By Bob Gourley | Originally published in 2000
The following is an interview with Ben Chapman, one of the actors who played the title character of ‘The Creature From The Black Lagoon’ (Chapman appeared as the creature in all above water scenes.) I originally did it for the America Movie Classics “AmPop” website, but since that has been taken down I am posting it here as well. Users of the site where asked to submit question suggestions, which I then compiled and used as the basis for a phone interview with Chapman. For more info, be sure to visit his website at : www.the-reelgillman.com
What was the costume made of? How heavy was it? How long did it take you to get in and out of the costume?
Ben: Well, the costume was made out of foam rubber, and there was a latex one piece body stocking that I got into, many pieces were stuck to that, It was very simply made, its not like the high tech stuff of today, and the costume wasn’t very heavy, because it was made out of foam rubber, and it took about 2-3 hours to get in and out of (the costume). As we went along, I never knew if I was going to wear the same suit. It fit my body like an outer layer of skin so as we went along it was easier to get in and out of.
What type of breathing device was provided in the costume for the water scenes? How long could Ricou Browning stay under water?
As far as I know, Ricou Browning didn’t use anything when he doubled me underwater. I will say this: Ricou Browning was a champion swimmer and water man as I was; in other words, we could go down to 60-70 feet and hold our breathes for 4/4 and a half minutes, so as far as I know, Ricou Browning never had any kind of a breathing device. They were thinking about it, but they couldn’t get one to fit in the dorsal fin on the back of the suit. The main reason is that fish do not emit bubbles. With a breathing device, he would have emitted bubbles.
How many costumes were made and where are they now?
As far as I know, I had between 5-6, I never really counted them but I did see them lined up, and as far as where they are today, I would say since they were made of foam rubber, there wouldn’t be any left today, because after 48 years, foam rubber in air would just turn to powder, so if anybody were to say that they have a “original” I would be very skeptical about it. As far as I know, I’ve been doing shows for some time, and I’ve talked to a lot of experts, and they all say the costume is gone.
Was the land Creature costume a light moss green color? and what color were the eyes?
The costume was made a mossy green – some were lighter, some were darker, so its hard to say…I would say it wasn’t real dark, but it was fairly dark around certain parts of the costume, and the other parts of the costume were more of a light green, and the eyes were as what we call our ‘white’ pupils, they were kind of a yellowish color, so they did make him more of a fish type. Around the scales, after I got into it, they had highlighted it, with a gold/copper paint to give it that fishy sheen.
I would like to ask a question that has bothered me for years….In the final scene where Gillman makes his final stand, where he is shot, and runs away, there is a glimpse of what appears to be a column base. I wasn’t sure at first that it was there, but in the next scene after this there is a very brief view of more columns, and then ruins suggesting buildings in a cavern behind the actors. My questions are: “What are these ruins, how much were actually included (anything in unused stock), why were they put so briefly in the last scenes, and what thoughts were behind them, or how were they related to the story? Anything you could add on these issues would be appreciated.
I know there is a shot on the lake as they first enter the black lagoon, Richard Carlson gets a boat hook to clear the way. If you look closely in the background, you can see the top of a telephone pole…as far as what appears to be three white columns in the background of the scene where the Gillman is shot in the cave scene and staggers out to the lagoon, I have no answer as to what they were or why they were there.
How was the scene on the boat where the lantern set the monster on fire done without burning you?
Well, I come up out of that cage, where they have the cage, and then I jump up on the deck and attack Whit. Then Whit hits me with the lantern – I catch fire and dive into the water. Well, originally what we had done, I came out of the cage, Whit and I struggle and if you notice, I kind of pat myself as if Im on fire – Im not really on fire, he hits me with the lantern, and then I go through this motion and I dive off. Well there’s a gentleman named Al Wyatt, who’s a stuntman double for Rock Hudson, we were all the same size. So Al Wyatt actually went through the same motions and patted himself -except, the difference is he is in a asbestos-type suit where they set him on fire, so he actually did the fire scene itself, and what they did if you look at the scene itself, you can see that the fire is superimposed on top of me. I wanted to do it but they said no no no you can’t in case anything happened, so I would credit Al Wyatt for doing the fire scene.
It seems that I read at one time that Richard Carlson was actually afraid of the ‘Creature’ while filming the movie…that the costume was very unnerving to him (even though he knew it was an actor inside). True?
