Remembering Ben Chapman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon

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Creature From the Black Lagoon 1954 poster. Photos courtesy of Ben Chapman and Jamie Brotherton

Creature From the Black Lagoon has left an indelible mark on motion picture history. The movie opened a new vista for the future of underwater filmmaking, and the title menace was the last of the great Universal Monster creations, following in the footsteps of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man.

Creature From the Black Lagoon remains a movie classic still commanding a loyal fan base. Its continuing popularity can be attributed in part to its basic theme: man’s unending quest of the unknown. The plot revolves around a team of scientists (Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, and Richard Denning) venturing to the Amazon River in search of a prehistoric half-man, half-fish. To their astonishment, they discover a "Gill Man"—a half-human, half-amphibian being with retractable gills and scaly green skin who wreaks havoc because of the intrusion upon his once-peaceful habitat.

designing the creature from the black lagoonMilicent Patrick creates the unique design of the Gill Man

There has never been such a creature so skillfully created as the Gill Man. In the half century since his screen debut, the Gill Man has inspired a raft of celluloid aqua-terrors that include The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1961), The Horror of Party Beach (1964), Anaconda (1997), Frankenfish (2004), and even Jaws (1975). The success of the first Creature film spawned two entertaining sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). However, none of these imitations or follow-ups could live up to the original.

Ben Chapman, the talented actor best known for his riveting portrayal of the original Gill Man, stood at a towering 6’ 5". There could not have been a better candidate for the role. Although the Creature would prove to be the role of a lifetime, Chapman would enjoy a prolific career during the glory years of Hollywood, experiencing firsthand a studio system that no longer exists. He mingled with some of the most prominent names in the show business, becoming close friends with many of them.

Thanks to Mr. Chapman, we can rediscover the Creature From the Black Lagoon, the recent news on remake and more about the man himself.

Ben Chapman was born in Oakland, Calif., on October 29, 1928. His parents returned to their native Tahiti until Ben turned 12. They then uprooted to California where Ben attended school during the 1940s. After completing his education, Ben settled in Santa Monica embarking upon a career in entertainment beginning with nightclub work, singing the enchanting songs of Polynesia, which he loved.

When asked about his showbiz start, Ben recalled: "In 1948 my brother-in-law and sister were entertainers. They did Polynesian entertainment, like you would see at a luau. They had fire, knives, drums. That’s what I used to do when I was in my early twenties. From that, I got a job in my first picture Pagan Love Song [1950] with Howard Keel and Esther Williams. I was in a number with her.

creature from the black lagoonCreature from the Black Lagoon (Universal International, 1954). One Sheet (27" X 41"). One of the greatest monster films of all time, this was Universal’s re-entry into the genre, updating the horror film for the post-atomic age of the 1950s. The result was an absolute masterpiece. Discovered during a scientific expedition to the Amazon, the Gill Man proved popular enough to star in several sequels, and remains a classic monster icon to this day. Offered here is the highly desirable one sheet for this great movie, about as clean as one is likely to find. Unbacked and unrestored, this is an incredible find, appearing unused and virtually like new. If you insist on nothing but the best, you won’t want to miss this exquisite gem. Near Mint/Mint.

"I also had relatives who were in movies. I’ll begin with Mutiny on the Bounty [1935]. There’s Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone; when they get off of the ship and they meet with the chief—that was my uncle. Then I had a cousin, Jon Hall, who was a big star at Universal during the ’40s. If you see the original Hurricane [1937] with Dorothy Lamour, that’s Jon’s big picture. He also did a lot of pictures with Maria Montez [Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Cobra Woman, etc.] and starred in a television series called Ramar of the Jungle [1952-1954], which was a very big success.

"Even today, my nephew Branscombe Richmond is an actor; he starred in the TV series Renegade [1992-1997] with Lorenzo Lamas." (Richmond has also appeared on such hit TV shows as Desperate Housewives, Charmed and Baywatch.)

Ben was called to active duty in 1950 where he reported to the Marine Corps and fought during the Korean War. War is always a traumatic experience, and as a combat soldier, Ben considers himself blessed to have survived: "Here in Hawaii I belong to what is called The Chosin Few. It’s a club for those of us who were at the Chosin Reservoir, which, if you know about the Korean War, there was only one great division. We were up there and it was like 40 degrees below when the Chinese came in. We were the ones that the Chinese jumped on."

After serving his country valiantly, Ben was discharged from the Marines in 1952. A short time later, he secured a contract with Universal-International: "I was dancing at this club, the Island Room, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, which was a very nice hotel right across the street from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. There were some people coming in one night who wanted to see the show because they were thinking of using us for a musical short. They watched the show and then after we all sat around, they said that they loved it. We did the musical short for Universal titled Hawaiian Nights [1952] with Mamie Van Doren, Pinky Lee and a girl named Lisa Gaye, the sister of Deborah Paget. I was the lead dancer while we were on the set. Being 6’ 5", I was young and with a hard body. Not like today. So, the director, Will Cowan asked me if I would play a native chief because they needed a chief on the throne. And they needed someone who could speak Tahitian, which I could.  I said, ‘Oh, sure I’ll do it.’

"After the studio heads saw the film, they asked, ‘Who is that young guy playing the chief?’ They were told, ‘That’s Ben Chapman. His cousin was Jon Hall who used to do all those South Sea tropical movies.’ So they said, ‘Oh, really? Find out if he would be interested in a contract.’ Today that would be a big thing but in those days if they gave you a contract it was like an agreement you’d work for them for a year. After the one year, if it didn’t work out, they’d give you what they called pick-up options. They signed me, which meant I could only work for them exclusively; I could not work for anyone else. I signed a one-year contract and got paid $125 a week. I told them I wouldn’t do movies for anyone else, but I said I did nightclub work and wanted to continue doing that. When you did nightclub work in those days you did two shows a night, and in between shows you get to sit and talk with people. It’s a different life and good fun. Anyhow, they said, ‘Sure, okay.’"

