Tuesday, July 10, 2012

From The Archives: Ben Chapman, The Original Gill-Man!

(Originally posted on October 2, 2010)

If you've never bothered to look it up, you should know that there have been several famous men down through the ages named Ben Chapman. But I'm not here to tell you about the Ben Chapman who served Oliver Cromwell and later resided at Killua Castle, anymore than I'm going to mention the Ben Chapman who played for no less than eight major league baseball teams and stole more bases than anyone else before him. No, the Ben Chapman I want to talk about did something many would consider less important, but those many are not me. The Ben Chapman I want to tell you about put on a rubber costume and originated the role of one of the most famous monsters in the history of motion pictures. He created memories and helped shape a pop culture icon. In short, he was the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

I had previously talked about the role of the Gill-Man in reference to Ricou Browning. Mr. Browning was the only actor to play the creature in more than one film and he was actually in the suit for all three of them. Once more, because it is obviously harder to swim in the suit than to walk in it, many people have felt he had a harder job than the actors who played the Gill-Man on land. But far too often the efforts of Ben Chapman have been overlooked and on the last day of Creature Week we're going to give the man his due!

Mr. Chapman's film career was short. He only appeared in a total of five films, two television shows (in one of which he played the Gill-Man), and three documentaries (all of which were about the Gill-Man).

His television appearance as the Gill-Man is especially worth noting because it not only plays a huge part in Gill-Man lore but it was also one of the actor's major claims to fame. In order to help promote The Creature From The Black Lagoon Universal Studios arranged to have the Gill-Man appear on the Colgate Comedy Hour in a short skit with legendary funny man Lou Costello.

Here's the clip (though let me apologize in advance for the poor quality)

This brief cameo is the very first appearance of the Gill-Man, as it was shown prior to the film's release, and the monster was played by Ben Chapman with Ricou Browning nowhere to be seen.

Ben loved the character! During the filming of the original movie, he used to hide submerged in a small pond on the Universal Studios' lot and rise slowly out of the water as he heard various people approaching. If his contract with Universal had not run out, he probably would have played the monster in all three films. He was very proud of the role and of his part in creating it, and it was that very attitude that sparked the controversy which is the other thing he is probably most known for.

Decades after his participation in the original film. Mr. Chapman began touring the convention circuit and signing autographs. He never did it for the money, he simply enjoyed spending time with fans of the Gill-Man. However, after a time, he began to notice that pictures of the Gill-Man on land were being signed by Ricou Browning. Mr. Chapman responded indignantly to this, claiming that Mr. Browning was taking credit for the role he had created. He said that Ricou had no right to sign a photograph of the Gill-Man unless it was from a scene where he was actually in the suit. Mr. Chapman further added that he would never sign a photograph unless he knew it was of himself in the costume.

Opinions varied on this reaction. Ricou had worked constantly in show business for most of his life, while Ben had moved on to other things. Some people claimed it was jealousy on Mr. Chapman's part while others thought he was being petty. Neither opinion does Mr. Chapman justice.

If you read interviews with Ricou Browning one of the things that you'll discover is that while he is grateful for his part in shaping the Gill-Man's legacy, to him it was just a job. He never took it seriously. If someone handed him a photo and asked him to sign it, he did it because he didn't see how it mattered who was in the suit. He was known as the Gill-Man, someone wanted him to sign a picture of the Gill-Man, so he did.

But to Ben Chapman, the Gill-Man was so much more! It was the role of a lifetime! It was his contribution to film history and monster lore! He took the monster, the part, and the movie seriously from the very beginning and he never lost that spark of reverence.

I had heard Ricou Browning state in an interview that he and Ben Chapman met sometime after the initial controversy and got on pretty well. I haven't found a similar statement from Mr. Chapman, but then I haven't read every interview he ever gave and I have no reason to believe that Mr. Browning would lie, so it appears the story has a happy ending after all.

Ben Chapman loved the Gill-Man, he loved the movie he helped make, and he loved his fans. With so many iconic Hollywood figures who either hated their roles or were ruined by them, its refreshing to find a man in such a position who was so defined by joy and pride for the craft he plied even if he never became a star. In his later years, he even created a website to honor his participation in the film.

On February 21st of 2008, Mr. Chapman died in his Honolulu home. He was born in California but raised primarily in Tahiti, he served his country and was decorated in the Korean War, and he raised a family. None of these details were overlooked in his obituary but none of them were the focus of it either. They talked primarily of his participation in an old film, set in a far off land, where man was pitted against monster and a legend was born in the minds of millions. The article mainly spoke of the Gill-Man and honestly, I think Mr. Chapman would have wanted it that way.

This is the end of Creature Week. It tells of Ben Chapman, but not of his end, for as long as the Gill-Man is remembered, so will he be and in that way he will never truly die.

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