Well actually, I think what they may have read about is Julie Adams…when they first made the costume it was under hush hush, it was really top secret – nobody was allowed into the makeup department until the day that they unveiled me and they put me on a little tram-like thing and wheeled me out into the parking lot and there were the executives and the press and when Julie first saw me, she turned, and I have pictures of this that I put up on the wall when I do appearances…she turned and looked at people and she said ‘Is that really Ben in there?’ so they said yeah and she went in front of me and she said’ Ben is that you?’ and I would just go ‘uuuuurgh’ and this kind of unnerved her and she said ‘now come on Ben, if that’s really you in there’. So after a couple of going back and forth I went ‘Juuuuliiieee’ so finally I had to say ‘Julia its really me’ so it really wasn’t Richard Carlson, it was Julie Adams. As far as Richard was concerned though, he was kind of fearless, he and Richard Denning weren’t really scared of the costume.
Were there any other creatures used for stunts or did you do everything yourself?
As I said, Al Wyatt did the fire scene, and as far as any other stunts, the way to define Ricou and I, you take the level of the water; anything below the water would be him, that would be before stunts and I’ll get into that in a little while but anything above the water I did myself, the scene grabbing her and diving off of the boat, the scene on the beach where Bernie Gozier comes at me with a machete or anything of that type, other than Al Wyatt and the fire scene, I did all of my own stunts.
What river were the shots in the movie taken? Or was it done on a lot? How long did it take to make that movie?
When you make movies, they have places where you can go rent ‘stock shots’ as they call them. What they do is they put it upon a screen, a back screen, you stand in front of it and it looks like you’re there, but you’re really standing in a sound studio so they use stock footage in the back and they had a mock up of the ‘Rita’ on a soundstage. Was it done on a lot? yeah, a lot of it was done on the back lot. When you take a tour for Universal Studios they take you up to this big lake where Mchale’s Navy was made, thats also where they made the Black Lagoon…It took us between six to eight weeks, I can’t exactly remember how long it took.
How did you know when to draw your hand back in those scenes with your fist coming out of the water. How did you communicate back and forth with the producers? Were you prompted with cue cards or did you do the scenes all chopped up and then they were spliced together at the end?
I did all of the inserts, as they call them, in the scene, I know what you’re talking about, where Julie’s standing there at the beginning of the movie, you see the hand come up and put his hand on the sand and trying to draw it back- they gave me a timing, we rehearsed it – it was pretty simple so there was really in terms of timing I just did what Jack told me to do. I had different eyes, if they had the eyeballs in, I could not see out, so they would pop the eyeballs out of the head, the helmet as I called it and I could see and I really rehearsed whatever the scene is to the direction and what to do and so forth, then when they popped the eyeballs back in there was a guy with a flashlight and I would just see this light and I would just follow that light, and as far the directions from the director, I could hear, so there was no problems with that.
What did they use for the “sinking Rotonon”(The drug for paralyzong fish)?
Some kind of – what do you call that stuff that you can make lines on a football field – chalk, powdered chalk, you just wet it, squeeze it up – thats why you saw the white when it goes down under the water – from the makeup department.
Was there ever some mishap with the suit that required hospitalization or medical treatment? ie suffocation, hyperthermia, pulled back etc.
(The suit) was very comfortable – I had no problems with it whatsoever – the only problem that I had if we were on a sound stage. If we were on the back lot, I would just swim all day to stay cool, but if we were on a sound stage, and there was no water around, your body’s completely covered, so therefore the pores in your body do not breathe, and your body temperature goes up. There was a gentleman off in the corner with a hose and I just go up to him and say ‘hey. hose me down’, and he’d hose me down until I can feel my body temperature go down. And we go from there. A lot of people say ‘well, weren’t you claustrophobic or anything? No. I was completely comfortable with it, and between shots, you could take the helmet off, so that I didn’t have to wear the head, but I had to wear the costume, and I never went in or out – once I’m in, I’m in. And some days, it would be 14 hours, so I could take the head off, and just walk around with just my natural head exposed, no problem.
How much did you get paid for this job?
I got a whopping sum of $300 a week. So therefore, to play this classic horror person, I was paid a total of approximately $2,400, which is really nothing compared to what people get today. I do still have my original contact, and when people order autographed pictures, I do send a copy with it, so they get a bonus.
Was there any off screen chemistry between you and your leading lady?