Ben found the studio system of yesteryear to be quite an experience, nothing like one would find today. It was an open atmosphere, where he could come and go freely, and was always encountering a friendly and famous face. It was during one of his visits that he secured his trademark role. "While I was under contract, I used to go to the studio even when I wasn’t doing anything. I’d drive out there and find out who was working where and doing what, and go have lunch in the commissary. They used to have a casting office right off the sidewalk; this was for extras and stuntmen. So I stopped in to say hello to everybody and this woman who was a casting director said, ‘Benny, come here. Did the studio approach you about this movie that they are going to make about some kind of creature in the Amazon down in South America? I know that you would be perfect because I know you are half fish.’ That is because I was what they call a free diver. I lived on the beach in Malibu at the time so I used to swim and dive in the day. And when I say free diving, it means you don’t use a scuba tank; you just go out and you take your deep breaths. In those days I could go down 80 or 90 feet and hold my breath for four or five minutes. People would say ‘WOW,’ but it’s like anything else in life, any sport. If you work out enough you can become good at it. Very simple. As long as you work out you’ll become good. So one thing led to another and she arranged for an appointment. I got to meet these people and when I got the part I also got a raise to $300 a week; I was actually doing some stunts."

creature from the black lagoonCreature From the Black Lagoon (Universal International, 1954). Poster (40" X 60"). Although Universal had abandoned their horror franchise several years earlier, they went back to the well in 1954 with the advent of the science fiction boom. The result was one of the most popular films of the era, which introduced the Gill-Man, one of the silver screen’s great monsters. Brought to life by Ricou Browning in the swimming scenes and Ben Chapman on land, the Creature was so popular that the film spawned two blockbuster sequels. This dynamic poster had wrinkling and edge wear, as well as a vertical tear in the center, that extends from the bottom of the poster into the title area. Professional restoration has expertly addressed these issues, resulting in a beautiful piece that any sci-fi fan will be proud to own. Fine/Very Fine on Linen.

After signing on to do the picture, Ben had no idea the impact that Creature From the Black Lagoon would have. He did, however, realize that he had some pretty big footsteps to follow in after Universal’s previous horror favorites. "When I got the assignment I realized I’m going to have to follow Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr. I thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’ Then I began to think about why these people were successful. And why were all these movies successful? And I finally came up with the answer—that is, it’s like King Kong, it’s like Beauty and the Beast. All those movies were successful for one reason: there was a woman involved. Frankenstein had his Bride and Dracula had his women. They all were involved and in love with a woman.

"But in those days it was a job, just work. When I do seminars sometimes people ask, ‘In those days did you know that 50 years later it would be the way it is today?’ I say, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course not.’ It was a job and once we finished it, it was over with, never thinking it would become what it is today. I did realize that Universal had Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man … but I didn’t think of myself as becoming another Boris Karloff. Years later I would be associated with the Creature movie, like Karloff is with Frankenstein. We made ours in 1953 and we were the last of the classic Universal Monsters. When the movie was voted into a classic, Julie [Adams] and I were extremely flattered. I am very flattered today."

Director Jack Arnold (whose credits include It Came from Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tarantula, The Mouse That Roared, and episodes of the TV series Bionic Woman, Gilligan’s Island and The Love Boat) had precise ideas on how to bring Creature From the Black Lagoon to the screen. Ben sought out the sometimes-stern director’s advice, and they formed a deep appreciation for each other’s talent: "I went up to Jack and asked, ‘How do you want me to play him?’ He said, ‘Do me a favor and don’t make a cartoon out of him.’ In other words, don’t go clunk, clunk, clunk. Make him real. I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ After I thought about it I said, ‘I’m going to do him as Beauty and the Beast.’ A good idea, and we did just that. If you see The Seven Year Itch [1955], there’s a scene where Marilyn Monroe comes out of a movie theatre [showing Creature]. Tom Ewell looks at her and says, ‘Well, did you like your creature?’ And she says, ‘Oh yes, and I felt so sorry for him.’ So we did get across that he was really the nice guy, and at the end of the movie everybody felt sorry for him. After all, here come these guys with guns, and all he was doing was basically saying, ‘Hey, this is my home, get out of here.’ He was protecting his home. So, next time you watch the movie, watch it with that in mind.

"Jack Arnold was very strict, but I respected him. He was a professional. There is nothing worse than working with an amateur; it’s horrible. Jack was tough at the beginning because he was demanding; he knew what he wanted. He was a great director so you didn’t mind having him tell you what to do because he knew exactly what he was doing. At the beginning it was touch-and-go but by the time we finished, it was all hugs and kisses, ‘Hey baby.’"

There would be a unique quality to the picture that would even surprise Ben. The appearance of the Gill Man would be unlike any other of the Universal Monsters. During construction the image was to be kept under wraps. A team of creators would perfect the image of the Gill Man. But it was Millicent Patrick, a talented designer with movie star looks who brought his likeness to life, along with creative geniuses Jack Kevan, Chris Mueller, and legendary make-up artist Bud Westmore. Thanks to their collaborative efforts, the image of the Gill Man remains iconic in the horror film genre.

Ben was impressed when he first cast his eyes upon the creation. "While they were making the costume it was hush-hush, top secret. No one was allowed in makeup, no one was allowed to come up there and see it. They did not want to show him until he was finished. But the first day, I watched it being built because they built it on me. They said, ‘Okay, Benny, it’s all finished and here it is. Take your clothes off and let’s see what it looks like.’ I put it on and stood in front of the mirror and I went, ‘Wow!’ It was so well made. The suit was made of foam rubber, the under part was like a body stocking like you have in pajamas. The only thing you see is the face; the rest is all covered. This was like a leotard body stocking, all stretchy material underneath, and they molded each piece separately so it would stick on. They took a plaster of Paris impression of my whole body, then they stuck everything on there. Another thing about him is that he was very striking looking. He was not menacing or evil looking, he was just an unusual looking person.

creature from the black lagoonCreature From the Black Lagoon (Universal International, 1954). Still (8" X 10"). Horror. Starring Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nestor Paiva, Whit Bissell, Ricou Browning, and Ben Chapman. Directed by Jack Arnold. An unrestored still with bright color and a clean overall appearance. It may have general signs of use, such as slight fold separation and fold wear, pinholes, or very minor tears. Grades on all restored items are pre-restoration grades. Very Fine.

