Friday, July 10, 2009

Remembering "Creature From The Black Lagoon" star Ben Chapman

(Article published today on the website of the San Francisco Bay Guardian)

Having roared and clawed its way into the hearts of film fans around the world when it was first released in 1954, the Universal monster classic Creature From The Black Lagoon has endured for generation after generation, seeming to grow in popularity with every passing year. Filmed in glorious black and white, the tale of the ancient half-man, half-fish—better known as the Gillman—cleverly uses the unique aspects of the colorless medium to effectively create a creepy atmosphere, particularly with the manipulation of shadows and lighting. Believable cast interaction, a monstrous musical score, and above all a great story make Creature From The Black Lagoon a picture to remember—and it’s clear from the multitude of collectibles, video releases, actor appearances and screening events that faithful fans have done just that.

The iconic and intricately designed Gillman suit was brought to life in the scenes above water by the late Ben Chapman, who gave the character a sympathetic feel through his body language and natural motions—a feat that no modern CG effect could hope to recreate.

Chapman, who passed away last year at the age of 79, visited San Francisco in October of 2006 for a special event at the Castro Theatre celebrating Creature From The Black Lagoon, meeting fans and sharing memories with the audience. I had a chance to speak with him then.

“One of the things that made it successful—and it shows—is that we were all very happy. It was a great crew, great people. I would get up in the morning and I couldn’t wait to get to the studio.”

That genuine love for what he was doing guided Chapman throughout his life—from his early days as a dancer and contract actor to his last years spent travelling the world and meeting his adoring fans, he always had a positive outlook on things.
Born in Oakland, his family moved back to their native Tahiti when he was young, but returned to the Bay Area when Chapman was 12, settling in San Francisco while his father worked as a merchant marine. Chapman had fond memories of living in the city, where he went to Lowell High School from 1942-1946.

“San Francisco during the war years—oh what a town—even the bums on the street had money! That town never slept.”

Chapman learned Tahitian dancing and singing from family, and after graduating, moved to southern California, where his brother in law had a traditional dance group. Around the same time, he joined the Marine Corp Reserves, and he was eventually called up to fight in the Korean War, where earned several medals before coming back to civilian life and rekindling his entertainment career.

“In 1952, I was working in a nightclub at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and some people from Universal Studios came in looking for a group to do some music and dancing in a musical short for the Miss Universe Girls.”

When getting ready to film a scene, the director asked Chapman to step out of the background and play a chief, sitting in a large throne and saying a few lines in Tahitian—which he spoke in addition to English and French. When the short was completed, some of the studio heads asked about Chapman, and offered him a contract.

“They were thinking about bringing back the tropical movies, about the islands, and they were going to groom me for it. I used to come into the studio when I wasn’t working, and say hello to everybody. I came in one day and there was a casting director for cowboys and stuntmen-type people, and she asked me if anyone had talked to me about an Amazon picture. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but she made a few phone calls, and told me to come back the next day.”

The following afternoon Chapman returned, and he was taken to a meeting of studio executives, who simply asked him to stand up and turn around so they could get a look at him. After doing so, they thanked him and asked him to come back again the following morning.

“I came back the next day and she had a contract waiting for me for $300 a week, and that’s how I got the part—a lot of people think there must have been a big audition and this and that—but no, there was no big thing about it.”

“I’ve always been very lucky in my life of being in the right place at the right time—the same thing happened in combat, when I was in the Marine Corp in Korea, there were a few times I should have gotten killed, but I was just in the right place at the right time.”

When Chapman joined the production of Creature From The Black Lagoon, director Jack Arnold was scouting locations to shoot in southern California, but couldn’t find any place with clear enough water for what was needed for the underwater sequences, so he went to Florida, and found an ideal spot in Wakulla Springs. To save time and money, the studio decided to shoot all of the underwater parts in Florida with a second unit and stunt doubles, while the main actors filmed their scenes at the Universal Studios back lot.

How To Make A Monster

The Gillman is one of the most recognizable creature creations of the silver screen, the result of clever imaginations and hard work at the Universal Studios makeup department. But it was the six foot five inch tall Chapman who wore the costume and truly brought him to life for generations of fans.

“It was foam rubber, it was very light, and it was very pliable; it was like an outer layer of skin. They took a Plaster of Paris impression of my body and then they sculpted all the different pieces, and they simply glued them right on to this costume. To get into it would take two to three hours; you had to fit it just right, so that there were no wrinkles. I couldn’t gain weight or lose weight,” remembered Chapman.

“It was extremely hot though—if we were working where there was water, that was no problem, I would just jump in the lake or the pool, but if we were on a sound stage, I had a guy over in the corner with a hose, and I’d go up to him and ask him to hose me down, until I could feel my body temperature going down.”

The hands and feet of the creature were worn like gloves and boots, while the iconic mask slipped over his head, and sealed with a hidden zipper in the back. Some days’ shooting schedules required that Chapman keep the costume on for long periods at a time—the longest stretch being 14 hours straight.