Oh, no. Julie and I to this day are just very good friends. But no, to even 1 iota of she and I. It was the type of shoot where you would get up in the morning and couldn’t wait to get to work. We were really a big family.
I saw in Michael Westmore’s book on his work in the make-up industry that he or another member of the Westmore family created the Creature’s design. But according to the DVD version of “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” the real credit for the Creature’s design belongs to Millicent Patrick of Universal’s make-up department. Who’s right?
First of all, the design on the board, the artist was Millicent Patrick, she drew it. As far as supervising the putting of the costume together, it was Jack Kevan. The sculptor of the Gillman’s head was Chris Mueller. You’ll see a lot of pictures of my attendant, day and night when I was on the lot when I was in costume. It was a gentleman name Bob Dawn. You’d always see him dressed in white, standing there helping me in and out. The reason I bring that up is that his father was the renowned make-up man Jack Dawn, whose biggest picture was “The Wizard Of Oz.” He did all the makeup and creation for “Wizard Of Oz.” And of course Bud Westomre got credit because …. and not that he didn’t have anything to do with it, I’m not leaving him out, he was there and kind of the senior supervisor. But he was head to make-up. When we were making the costume, it was a major thing of the lot. So Budd Westmore, head of makeup, Kack supervised, sculpture by Chris Mueller, my personal attendant was Bob Dawn.”
How did the directer pick you to play “The Gillman?”
Well, there’s the old saying be in the right place at the right time, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time. As a contractee for the studio, I used to drive down to the studio and see what’s going on. And I drove in one day, parked my car, and went to say hello to everybody. I went down to casting and I was talking to a woman named Jonny Rennick, who was head of casting for wranglers, stuntmen and anything of that type, and she asked me if the studio has approached me about a new movie they were going to make about some kind of creature who lives in the Amazon. And I said no, I had no idea, so she said ‘can you come back tomorrow?’ and I said yes. She made me stand in the office and people looked at me, and Jack Arnold said ‘yeah, he’s perfect.’ And it was as simple as that. There was no big audition, there was no going against other people. When I came in the office, she said ‘you’d be perfect because I know you’re half fish.’ But they did get Ricou to do it, because to save time and money they were filming with four doubles in Florida for all the underwater scenes while the four main people were it in the back lot at Universal. So there was a first unit, and a second unit. So it was just as simple as that.”
Was it you or Ricou that got a job at Disneyworld after the Creature pictures ended? What happened to Ricou?
Ricou was in a show at the time, they used to have the Everglades Water Show, and things like that. So yeah, I guess it was him who went to Disneyworld. Ricou today is retired and lives in Ft. Lauderdale. He was also, just to throw this in, the creator of ‘Flipper.’ So he went on to do a lot of good stuff.
Did you play the creature in all three of the movies? Did you ever act in any other movies?
I did the original, the studio did not pick up my option so I moved on. A friend on mine named Tom Hennesy did ‘Revenge Of The Creature’ and Don Megowan did “Creature Walks Among Us.” So there were 3 of us, but Ricou did all the underwater scenes for all three of them. He stayed in that capacity. After I left Universal Studios as a contractee, I did television shows like “Hawaiian Eye”, “Adventures in Paradise”, “Follow the Sun”, amd a couple of “Jungle Jim” movies. I returned also to my favorite – Polynesian Entertainment.
Who did the underwater scenes for Julia Adams? Is Julie Adams still living and if so what is she doing now?
The underwater scenes for Julie was a lady name Ginger Stanley. The underwater scenes for me was Ricou Browning, the underwater scenes for Richard Carlson was a gentleman named Stanley Crew, the underwater scenes for Richard Denning was a gentleman names Jack Betts. Julie today is still living, I just talked to her a few days ago and she’s fine. She doesn’t do any appearances because she’s retired, she’s quiet. She’s satisfied. I try to bribe her to come with me to movie memorabilia shows nation-wide, but I still can’t get her to do it. But she’s fine, and I hate her because she’s just as beautiful as ever. She still looks the same, she’s never aged. I’m only kidding. I love her very much.
Are you the same Ben Chapman who served as production manager of the last season of the “Adventures of Superman” back in the late 1950s? If so, what are your recollections of working with George Reeves?