"Speaking of the costume, you’ll notice that many later movies have been made where characters resemble the Creature. Since our movie was made, it’s been copied literally hundreds of times. Before our movie, you never saw anything that resembled him, but since then there are all kinds of characters that have come out with two arms and two legs, except with little differences; some might look like a dinosaur. So we are all very flattered; imitation is the biggest flattery you could have."

Ben decided to have some fun with the plaster of Paris bust that was used to mold the special Gill Man costume. "When the movie was finished, we were standing around one day and Bud [Westmore] asked me, ‘Do you want this?’ They were going to throw [the bust] out so I said, ‘Yeah, what the hell!’ So I took it home. I lived on the beach and I was married to a French girl at the time. When I got home and brought it in she said, ‘What are you going to do with that?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I took it down to the beach; it was just the lower half of the shoulders and up; that is where they molded the mask. I colored it brown like a suntan and I put some dark glasses and a hat on it. I placed it in the sand and we’d watch people walk by on the beach. You’d see them staring at it: ‘There’s a guy buried over there! With only his shoulders and head showing!’ We’d laugh and laugh. When we moved [my wife] said, ‘What do we do?’ I said, ‘Hell with it!’ I left him; I have no idea if anyone has it. They don’t know what it is, just a bust of a guy’s head. That bust would be worth $100,000 today!"

Creature From the Black Lagoon was slated for two months of production time in October and November 1953, coinciding with Ben’s 25th birthday. Although it would be work as usual on his birthday, the atmosphere of the set could not have been a merrier environment for cast and crew. They all enjoyed each other’s company and Ben would form a lifelong friendship with the object of the Gill Man’s affections, Julie Adams. Ben fondly reflects, "Julie is lovely and I still work with her today. I love her. I told her that when I talked to her, she is just a lovely person and she goes, "I love you, too. I really enjoyed the whole experience [making the film].’ It was an unusual filming because it was the type where you woke up in the morning and you couldn’t wait to get to work. We had so much fun, and we were so much a family. Like I had my family at night and I had my daytime family. We just couldn’t wait to get to work, it was hugs and kisses."

The film was shot on Universal Studio’s back lot where the Lagoon set still remains (and has subsequently been used for other underwater spectacles such as Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece Jaws). Two units would be recruited for the shoot, which included a set in Wakulla Springs, Fla. (south of Tallahassee). The second unit, led by director James C. Havens, was responsible for the magical underwater sequences. Olympic swimmer Ricou Browning (who would later create the Flipper television series [1964-1968]) doubled for Ben Chapman. As a result, there has often been some confusion as to who played the Gill Man during specific sequences. Ben clarifies: "Since there was no water that we could use clear enough to film, they got four people in Florida. Ginger Stanley doubled for Julie Adams, Stanley Crew for Richard Carlson, and Jack Betts for Richard Denning. Ricou Browning did my underwater scenes. There is a scene where Richard Carlson and Richard Denning go over the side of the ship. They have their tanks on and they go down the ladder and into the water, putting on their masks. They are still talking. All of a sudden boom, they go underwater! It cuts from them there to them swimming under. You cut from them to the stunt doubles underneath. Before Ricou and I got together about five years ago to clarify everything, people were making a big deal of it. I tell people the best way when you look at the movie, look at the water. Anything below the surface of the water is Ricou, anything above the surface where there is air, that’s me. I was the actor, Ricou was more or less the stunt double."

Years later at Universal’s back lot, Ben’s young son would experience a taste of the Gill Man’s popularity. "My son, who is in film school, went on a tour of Universal Studios with his mom, her girlfriend and his friend when they went on vacation. They got on the little tram that takes you out to the lake that was used for Jaws and McHales Navy. The tram started to leave, but then stopped and announced, ‘By the way, there was a movie called Creature From the Black Lagoon filmed here.’ My son stood right up and yelled, ‘That was my dad!’ There are like 50 people on the tram. The guy stopped and said, ‘What?’ ‘That was my dad!’ My ex-wife was just embarrassed and was like ‘Shut up! Shut up!’ So the conductor stopped and asked, ‘What do you mean, your dad?’ He replied, ‘My dad played the Creature.’ The guy asked, ‘What’s your dad’s name?’ ‘Ben Chapman. I’m Grant Chapman.’ When they finished the tour I was told that as everyone got off they went up to Grant and asked for his autograph on their programs!"

The early 1950s were considered the golden age of experimental 3-D filmmaking. Every studio was using this format at the time, and Universal-International was no exception. Creature From the Black Lagoon was considered an ideal choice for 3-D, especially since Jack Arnold had directed Universal’s first 3-D feature, It Came From Outer Space (1953). Ben remembers that the process did not cause any upheaval in production. "We were like the fifth or sixth film to use the 3-D process. If you see the movie on a big screen in 3-D, it just leaps right off the screen and out at you!"

In addition to the 3-D effects, the film is notable for its music score by Hans J. Salter. "We had theme music in our movie," Ben recalls. "We were the first ones to do it. When the Creature was around, there was a certain sound. You hear the sound but you don’t see him. It tells you that he is around. Steven Spielberg took that same idea and made it into doom-doom-doom-doom for the shark in Jaws. You didn’t see the shark but when that sound comes up, you know he is around. So Spielberg was inspired by our film.

"Spielberg and [George] Lucas were big kids; they’ll tell you that in their biography. They went to movies when they were kids and they loved the Saturday afternoon matinees."

