I wrote about the death of the man who played the Creature for the National Post back in 2008. They’ve scrubbed it from their archives, so I’ve posted it here and corrected their overeager, tone-deaf copyeditor (Is there any other kind?), who’d “fixed” the first “Chosin” and made it “Chosen.”
Ben Chapman was one of the “Chosin Few.”
Amputations were commonplace among the “Frozen Chosin,” those U.S. Marines who endured brutal conditions in the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. Doctors wanted to amputate Chapman’s frostbitten feet, but he insisted on nursing himself back to health.
By keeping those feet, Chapman eventually became a member of Hollywood’s most exclusive club. After all, he couldn’t have worn those flippers without them.
Ben Chapman, who died earlier this week at age 79, played the nameless “Gill Man” in the quintessential 1950s horror film, The Creature From The Black Lagoon. (He shared the role with Ricou Browning, who performed in the underwater sequences while Chapman portrayed the monster on land.)
Other monsters in the Universal horror pantheon are household names: Boris Karloff, to his delight, was forever associated with Frankenstein’s monster; the same with Dracula’s Bela Lugosi, who, to put it mildly, wasn’t as pleased.
But even horror buffs struggled to name the unbilled actor who’d brought the “Gill Man” to life.
“That changed in 1992,” recalled Tom Weaver in Fangoria’s affectionate obituary, “when [an] interview with him appeared in Starlog [magazine] and then, much more dramatically, when the Honolulu resident subsequently became a star attraction at autograph shows throughout the U.S.
“Tanned, silver-haired, hard to miss at 6-foot-5 and harder to miss with that booming voice and boisterous personality, he was a monster-sized hit at cons coast to coast — the first classic Universal monster portrayer ever to appear on the circuit, most of the others having died decades before. Kids were gently fussed over, female fans came away charmed and, behind the scenes, adult-male ‘monster kids’ got a hilarious, sometimes profane earful of great Tales from the Hollywood Trenches as only ‘Uncle Benny’ could tell ’em.”
The casting agent who got Chapman the role told director Jack Arnold, “This guy here is actually part fish!” An accomplished diver, swimmer and dancer of Tahitian descent, the studio stock player was remembered by co-stars as a true professional. Chapman had earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts in Korea. Compared to the real life horrors of Chosin, spending 14 hours a day in a foam rubber monster suit was a literal day at the beach for Chapman, who asked only to be hosed down occasionally.
In Marilyn Monroe’s contemporaneous comedy The Seven Year Itch (1955), she and Tom Ewell take in a screening of The Creature From The Black Lagoon.
The Girl: Didn’t you just love the picture? I did. But I just felt so sorry for the creature at the end.
Sherman: Sorry for the creature? What did you want? Him to marry the girl?
The Girl: He was kinda scary-looking, but he wasn’t really all bad. I think he just craved a little affection — you know, a sense of being loved and needed and wanted.
Fans shared “The Girl’s” fondness for the Creature and the man who’d helped bring him to life. As news of Chapman’s death spread through genre fandom online, movie buffs posted photos of themselves with the smiling, strapping actor, or recalled getting Creature-themed Christmas cards from “the last of the Universal monsters.” Admirers remembered “Our Gill Man” as the “kindest and gentlest of men,” always solicitous of autograph seekers, and pleased to settle arguments among model-building geeks about the true colours of the famous costume they’d only ever seen in black & white (“green with a kind of gold/ copper edging around the scales.”)
Chapman’s partner of 25 years, Merrilee Kazarian, issued a statement to friends, family and fans:
“We’re going to have him cremated.
“There’ll be a Catholic mass at Saint Augustine by the Sea Church in Waikiki; and then when that’s over, we’re going to go across the street to the beach, get in outrigger canoes and take his ashes out into the ocean. This beach send-off will include military honours. But about a quarter of his ashes we’re going to save, and sometime soon we’re going to take them to Universal Studios, to the back lot. There we’ll have a little ceremony, and then scatter the last of his ashes into the Black Lagoon. “