No, that was not me. There was another Ben Chapman. And ironically, when Ricou Browning did Flipper, if you see the original Flipper shows, you will see at the end Production Manager : Ben Chapman. So a lot of people think that he and I went on together as a partnership, but no, that was not me. I knew Ben Chapman, and a lot of people thought I was his son and I won’t get into that because it involved a lot of funny stories. But no, we were not related.”
Did you see “Creature” in 3-D?
I loved it. If they ever show it in 3D, especially on the big screen, go see it. That’s how I saw it, because The Creature from the Black Lagoon was shot in 3D originally. They shot with 2 cameras, and 3D is the same idea as your eyeballs. You have 2 eyes, you look at something, you can pick out depth. If you close one eye, you do not have depth perception, because now you’re flat, like a flat screen. So, yeah, I did see it in 3D and it was great. Because we did shoot a lot of the things where they would fly out in the audience. When those things fly out, you will move.”
How do you feel the creature would be different if this film were made today? What do you think of today’s horror films?
I hope they never, ever remake The Creature From The Black Lagoon. For the simple reason that it’s now a classic horror movie, along with your Frankenstein, Dracula, and so forth. The reason that they become a classic is that they’re a one of a kind, they should never be redone. It would be like remaking ‘Gone With The Wind’ – it would be impossible. You can do it, but it would never be the same.”
What do I think of today’s horror films? I’m going to be nice, and say I don’t like them. I have a lot of young fans 6, 7, 8, 9 years old, who come up to my table with their parents, and the parents say ‘he saw Creature From The Black Lagoon and he loved it’ for the simple reason that when we made a movie, they were black and white, they were lighted in a certain way, the music had a lot to do with it, and they knew how to build suspense. People got killed, but you never saw blood, never saw gore. Today’s horror films are too realistic. In our day, the reason they made movies was an escapism. You come out, your feel great. If you look at a movie called “The 7 Year Itch,” with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewel, when they come out of the theater, she says ‘oh, I feel sorry for the creature.” Because if you look in the background, they had just come from seeing “The Creature From The Black Lagoon.” There’s a huge marquee in the back of them that says “The Creature From The Black Lagoon.” There’s a 30 or 40 foot cut out of me holding Julia in my arms. And it’s there, within a few paces, that she stands on the grating and there’s that famous sequence where her dress blows up. She’d just come from seeing “the Creature From The Black Lagoon.” So if anybody has a chance, get a copy of “The Seven Year Itch” and pay attention, because 3 times through the movie she mentions “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.” I was very amazed, I’d known nothing about it. That was a 20th Century Fox movie, but they used a Universal Movie in a 20th Century Fox movie. It was very flattering.”
Always thought this movie would make a great remake. Any signs from Hollywood in making a remake? How about you (Ben Chapman) playing one of the scientists?
“If they did, yes I would like to play some kind of a role in it. but no, I hope they never, ever, ever remake it. It would be good for me, because when they do remakes, the first thing people do is always compare it with the original. And it would kill it. The closest things that’s come to it is ‘Anaconda’ and it was exactly the same as Creature except they used a snake instead of me.”
I hear that in the 50’s, actors’ working conditions were nothing like today, with royalties for all sorts of things. Did you get any extra royalties from the studio for all the photos of the Creature that appeared in Monster Magazine or the little rubber/plastic figures that were sold?
No, they did not share. Because when you are a contractee, they own you. They tell you what to do. I was paid a simple $2400. There’s hundreds of collectibles all over the world, but i’ve never seen a dime from it.
Ben, I’m a 52 year old male, my dad took me to see “The Creature” I was 6. You have lived under my bed or in every dark room I’ve ever been in since. It’s good to get to meet you so I can finally start going to the bathroom at night without being afraid. Did you ever think you’d have such an impact on people?
“No, had I known then what I know today, I would have been doing a little thievery, going on the set and taking this, taking that. Which would be priceless today as collectibles. I would have been going to every theater that showed it, and getting all the posters, because they threw those posters away. So, no, I had no idea what the impact would be. Remember, God only gave us one talent. It’s called 20/20 hindsight – ‘I could’a, I should’a, but I didn’t’.
How old were you when you filmed the movie?
I started when I was 24, and ironically, I had my birthday (October 29) by the time we finished, I was 25. There were no big stops, no big parties, no big birthday things, it was work, just like any other day, except people were saying ‘happy birthday’.
Did you read comic books when you were a kid?