Special effects were also implemented during a scene where an irate Gill Man frees himself after being captured by the scientists. Ben was unable to do his own stunts for fear of injury, so Al Wyatt, Rock Hudson’s double, was enlisted. "For that scene, they put me in the cage, then the Gill Man breaks out of the cage. Then I get hit with the lantern, catch fire, and dive over the side. What we did for that was we went through the scene, there was no fire, the lantern didn’t have any fire in it. It was just going through the motions where he hits me and I start patting myself like I’m on fire and dive off. Then they bring a stunt double in. He would watch the film and the way I’m moving. When he did it he had an asbestos suit on. When it was time, they lit [the suit] and he went through the motions putting out the flames and dive off. They took that and superimposed it over me. Next time you watch the movie, when you get to that scene, hit the remote button to make it slow, you can see that the flames are superimposed on top of me. The burning comes from inside out. When it is superimposed they lay it on top of you and if you look very closely you can see I’m not on fire and that it’s superimposed. Rock Hudson’s double did that because Rock and I were good friends. As a matter of fact, Rock and I were the same identical size."

Ben and Rock would amuse others with their gregarious sense of humor: "We used to play games where we’d be sitting, eating [in the commissary] and we would both get up and go into the bathroom. We would get in there and change clothes. He’d take his clothes off and I’d take my clothes off. He’d put my clothes on and I’d put his clothes on. Then we’d go back in and we’d sit at the table, not saying anything. People would look at us and go, ‘There’s something different.’ Here we were just there but yet there’s something strange about them. But, they wouldn’t notice that we had changed clothes."

The Creature’s lagoon would be transformed into a place of levity for the mischievous duo: "Rock used to bring visitors on board and the big thing when we were filming the movie in the back lot up above the lake was, he and I arranged it where he would bring people, and he would say, ‘Here, let me take you up to the Creature.’ They’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah I heard about that.’ They would call the set and say that Rock is on his way. I would go out into the man-made lake; it wasn’t very deep, only like seven or eight feet. I would go out a couple hundred feet and I would do how you see alligators, where you only see the top of their head and eyes when they’re going through the water. I would get way out there and just show the top of my head and eyes, and I would sit and look. Then I would get near as Rock would get down to the shore. I would see him pointing telling people, ‘See that thing floating out there that looks like a ball? That’s him.’ And you could see the people looking and when that would happen, I would start coming in, moving towards the shore until I got to the point where it’s four feet deep, three feet deep…I would get close to the shore and get to the point where I could arrange my legs and body where I could just spring and jump straight up, getting my legs ready with my hand. All of a sudden I’m not that far away from them…they’re sitting there talking and all they can see is the top of my head. Then I would leap straight up in the air and I would go ‘RAAAAAAA.’ People would just go crazy! They’d be so shocked. [The studio] finally told me, ‘Somebody is going to have a heart attack.’ So we had to quit doing it."

Ben has great respect and admiration for classic horror film stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. "I met Boris and Bela, although I didn’t get to know them that well. Boris was a very classy guy in real life, nothing like his [onscreen] character. He was a very handsome man with snow white hair, very tan, and he had this great voice and English accent. When I say he was handsome, I don’t mean like Rock Hudson. Boris was very distinguished looking. He used to wear these beautiful tweed suits. If you see some of his old TV shows, like when he hosted Thriller, that is what he really looked like. I now do [personal appearance] shows with Boris’ daughter, Sarah. She is a very sweet person and another one that I love.

"Bela and Lon … they had problems, drugs and booze. Years before, Lon starred in The Wolf Man [1941]. But it got to the point where he would be sitting at a bar and someone would look up at him and say, ‘You’re Lon Chaney!’ He would say, ‘I am.’ ‘Can I get your autograph?’ ‘Only if you’ll buy me a drink.’ That’s a shame!"

It was a bittersweet ending when Creature From the Black Lagoon wrapped production. The production "family" disbanded and went on their separate ways to pursue other film roles. But Ben put on the Gill Man costume one more time, for an encore appearance on The Colgate Comedy Hour with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Abbott and Costello remain one of the greatest comedy teams in the history of entertainment. With their outrageous routines, their classic Who’s on First routine, and their unending shenanigans, the straight man-jester duo never failed to leave audiences in hysterics. They were Universal’s premier comedy stars from 1940 to 1955, racking up huge box office grosses with films like Buck Privates (1941), In the Navy (1941), Hold That Ghost (1941), Pardon My Sarong (1942), and In Society (1944).

Among the team’s best-remembered efforts are their encounters with Universal’s monster brigade: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). Understandably, many have wondered why didn’t Abbott and Costello Meet the Creature From the Black Lagoon?

With the Creature being the last of the classic Universal monsters, the timing was wrong. Meet the Mummy, Bud and Lou’s last film for the studio, was released in 1955, while The Creature Walks Among Us, the final Gill Man entry, was released the following year. If Bud and Lou had re-signed with Universal, the encounter may have been inevitable. Nevertheless, Abbott and Costello did meet the Creature—for an installment of The Colgate Comedy Hour that aired live on NBC-TV in February 1954.

The popular Colgate variety show had a rotating line-up of guest hosts (including Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Donald O’Connor, Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, and Bob Hope at various times), which included Bud and Lou. This particular installment marked Lou Costello’s return to the series after collapsing from exhaustion the previous November. Because of this, Bud and Lou only appeared in one segment, while the rest of the show featured Keefe Brasselle and Sonia Henie. ?Nick Santa Maria, film historian, writer, comedian and Broadway performer, (The Producers, Grease, Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know, etc.) sheds light on this period of Abbott and Costello’s prolific career: "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, made in 1948, revived their sagging career. So, Universal had them meeting most of their studio monsters. As for how they felt making monster movies, Bud pretty much followed Lou’s lead in business matters for the team. He just did what he was told, pretty much. It was Lou who made the decisions and cared more about the films. He HATED the script for A&C Meet Frankenstein when he read it. He threatened not to do it, but eventually he broke down because his mom liked it. The film brought them back up to the top. So, naturally they liked any formula that would keep the public coming in. Lou had always wanted to do more prestigious movies, but the studio thought of them like they thought of Ma and Pa Kettle, and the Francis films, inexpensive to make, and a sure profit. Their monster films are hit and miss, but when they worked they were lots of fun; it’s unfortunate A&C did not Meet The Creature on film. It would have been interesting. The Creature was a new kind of monster for Universal, and it wasn’t based on one of their old guard monsters, which were all pretty much based on gothic novels and ancient legends. Bud and Lou were wrapping things up at Universal just as the Creature was in the throes of their Creature series, so the timing was bad, but it was exciting to see Lou meet the Creature on TV, even briefly. At least we have that."

