|"I have a theory about life I call
the zig-zag theory," says Ben Chapman, the actor
who sported the most famous rubber suit in cinema history.
"For instance, if you'da zigged, you wouldn't have
gotten killed. But you zagged and you died. In other words,
success is being in the right place at the right time."
But the entertainer who originally portrayed the
Creature From the Black Lagoon had traveled
some distance to arrive at that right place.' "I'm
from Tahiti originally," Chapman states. "I
did dancing and singing in Polynesian shows. The first
movie I ever did was Pagan Love Song with Esther
Williams and Howard Keel back in 1949. It was through
stage work that I got the part. I was signed to a
contract with Universal Studios making $125 a week.
I did a musical short with the Miss Universe girls
in 1952. It featured Pinky Lee, Mamie Van Doren and
Lisa Gaye, who was Debra Paget's sister. I played
a young chieftain at a luau."
True to his affable nature, the actor modestly credits
happenstance for landing him the role of a lifetime.
"I just happened to be on the lot one day,"
he laughs. "I used to go visit the casting office,
and I just happened to walk in on Jonny Rennick. She
was the casting director for wranglers, cowboys and
stunts. She asked, 'Did the studio approach you about
this new movie they're casting?' 'What movie?' She
said, 'It's something about a Creature.' I said, 'I
have no idea what you're talking about.' She said,
'Ben, you'd be perfect for it.' I did a lot of diving
in those days. I lived in Malibu and I used to dive
every day. The ocean was my front yard. Well, I met
with [director] Jack Arnold and [producer] Bill Alland
-- and Jack Arnold says, 'All right, we'll use him.'
So I was in the right place at the right time. It
could have been anybody."
Following producer William Alland's initial guidelines,
makeup maestros Jack Kevan and Bud Westmore fashioned
the Creature costume to suit Chapman's physique.
"I do feel that I brought life to the Creature,"
he asserts. Chapman lauds Arnold for contributing
one element vital to his portrayal. "Jack Arnold
was known as a very tough director," Ben declares.
"Good, but tough. I said to him, 'Just tell me
how you want me to portray him.' He said, 'I don't
want him to be like a cartoon. I don't want him going
clump, clump, clump, like some kind of cartoon monster.
Don't walk. Don't pick up your feet. I want you to
glide.' They put ten pounds of lead under each foot,
stuck to the soles. When I went to walk, ten pounds
would remind me, 'Don't pick up your feet.'"
One important touch of humanity was Chapman's own
contribution. "In the death scene, where they
shoot the Creature, I recoiled. I'd fall backwards.
I'd come towards them again, they'd shoot me and I'd
recoil again. I'd just come back from Korea in the
Marine Corps. I saw a lot of guys get killed and a
lot of guys get shot. When you get hit with a bullet,
you don't keep walking. It'll knock you back. So,
I put that in and they said, 'This is great. God damn,
what a death scene!' There are quite a few things
we did that, we hope, brought life to him, rather
than making him a cartoon."
Though identified as one of the world's most famous
and influential monsters, Chapman's ties to the film
industry extend far beyond the horror genre. "I've
been around the business for 50 years. I go back to
Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable and Franchot
Tone. The chief in that film, Chief Hiti Hiti, was
my uncle. My cousin was Jon Hall. My nephew is Branscomb
Richmond who did the Renegade show with Lorenzo
Lamas. And I used to tend bar up in Malibu. There'd
be movie stars in there getting drunk and falling
down all over the place. I used to hang out with Rod
Taylor who was one of my closest friends. I mean,
he was a wild man."
Likewise, it may be difficult for many fans to imagine
the Gill Man palling around with the likes of Ol'
Blue Eyes. "I knew Frank very well," Chapman
declares. "I used to go to Peter Lawford's house
on the beach at Santa Monica. I've known Peter since
1948. A lot of people don't know that Sinatra is the
most generous guy in the world. He donates money all
the time. Millions of dollars. But you'll never read
about it because that's his condition, that they don't
tell where the money came from."
Wild nights on the town notwithstanding, Chapman
is quick to point out that Hollywood was a far different
place in those days, when the inhabitants were 'classier'
and more protective of their own. "When I was
at Universal, the biggest star on the lot was Rock
Hudson who was the nicest guy in the world. We always
knew about Rock. Thirty years later they came to find
out he was living a double life. It sure took them
a long time to find out. We knew about Rock back then."
Quietly lamenting the passing of that era, Chapman
draws comparisons between the actors of his day and
the modern variety. "Gary Cooper or Robert Taylor
-- now that's a movie star. When you look at Robert
Taylor, what else could he be? They were classy people.
But this Leonardo DiCaprio -- how dare he snub the
Academy Awards because he wasn't nominated? The kid
was lucky to get the job. He didn't make Titanic.
Cameron made it through special effects. Anybody could
have played those roles. How dare he insult the Academy
like that? When Brando turned them down, that was
a different story. Brando is a great talent."
These days, Ben Chapman is clearly a comfortable creature.
He lives to meet and mingle with the throng of Creature
fans that seems to expand with every appearance. Their fond
memories of the film, as well as his, keep both the Gill
Man, and the man who portrayed him, going strong. "I've
no interest in Hollywood these days," says Ben. "I've
been there and done it and I'm happy with memories now."
WITH BEN CHAPMAN