Yes, when I came to this country – I was raised on an island called Tahiti, my mom and dad were born there, I was born here, I went back there when I was just a little child. So I was at the age of 12 before I came back to this country, and yes, we used to read comic books – in Tahiti, French versions of Superman…and again, 20/20 hind sight…had I known then what I know now, I would have kept every comic book that I ever read, and I would be a wealthy man. So yes I did enjoy comic books, and I encourage every child today. Hey, its good for reading, just plain reading, when you get to read, you get the child’s interest in reading, which is the main thing about it, but they are fun.
Mr. Chapman-Do you attend any film festivals and if so are there upcoming events where you will be a guest?
I do attend (Movie Memorbilia Convetions) every year – I did 14 of them last year. To all of the fans, I can tell you in two weeks I will be at Frightvision in Cleveland, Ohio (April 6, 7, 8) at the Sheraton in Cleveland, then I will go on to do Horrifund, which is a large horrorfest in Baltimore, Maryland, in August 24, 25, and 26th, then Chiller Theatre back at the Meadowlands Sheraton during the Halloween Weekend (October 26-28), Im going to go do Monster Bash next year, so yes, I do, do shows – the main thing is, go on to my website, go to my appearances, and it will be updated to tell fans where and when they will come see me and also how they can order personalized autographed photos with a copy of my original 1953 contract and surprise goodies.
What was your previous occupation before becoming the “Creature” and did it help in you getting the part?
No it didnt help – what did help though, being from Tahiti, I was an entertainer and I used to sing and dance in Polynesian, you know, like you see in luaus, guys with the fire knives and the Tahitian dancing with exciting music – this is what I did before that – I used to work in night clubs, and I happened to do a musical short for Universal called ‘Hawaiian Nights’ with Pinky Lee Mamie Van Doren and Lisa Gaye (Debra Paget’s sister). When they showed this musical short – it was 15 minutes I think – they said ‘Who’s that young chieftain?’ and they said ‘Oh, we’ll look it up’ and they said ‘It’s Ben Chapman – Find out if he’d be interested in the contract.’ So they put me in a contract, and of course, that gave me access to the studios. But now I will say this: the first person that they really wanted for the Gillman was a fellow named Glenn Strange, who played Frankenstein twice, but was very famous for Gunsmoke – he was the bartender. Glenn, being a cowboy type, they said ‘we want you to do some swimming – ‘no no no’ – water was not his thing so he passed. Thank you very much Glenn. I later did a show with Glenn and I thanked him very much for not taking the part.
Do you ever pretend you’re the creature when people are getting on your nerves, and you want to grab them with creature hands and strangle them? Even though you really can’t, you could pretend.
Im very even-tempered. I basically would like to say that Im a very nice person. I never get that crazy – it doesn’t even enter my mind to get mad at people.
Do you have any little creatures of your own?
I have a daughter who’s 45 named Elsye Maree, I have a son Ben 22, who’s a sergeant in the Marine Corps, and I have a 15 year old named Grant who lives on the island of Maui with his mom. I also have a wonderful woman named Merrillee. They are the loves of my life.
What other movie stars have you met?
Well, I’ve been in this business since 1948. Through the years, its very hard to say who’ve I’ve met. I can say from the highest to the lowest and I still meet ’em all the time and it would be boring for me to go on with it, because you name ’em, I’ve met ’em. If you want to talk about old movie stars from Clark Gable on down, yes I do, if you want to talk about the new ones from today, yes I have. The common thing is, when they find out ‘oh that’s Ben Chapman, he played the ‘Creature form the Black Lagoon’, people come up to me, even movie stars come up to me and say , ‘you know when I was a kid, you scared the hell out of me.’ So we do have that common bond and lucky for me to have portrayed the Gillman and having him go onto a classic category of his own. If you’ve never heard of the Creature From the Black Lagoon, you’ve lived in a cave all of your life.
Id like to thank fans from all over the world of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, because if it weren’t for fans like them, the Gill-man would have been dead, buried, and forgotten a long time ago.
I am very very protective of the fans, I mean they are very important to me, very important. When I am on the table, and they come up to get their photos, I never push them away for the next person. I will give them time, answer their questions, talk with them and have pictures taken with them. Especially children – I’m an education advocate – children come up to my table, and I will spend more time with them, and ask them if they like school and so forth. And if people want to come and see me at all these future shows, just check my appearances (on the web site)’