In their segment, Abbott and Costello are being given a tour of Universal’s prop department (actually, it’s the stage of the El Capitan Theater where the Colgate show was performed), guided by an elderly prop man (a heavily-disguised Norman Abbott, Bud’s nephew, who later became a very successful TV director). The boys perform their "Moving Candle" routine (seen in Hold That Ghost and Meet Frankenstein), and later Lou interacts with the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange, who played the role previously in House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Meet Frankenstein) and has a brief run-in with the Creature (Ben).

"That was fun with Abbott and Costello," Ben remembers. "We had already finished [Creature], although it hadn’t been released yet. I got a call one day and was asked if I wanted to do the Colgate show. I was to report down to NBC. When I got there they said, ‘You’re going to do a scene with Frankenstein.’ ‘Boris?’ They said, ‘No, it’s going to be Glenn Strange.’ Glenn Strange was later very famous for his role as bartender in Gunsmoke. He was the big guy with the mustache, and he played the Monster in three movies, including Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

"I’ll tell you a story about Glenn. He was the first guy that they asked to play the Creature because he had already done three Frankensteins. But, he was the cowboy type and cowboys and water don’t mix. You don’t see cowboys taking showers. When he found out it involved water, he went, ‘Water? Water? No.’ So when I saw him at NBC when we did the Abbott and Costello show, I said, ‘Glenn, thank you very much for turning Creature down.’ He was a wonderful man."

What would be two minutes of air time for the Gill Man proved to be a trying time on the set of The Colgate Comedy Hour: "When we went to the studio we did the scene in one day. I didn’t get to know Abbott and Costello that well. I met them for about a half an hour, but I heard they were nice. When I arrived at the studio they took me to my dressing room because it involved getting into the costume. Lou Costello was a heavy gambler. In fact, they kept Glenn and I waiting. Here Glenn and I are already in costume, now the costume is very hot. They kept us waiting while Lou was playing Gin Rummy, and he was losing. No one told him what to do. He said, ‘No, we’re going to play a little more.’ ‘But, we’re ready.’ ‘No, no, no.’ I couldn’t get out of the costume, but I could get the head off, we had to wait for Costello to finish his game. Poor Glenn, he couldn’t take off anything. His makeup, when it’s on, it’s on. Couldn’t do anything until they say, "Okay, we’re ready for you.’ After hours of waiting, finally we got it down and when we were finished I said, ‘God, get me back to the dressing room, get me out of this outfit! Just get me out of here!’ It’s very dangerous because it’s a one piece body stocking; your body breathes through pores and if you shut your pores down, you’re going to have problems and your body doesn’t breathe. There are people who can die from it. I kept telling them, but no one would listen that we have to get this going. When we finally got through with it and they got me back, all I wanted was to ‘Get out of this NOW.’ I kept saying NOW. ‘You could strip me right here on the set as far as I’m concerned, I’ll walk around with my shorts on!’”

Ben admits that it would have been interesting if Abbott and Costello did a feature film with the Creature but rationalizes that the TV skit was the next best thing. "I thought about why [Bud and Lou] didn’t do one with the Creature, but they left the studio before it could have happened. They were big stars at Universal and they got me on their TV show. The Creature movie hadn’t been released yet, and the studio didn’t want anybody to see him. They kind of tied it in where I appeared on their show; the movie was released about two months later. Abbott and Costello asked for me. They had heard about this new monster that was coming out and they said, ‘Oh, we want him.’ They wanted the Creature because they didn’t make any movies with me, and since they met all the other monsters, they wanted me too. I tried to figure out how they could get me when the movie hadn’t been released, but they were such big stars and they were so popular. The studio just did a tie-in where I did their show, and it was great publicity because when the movie came out people would say, ‘Oh, yeah—I saw him with Abbott and Costello!’"

After audiences received a sneak peek of the enigmatic Gill Man, anticipation was heightened for the film’s release, and in April 1954 Creature From the Black Lagoon premiered: "I went to a theatre in California with an actor named Race Gentry. When we got there, there was a big long line. Race kept going, ‘Come on Ben, go tell the manager who you are.’ We could have been taken right in and given the best seats, but I was like, ‘Shut up.’ It was successful the day that it came out. I’ll share a bit of trivia: Universal Studios was on the verge of bankruptcy. The revenue from the movie saved the studio. That happened before with Frankenstein [1931]."

Critics responded positively, hailing Creature as a sensation and Ben’s portrayal of Creature stole the picture. People were in left in wonderment as to who was this Gill Man. Ben’s name did not appear in the credits, something that would seem unheard of today, but made perfect sense then, adding to the mystery. Ben explains: "It didn’t bother me that I didn’t get credit. If you see the original Frankenstein, Boris didn’t credit—in the cast list, when it says "Frankenstein Monster," there is only a question mark. They didn’t even do that with Ricou and I; they wanted to give an illusion, because if you put our names up there, people will go, ‘Oh, it’s just a guy with a costume on.’ It’s psychological like they actually went down to the Amazon, captured the Creature and gave him two weeks of acting lessons."

