Ricou Browning is the last living performer to have originated one of Universal Pictures’ classic monsters, playing the title character in all of the groundbreaking underwater scenes in Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequels, an icon of cinema in every sense and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.
When Universal originally released Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954, it arrived in 3D, which proved to be as problematic as it was innovative, with many of the country’s theater projectors not equipped to properly present the technology as intended. As a result, the film was soon re-released in standard 2D format in much of the country.
Ricou played the Creature, known to fans as the “Gill-Man”, in the underwater scenes that were filmed in Florida, sharing the role with Ben Chapman, who played the Creature on land in scenes that were filmed in California.
Browning would go on to reprise his role as the Gill-Man for the underwater scenes again in the sequels Revenge of the Creature in 1955 and The Creature Walks Among Us in 1956, and yet ironically and quite unbelievably, he and his land-walking counterparts (Tom Hennesy and Don Megowan did the on-land scenes in Revenge and Walks, respectively) were not even credited for their work in the films.
Like many of the stunt performers who risked their lives to create some of the most memorable moments ever put on the big screen, Ricou remained uncredited in all three Creature movies, while Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney Jr. were already household names thanks to their monster roles.
Now decades later, Black Lagoon is an undeniable classic, and its tragic antagonist stands with the vampire Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and his Bride, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man as one of the most iconic (and popular) horror figures of all time. And thankfully, Browning is finally getting the credit he so rightfully deserves for his place in movie history.
Following the Creature films, Ricou created and was the driving force behind another classic, Flipper, as he wrote the original story for the feature film and its sequel and remake, found the dolphin (named Mitzi) who played Flipper, and directed many of the Flipper TV series episodes in the 1960s and its revival in the 1990s. He also worked on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and served as the second unit director of the underwater sequences in the James Bond films Thunderball and Never Say Never Again, among dozens of other notable projects.
In 2015, when I interviewed Dick Warlock, another screen legend who did some underwater stunt work himself in a little film called Jaws (and The Abyss) and later played Michael Myers in Halloween II, he told me that the one celebrity he was in awe of most when meeting was Ricou Browning. (Read the interview here.)
I finally had the pleasure and honor of meeting Ricou earlier this year when he was a guest at GalaxyCon in Raleigh, North Carolina in July 2019, and I too was completely in awe to be in the presence of a true living legend. Soft spoken and still sharp as can be, Ricou was kind enough to give a me a few minutes for a brief one on one interview, which is definitely a career highlight for me.
Read on for our interview with Ricou Browning, the last of the Universal Monsters.
Were you already doing water work for film before you got involved with Creature from the Black Lagoon?
Yes I was. Back in those days, there was a company called Grantland Rice, and they used to make short subjects to show in theaters after the movie was shown. I was involved in many of those, like diving from a tower into the water and swimming underwater. We had a bunch of kids in a Model T Ford having an underwater picnic, and all kinds of crazy stuff. It was fun doing it.
Then after that I was on the United States Air Force Swim Team, and I traveled over several cities for the Air Force. And after that, I was just doing nothing.
A friend of mine called me and said, ‘I’ve got some people coming from California to Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee (Florida). I’m going to be out of town. Could you pick them up at the airport and take them to the springs and show them around?’ I said, ‘Sure’. So I did.
The cameraman turned out to be Scotty Welbourne. He asked me if I’d swim in front of the camera to show some differences between human beings and fish, logs, and rafts. I said, ‘Sure’. So I did.
A couple weeks later, a got a call from the general manager of the hotel. He said, ‘The people who were here are looking for you. I’m going to give them your phone number.’ So he gave them my phone number, and about a week later I got a call that turned out to be from the director, Jack Arnold.
He said, ‘We’re doing an underwater movie about a monster. How would you like to be the monster?’ And I said, ‘Sure’.
And the rest is history. Do you remember how long the shoot was, or how long you were on set?
The underwater stuff we shot in Wakulla Springs was about a month, in and out of the water all day long, starting at 9:00 in the morning until about 4:00 in the afternoon.
The water temperature was 71 degrees. The air temperature at that time of year was 49 degrees. So it was pretty cold.
Filming someone in a suit like that had never really done before, right?
Not that I know of.
Yeah, I don’t know of anything else where they did that much filming of someone in a suit like that underwater. What was the biggest challenge to pull that off?
Did water ever get into the suit?
No. The lips of the suit sat about a half-inch from my lips, and I put the air hose in my mouth to breathe. I would hold my breath and go do the scene, and I’d have other safety people with other air hoses to give me air if I needed it. We had a signal. If I went totally limp, it meant I needed it. It worked out well and we didn’t have any problems.
Did they have to convince you to come back for the two sequels, or was it just an easy decision that you would do them?
It’s a long story. Ask that question at the Q&A tomorrow. It’s a long answer.
Did you have any idea then that the Gill-Man would become such an icon?
Not at all.
What do you think about all of it now that he’s one of the all-time monster icons up there with Dracula and Frankenstein?
I think it’s great.
The following day during his GalaxyCon Q&A, I asked Ricou if the producers had to convince him to reprise his role as the Gill-man for Universal’s sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).
He answered: I don’t know if you know much about the movie business, but they’re all a bunch of phonies. I’ll give you an example. The second Creature movie, Revenge of the Creature, I got a call from the director, Jack Arnold. He said, ‘Ricou, we’re making another movie about the Creature. We need you.’
I said, ‘Okay. You want me to come to California and have a costume made?’ He said, ‘No, we’re shooting.’ I said, ‘What do you mean you’re shooting?’ He said, ‘We’re in St. Augustine (Florida) at Marine Studios and we’re shooting the movie.’
Then he said, ‘We hired somebody to be the Creature, and he can’t swim.’ It turned out to be a guy named John Lamb, who I knew well. He was an underwater cameraman, but he wasn’t a stunt guy. So I said, ‘Well I don’t have a suit.’ And he said, ‘We’ll cut one down to fit you.’ I said, ‘Okay.’
I went to Marine Studios in St. Augustine, and sure enough, in about three days they had cut his suit down to fit me. And it did fit me, and I was able to play in the second movie, Revenge of the Creature.
The third movie, they didn’t question me, I just did it.
You can watch Ricou talk more about playing the Gill-Man, including his water dance with co-star Julie Adams, as well as his thoughts on The Shape of Water and how he found the dolphin who played Flipper, during his GalaxyCon Q&A in the video below.
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