s sister. So after we finished it some executives asked who the guy was playing the Tahitian chief…and it was Ben Chapman. Actually my cousin had been a star at the studio in the 40s – Jon Hall. They were thinking of bringing back the South Seas pictures like he starred in and they were thinking of grooming me to be another Jon Hall, so they put me under contract -- but it didn’t work out so I left the studio.

Owen: With the recent flux of horror movies, any plans for a Black Lagoon remake?

Ben: No. The last one I heard of was Gary Ross, the producer of ‘Seabiscuit’, was interested but that fell through. Ironically his father is Arthur Ross, who wrote the original ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Owen: What scares you in real life?

Ben: Nothing scares me, certainly not death. I’ve had a very good life.


Thanks Ben.

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