As Ben enjoyed the success of Creature, he mingled with Hollywood’s elite: Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Peter Lawford. They were among the biggest stars of their era, but to Ben they were simply his good friends: "I had known Peter Lawford for a long time. We used to surf together when I lived in Santa Monica and Malibu, so did Peter. And I met him when I moved there in 1948. Then of course he married into the Kennedys.

"I used to tend bar at a place called Santa Monica Canyon. The beach was about a half a block away. On Saturday—it was a slow day, about 11 or noon—the door opens up. ‘Hey, Benny’ ‘Hi Peter.’ He came up to the bar with some guy and says, "I want you to meet my brother-in-law, Jack.’ This is when the John F. Kennedy was still Senator. I was privileged in my life to know different people. It was a different life. Now you see all these people with big bodyguards. In those days nobody had bodyguards. They moved around freely. All of a sudden you’d hear a car going honk, honk, I’d turn around and there goes Jeffrey Hunter. A great movie star. Honk, honk, he’d pull over, ‘Hey what’s going Jeffrey?’ ’Where you going Benny?’ ‘I’m on my way to the store, or going down to Peter’s house.’ Peter never had a bodyguard."

"I met Frank Sinatra through Peter. Frank was a great guy, but he was very moody. I’d come to [Peter’s] house and if I knew Frank was going to be there I’d say, ‘How’s Frank?’ Peter would say, ‘Don’t go, you know, avoid him.’ He would be sitting over in the corner sulking, but it wouldn’t last. But when Frank was in a bad mood, you didn’t go near him. When JFK was elected President, Frank organized all of the entertainment for the Inaugural. Frank thought, ‘Wow, JFK being President, now I get the President, my buddy.’ Jack used to fly to Vegas and sit ringside with Frank up on stage. JFK had a very active libido; all the Kennedys were that way. If you look at the Kennedys, that was their big downfall, their libido.

"When JFK would go to Palm Springs on vacation, Frank had a home there, and he built quarters for the secret service. He built a heliport for when Jack was flying on the helicopter; he just went through all of this. Bobby Kennedy, Jack’s brother, changed all that when he found out about Frank’s connections with Sam Giancana and the mob. So now that Jack was President, Bobby told him, ‘You better not have anything to do with Sinatra.’ Frank didn’t know that, so he had all this work done [on his home] so Jack could stay there. But instead, when Jack went to Palm Springs, he stayed with Bing Crosby. And Frank went ballistic—when I say ballistic, when Frank goes crazy, get out of the room! I am serious. He trashes the room and he’ll trash you along with it! So he just went crazy, and trashed everything that he built. He blamed it all on Peter because Peter was the President’s brother-in-law. He called Peter and went crazy on him. Peter said that he had nothing to do with it. And that is when they broke up. Frank was the type who just excommunicated Peter. Peter felt so bad that he didn’t have his friendship anymore, and that is when he started taking up drugs. Peter got heavy into cocaine and drinking. I used to see pictures of him, and he had the bushy sideburns.

"I was living in Tahiti at the time and I couldn’t go down and see him or anything, and then of course he and his wife, Pat Kennedy, had divorced. He was still able to work but it finally got to the point where he went down hill. I felt very bad when he died. I cried. If you look at Peter’s early movies he was just the handsomest guy; he had so much class. That is what Frank always used to say. He’d say, ‘Benny look at him, boy does he got class!’ And Peter did. When you saw him at the peak of his career, he had that great accent, that great voice, a classy guy. I saw him go from that right into the toilet."

A year after the film’s release, the Creature remained in the limelight, and was even referenced to in Marilyn Monroe’s 1955 hit The Seven Year Itch. In a scene after Monroe emerges from the movie theatre, just before the infamous skirt-blowing scene, she speaks to Tom Ewell of "feeling so sorry for him." At the time, it was unheard of for any to promote another studio’s picture; but Creature was so popular that 20th Century-Fox did.

Marilyn Monroe would find herself face-to-face with the real Gill Man at a party hosted by Peter Lawford: "Marilyn used to live right up in Brentwood, she and Peter were very close. One day I went over to the house, Marilyn was there. The way I talk, you see, these were human beings and we treated each other as human beings, you would never [be in awe]. So, we were talking later in the evening. One of my favorite movies was The Seven Year Itch where Marilyn had scenes that referred to the Creature. So here I am thinking, ‘How can I introduce myself?’ I just can’t walk up to Marilyn and say ‘You know the movie you made, that was me.’ So I said ‘I admire your talent,’ then finally, ‘My favorite movie of yours was Seven Year Itch.’ She said, ‘Oh, that was one of mine too.’ And I said, ‘I especially like that one scene.’ And she goes, ‘Oh you mean the one where my dress is being pulled up?’ I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no…when you came out from the movie. You know that movie you mentioned?’ She goes, ‘You mean Creature from the Black Lagoon?’ ‘Oh, right yeah.’ By now I am stuck; I can’t say, ‘Well, that was me.’ Peter was there and he turned to her and said, ‘By the way Marilyn, you know Benny played the Creature?’ She looked at me and went, ‘You did?’ I said, ‘Yes, did you ever see the movie?’ She replied, ‘Oh yes, I LOVED it!’ Of course, I just floated away."

"I would watch Marilyn and she was a very troubled person; she would go off and be sitting there by herself and I would look over at her and I could tell that she’s not with us right now. Her problem was she had a tough life and she wanted to be taken seriously. But she had been used by the studio system and by the casting couch. Earlier in her career she had been used by 20th Century Fox. They had big lavish offices, and next to the offices they had small bedrooms with showers. If they had to go somewhere they could get cleaned up and take a shower. They also had beds in there. That troubled her, now that she was a major star, how she did it. I loved her, but she was on pills; she would sit there and drink champagne all night and be popping pills. I’d look at her and feel so sorry. I wanted to go up and say, ‘Marilyn, let me take you away from here—get away.’ She tried it several times but it didn’t work. She was so far hooked into it, but she was a WONDERFUL person. She was very intelligent, a very smart person. It’s just that she was a troubled person who drank too much. When I say drinking I mean champagne with vodka, and popping pills. She wasn’t one for cocaine. That happened to Peter. I felt SO bad, oh my God. Then when I saw Peter, and then when he died, I cried. We were close. The next thing about him that I saw was when Peter’s son Chris was on Larry King’s show. And, oh my God, Chris looks just like Peter. It’s like Peter reborn again. He loved his father too and talked about him. It’s sad Peter’s liver gave out and that’s how he died. Peter was a nice person … these were all nice people."