Although the suit was very light when dry, there were several scenes that called for the Gillman to come out of the water, and when fully soaked, the foam rubber outfit would absorb liquid like a sponge, greatly increasing the overall weight, and making it difficult for the actor to move about.

“There’s that one scene at night where I climb up the side of the boat, and then I get up so far and there’s a lantern, and I hit the lantern, and dive back into the water. When we were filming on the soundstage, I swam over there and I tried to pull myself up, and Jack [Arnold] said, ‘Come on Benny, pull yourself up!’ and I said, ‘I can’t!’”

The water there was about 7 feet deep, so they got a ladder and put it under the surface, so as Chapman was pulling himself up on the rope, he could climb step by step at the same time, assisting him with the ascent, while still giving the appearance that he was only using the rope. If one looks carefully at the end of that scene, however, it’s easy to notice that when the Gillman falls back into the water, he doesn’t fall straight down—lands on something below, and then dives off to the side—a blooper that Chapman laughed about when revealing it.

The bulkiness of the suit in the water didn’t stop the young actor from playing around on the set, however—Rock Hudson would sometimes visit and bring various studio guests to see the location on the back lot, and one day Chapman told him that he would have a surprise waiting for them. As the guests arrived on the shores of the manmade lake, he swam out to the middle in full Gillman costume and submerged except for the very top of his head. He slowly moved in closer and closer, until the depth was only a few feet, and he leapt straight up out of the water and roared at the shocked people getting a tour.

“Word came up that I couldn’t do that anymore—they said the studio was afraid someone was going to die of a heart attack,” Chapman laughed.

Another behind the scenes story that he liked to tell was regarding the poor vision he had to deal with while wearing the costume—the makeup department had designed different sets of eyeballs to go in the mask for varying shots; some had larger holes for Chapman to see out if, others, for close-ups, had no openings at all, and a crew member would have to shine a flashlight at the actor so that he would know what direction he was supposed to be walking in.

In the famous scene where he was carrying Julie Adams through the caves of his underwater lair, he couldn’t see clearly in the dimly lit surroundings, and he accidently bumped her head into one of the fake rocks.

“I couldn’t see, I had no idea what was going on, then there was this kicking, and people yelling, and I was going, ‘What? What’s going on?’ and they grabbed Julie out of my arms. But she was a trooper, we patched her up, and we got that shot.”

Another challenge that Chapman was faced with was how to give the Gillman a personality—the actors portraying the other monsters in the classic Universal canon could use dialogue and (underneath their makeup) facial expressions to convey a sense of their characters. The Gillman costume completely obscured all of Chapman’s features, even his eyes, so he had to find a way to bring the creature to life.

“It’s very tough for an actor if he can’t use his face, so what I had to do was use body language to get what we wanted—a sympathetic view. He was the good guy, they were the bad people. The black lagoon was his home, and they invaded his home by coming in there with the boat. If you went home tonight and found a bunch of people in your living room having a party, how would you feel?”

Chapman pointed to the Marilyn Monroe movie The Seven Year Itch as proof that audiences had the sympathetic reaction to the Gillman right away.

“That famous scene where her dress blows up in front of the theatre—if you look just ten seconds before that dress blows up, when the scene opens it shows them walking out of movie theater, and above them in huge letters was Creature From The Black Lagoon. She says, ‘I feel so sorry for the creature.’”

Chapman was friends with Peter Lawford, known for being a member of “The Rat Pack,” and one day he was over at Lawford’s house for a party. Monroe was also there, and the two began talking.

“We were sitting there, but I didn’t want to say, ‘Well, you know, I played the creature,’ so I thought, ‘How can I get her to know?’ I started talking about The Seven Year Itch and said ‘There’s that one scene where you and Tom come out from the theater—what was that movie that you saw?’ and she replied, ‘Creature From The Black Lagoon.’ Peter was walking by, and said, ‘Oh, by the way, Marilyn, you know Benny here played the creature.’ She looked at me and said, ‘You did!?’—that just made my night, I floated away.”

A Universal Legacy

“When people ask me what made Creature From The Black Lagoon so successful, I go on and on,” said Chapman. “First of all it was a perfect cast; everybody was perfect for the role that they portrayed. The story still holds up today, because the story is of those scientists trying to figure out where man comes from.”

The classic cinematic techniques that were used in the film were another factor that Chapman attributed to the movie’s longevity.

“We left a lot of it to your imagination. In that movie, I kill several people, but you don’t see it. You don’t see blood and gore, you don’t see me kill a person, and you don’t see that person die. We leave it to your imagination, and that’s the way movies were made. In my day we made real movies with real stories and real people.”
Chapman fully embraced the Creature From The Black Lagoon phenomenon, and attended fan conventions and screenings throughout the globe, meeting his fans that grew up watching the movie.

“We enjoy sitting there and talking with them, and making ourselves accessible, having pictures taken. I enjoy people, I’ve always liked working with an audience—I love my fans, it’s simple as that,” said Chapman. “I feel very blessed that I was able to live and work in that era, I wouldn’t trade it for all the money in the world.”

Info Box:
Creature From The Black Lagoon in 3-D
Friday, July 10
Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland.
Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.

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