Actor was Gill Man in ‘Creature’ film

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Times Staff Writer

As an actor, Ben Chapman never landed a star-making role. Far from it. He had small parts in only a few films, including an uncredited bit part in “Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki.”

But Chapman nevertheless achieved a degree of movie immortality -- and he did it without uttering a word of dialogue or even showing his face.

The 6-foot-5 ex-Marine played the title character in “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” the classic 1954 3-D monster movie that quickly developed a cult following that has endured.


Chapman, a retired Honolulu real estate salesman, died Thursday of congestive heart failure at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, said his longtime companion, Merrilee Kazarian. He was 79.

For Chapman, playing the so-called Gill Man in “Creature” was the role of a lifetime.

“In the big picture, he achieved a small amount of success as an actor, but for baby-boomer ‘monster kids,’ he was the bomb,” Tom Weaver, author of the 1992 “making of” book “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” told The Times on Friday. “I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call it the most famous Hollywood monster movie of the ‘50s,” Weaver said.

Chapman, who was briefly a contract player at Universal in the early ‘50s, always said landing the Creature role was “a matter of being in the right place at the right time.” He was on the studio lot one day, when he was called into a casting director’s office.

“They were looking for an imposing creature, and at 6-feet-5, I filled the bill,” he told the Palm Beach Post in 2003.

In the film, which stars Richard Carlson and Julie Adams, a scientific expedition venturing along the Amazon River in search of fossils of a legendary prehistoric man-fish unexpectedly encounters a live specimen, who terrorizes them but falls for the expedition’s only female (played by Adams).

“The Creature suit was a one-piece outfit that zipped down the back with dorsal fins, hands that were gloves, feet that were like boots,” Chapman told the Honolulu Observer several years ago.


“They had me lay on a table, take a complete plaster of Paris mold of my body, then design this costume. I couldn’t lose or gain weight, or it wouldn’t fit right. The whole experience was like climbing into a large body stocking with creases.”

Chapman told Weaver that he got so hot on the sound stage wearing the costume, which included a large helmet-like head, that someone had to stand by with a water hose to cool him off.

When they were shooting on the back lot, Chapman said, “I would just stay in the lake to keep cool.”

Chapman, as fans of the movie know, wasn’t the only person to play the Gill Man in the black-and-white film.

Ricou Browning played him in the underwater scenes, which were shot in Wakulla Springs, Fla.

As Chapman once explained, “When you see the movie, anything below the surface of the water, it is the [stunt] doubles in Florida, and anything above the surface is us at Universal in Hollywood.”


The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Weaver said, “was the final monster in Universal’s decades-long classic monster pantheon” that included the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Mummy.

Neither Chapman nor Browning received screen credit for playing the Creature; the studio publicity department, according to Chapman, didn’t want audiences to think of the Creature as “a guy in a suit.”

The movie proved to be so successful that Universal made two sequels -- “Revenge of the Creature” (1955) and “The Creature Walks Among Us” (1956).

Chapman, however, did not return to the Creature role in either film, although Browning continued to do the underwater scenes.

“Sure, I kind of resented that they didn’t call me back, but what are you going to do?” Chapman said in a 1999 interview with the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal. “My option [at the studio] was not picked up. You can’t dwell on these things. Besides, ethnically, I’m Polynesian, so nothing really bothers me.”

Chapman was born Oct. 29, 1928, in Oakland, while his Tahitian parents were temporarily living in the United States. After growing up in Tahiti, he returned to California in 1940 and went to school in San Francisco.


A cousin of actor Jon Hall, Chapman was working as a Tahitian dancer in nightclubs when he was hired to play a bit part in the 1950 MGM musical romance “Pagan Love Song.”

He served in the Marines in the Korean War and received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.

Over the last decade, he made frequent appearances at autograph shows and film festivals around the country, where he was known as one of the most fan-friendly of celebrities.

“He loved it,” Kazarian said. “It gave him something to do in his golden years.”

In addition to Kazarian, Chapman is survived by his children, Benjamin Franklin Chapman III, Grant Chapman and Elyse Maree Raljevich; and a sister, Moea Baty.

A memorial service will be held at 9 a.m. March 29 at St. Augustine by the Sea Church in Honolulu.