Ben continued to remain active as an actor, although not in roles as high-profile as the Creature. Ben appeared as a stuntman in a number of Westerns and in films such as Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (made in 1952 but not released until 1955), Jungle Moon Men (1955; billed as "Benjamin F. Chapman, Jr."), then stage and television during the ’60s (he appeared in the pilot for the Hawaiian Eye TV series).

Odd as it may seem, when Universal shot Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us, Ben did not revive the role. "I had already left the studio, and that’s why I didn’t do them. Two good friends of mine did them instead. Tom Hennesy did Revenge of the Creature and he is still living in Malibu. Don Megowan did The Creature Walks Among Us, sadly Don is no longer with us. The sequels were good, but I hated the last one because they changed the Gill Man. They took away his gills, the webbing. I can’t explain it to you; you have to see it. He gets involved in a fire and winds up looking just terrible!"

Ben eventually retired from show business, and for ten years was an executive with the 7-Up bottling company. He moved back to Tahiti in 1975. In 1987, he relocated to beautiful Hawaii, dedicating himself to tourism and real estate investment.

With the passage of over 50 years, Creature From the Black Lagoon sustains a fervent fan following, too large to be even considered a cult. With the release of the Creature From the Black Lagoon Legacy Collection on DVD, consisting of the original film and the two sequels, plus a special commentary by Ben himself, the Gill Man is readily available to be viewed by old fans and first-time viewers.

For the last ten years, Ben, along with the ever-lovely Julie Adams, had dedicated time attending Movie Memorabilia conventions across the United States. He loved his fans, whom he affectionately called "Gillies." Ben and Julie would sign autographs, pose for photos and speak about their famous film. They always stressed how important their fans have been, never having tired of encountering enthusiasts.

As Ben sat at his table, he was always effervescent and engaging with a smile: "I am very conscious of my fans. Julie and I both are. Our fans are EXTREMELY important to us. I always say, ‘I want to thank you for being such a loyal fan of the Gill Man because if it weren’t for you, the Gill Man would be dead, buried and forgotten a long time ago.’ In other words, you are the person who keeps him alive. I have nothing to do with it. I just happen to be the lucky person who portrayed him. I appreciate that you like him.

"When we do these shows, we don’t do it for the money. You don’t retire on what we get: $25 an autograph. I’ve been doing these shows for ten years, and I worked with a lot of stars. A lot of them sit at their table like, ‘Here I am.’ I go, wrong attitude. You wouldn’t be sitting there if it weren’t for the fans. Me and Julie love our fans, and we want to be approachable. If they want to come up and have pictures, hugs and kisses, hey fine. If I’ve got all day, then I’m going to be sitting at this table all day."

It is not surprising the acclaim the Gill Man has attained over the years. The film has actually guided the lives of many individuals, steering them on the course of their professions, and that is something Ben is very proud of. "I get email all the time from all over the world, people who say, ‘Because of your movie I am now working as a conservationist … because of the movie I’m doing for this or that.’ Or, ‘I became a diver because of the movie.’ It makes me feel wonderful!"

For several years rumors have been circulating about plans to remake Creature From the Black Lagoon with many attempts falling through. The remake most currently had been planned to be written and produced by Gary Ross, the son of creature’s original writer, Arthur Ross. Ben has had misgivings about such a remake: "Arthur Ross is still alive, his son Gary won an Academy Award for Seabiscuit [2003] with Tobey McGuire. Gary was thinking of doing a remake sometime ago, but that never materialized. People ask about the remake, and I really don’t want them to do it. That’s because I don’t trust people today with all of this hi-tech stuff. You see, ours was made by hand, literally. Everything was done by hand, the costume was molded, sculpted, not like today. Today they can stamp things out, they don’t even need actors, they can do [computer] graphics. Today you see movies where there are thousands of extras and they are not even real people; they draw that stuff in. In our day, with a great movie like Lawrence of Arabia [1962] with Peter O’Toole, there were hundreds of thousands of extras … those were real people. Today they don’t do that; instead just the front part of it is real and the rest is all fake.”

"First of all they would change the way he [Gill Man] looks, and it would be done in color. I think it should stay black-and-white. A lot of our dramas were black-and-white, except for musicals. And black-and-white is not the same as color because it is lit differently.”

"If a movie becomes a classic, it becomes a classic for a certain reason, because of the people. It’s the fans who make it a classic, and if it becomes that, you should put it up on a shelf and leave it alone. That’s why it’s a classic. Put it up there and leave it alone."

Filmmaker/screenwriter, Greg Glienna, (Meet the Parents {2000}, A Guy Thing {2003}, Meet the Fockers {2004}) not only found himself inspired by the Universal films; he perceives that a remake may just boost the original without harming the film’s appeal: "The Universal horror films were the first films that made me fall in love with movies as a kid. I was obsessed and tried to collect everything I could about these films, I even used to have a model of the Creature. I don’t object to a remake, it will only raise awareness of the original, although it will probably be too slick and overdo the special effects, like most horror films do today I think the Creature is one of the genuinely scary horror icons in film history, something you really wouldn’t want to find in a dark hallway. I definitely feel the Universal Creature is an unforgettable horror icon."

Why has Creature From the Black Lagoon stayed as fresh today as in 1954? Ben explains: "I say because of the story. First of all he [Gill Man] was the good guy, they were the bad guys. It’s true, because that was his home; remember they invaded, they came with a boat and came into that little opening when they got into that lake, that is his home. That’s the only thing he could do when he saw these people which, to him, were unusual-looking. I tell people, ‘What would you do if you went home tonight and you found about ten people having a party in your living room? What would you do? You would get irate, start yelling and screaming to get them out. If you had to, you’d kill a couple of them.’ In the process, he saw the girl and fell in love with her.”

"Basically the reason the story is so good, even today, is that there are still scientists trying to find out where man comes from, they don’t know if he comes from a monkey, a dog, those who don’t believe in religion and that God created, they believe in evolution. That is why there is a big thing between evolution and religion. There are some that believe man came from the sea, that is where the lungfish comes in. He came from the sea went up on to the beach and the fins became arms and legs. That is the story about Creature From the Black Lagoon; these scientists who find him. First of all, Dr. Maia finds that claw hand, and then they go look and if you see at the very opening of the movie, when it first comes on, you see that big bang of creation. Then it cuts to the sea and shows footprints coming up on the sand. [I did put those prints there] but it shows something came from the sea on to the land because it came across the beach.”

"Watch the movie again because most people immediately expect they’re going to watch this Gill Man killing people, like he is the bad guy. Next time you watch the movie, in your mind don’t draw conclusions. Watch the movie and watch him; first time you see him is when they go down with the camera and he is in the reeds and grass looking up at them, he is very curious as to say, ‘Oh my goodness, look at these guys. They have arms and legs like me but they don’t have skin like me.’ He is very curious, so he wasn’t mean. He already killed some guys in the tent because they had invaded over there. He didn’t get mean underwater until they took a shot at him; remember the spears. Then he got irate. He goes ‘Hey, hey, what is this?!’ So the next time you watch the movie don’t draw conclusions, look at it. Of course, there’s that great, famous underwater scene of Ginger and Ricou, where he swims under her and looks up at her and falls in love."

Film historian and author Ted Okuda, (The Jerry Lewis Films,  Chicago TV Horror Movie Shows), comments on the Creature’s popularity: "The Gill Man is one of the best-known and best-loved movie monsters of all time. The original Creature film is a bona fide motion picture classic, of course, although the two sequels are quite good in their own way and are often underrated. Over the years, the Creature’s likeness has been used for toys, trading cards, and model kits, and his image has been seen in countless books and newspaper and magazine articles.

"During the 1960s, there was no such thing as home-video entertainment, but there were companies that manufactured 8mm condensations of feature-length films. Castle Films, a home-movie distributor affiliated with Universal Pictures, released 8mm ‘digest’ editions of several classic horror and science fiction films, including the three Creature features. [For some reason, Castle’s digest for Creature From the Black Lagoon was titled Creature From the Lagoon.] Castle made their 8mm releases available in two versions: a ‘Headline Edition’ [50 feet of film, which ran approximately three minutes] or a ‘Complete Edition’ [approximately 200 feet, running about nine or ten minutes].

"To a generation raised in an era when you can readily obtain DVD copies of full-length films, it’s difficult to explain the mystique of collecting 8mm movies that were merely fragments of longer pictures. After all, these were silent abridgements, using title cards or superimposed subtitles to convey whatever remained of the storyline. With today’s technological advances, comparing 8mm movies to DVDs is like comparing cave paintings to the Internet. Naturally, it wasn’t as satisfying as having an entire movie with sound, but in that pre-DVD era, young monster movie fanatics treasured these Castle Films digests. Being able to own even a portion of Creature From the Black Lagoon was something quite remarkable."

Due to a decline in his health, especially after major heart surgery, Ben Chapman had regrettably slowed down on the number of conventions he attended, still never ceasing till he could go no more. Ben reflected upon his life in which he considered himself blessed to have been given the life he has led. Through the good and bad, no one deserved more happiness than the gracious Mr. Chapman. He reflected:  "I know I’m in failing health but I have no fear of death. The worst thing you can do is have fear of death. We’re all going to pass on, so why fear it? It’s going to happen, so what you have to do is just be ready, that’s all. I have led a very good life. I have done more than the average person can think of, let alone do; I’ve done it all. I’ve been with Presidents, I’ve been with guys in the gutter. I have been from high to low to sideways. I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, I’ve been there. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my life. I have an old saying from when I was in the Marine Corps: ‘I was shit at and shot at and hit both times.’ But I’m still here. Of course, I talk to Dad all the time. Dad to me is God. He is the Father, so I call him Dad. ‘Hey Dad,’ I go, ‘You know Dad, I am ready anytime but I am in no hurry.’ I’ve had a very good life. Truthfully I have. A lot of people ask, ‘If you had your life to live over again, would you do it?’ And I say, ‘Absolutely!’ I would relive my life because I’ve had a good one."

On February 21, 2008, Ben Chapman passed away from congestive heart failure with his beloved Merrilee, and family at his bedside.

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More Images:

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Ben being introduced to his costume by legendary make-up artist, Bud Westmore. Photos courtesy of Ben Chapman and Jamie Brotherton
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Jack Kevan, Ben, and Bud Westmore share a laugh about the costume. Photos courtesy of Ben Chapman and Jamie Brotherton
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More than one person was required to assist in applying the Gill Man costume Photos courtesy of Ben Chapman and Jamie Brotherton
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Jack Kevan and Bud Westmore transform Ben. Photos courtesy of Ben Chapman and Jamie Brotherton
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Ben, Julie, Richard Carlson, enjoying time on the set Photos courtesy of Ben Chapman and Jamie Brotherton
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Ben and Julie receive publicity for their famous film. Photos courtesy of Ben Chapman and Jamie Brotherton
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Gill Man carrying the object of his affection off to his lair. Photos courtesy of Ben Chapman and Jamie Brotherton
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A scene in the film which was later cut. Photos courtesy of Ben Chapman and Jamie Brotherton
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Small incident makes major headlines! Photos courtesy of Ben Chapman and Jamie Brotherton

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