Flashback Friday: My 2009 Interview with Ben Chapman, “The Creature From The Black Lagoon”
Ben Chapman (October 29, 1928 — February 21, 2008) portrayed the iconic Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954’s film of the same name. Though two other Creature films were made, Ben only appeared in the first. Ricou Browning played the role in the underwater scenes of all three.
Ben’s film career was brief, but he left an indelible impression.
I started out in the business as an entertainer. You know, I’m originally from an island called Tahiti. And I used to do native dancing, Tahitian. You’ve been to luaus? You know the dancing and the fire knives and all of that? Well, I used to do that.
My first picture was Pagan Love Song at MGM in 1949. Anyhow, from there I was in the Marine Reserves and I got called up, so I served in Korea. I got out of the Marine Corps in 1953, and began working at a club in Hollywood called the Islander Room. It was at a hotel across from the Chinese Grauman’s, and one night some people came in from Universal scouting for a musical short with the 1953 Miss Universe girl.
So we did that, and the studio saw the short and a rep asked, “Who’s that playing the chief?” And they said, “That’s Ben Chapman.” This was at Universal Studios. And they also told this person, “Oh, by the way, he’s a cousin of Jon Hall.” He used to be a big star at Universal, also. You know, he did Hurricane and a bunch of other movies.
This is what led to my contract at Universal. They had casting officers right off the sidewalk at each studio, you know, for extras and stunt men and so forth.
And I used to go down and say hello, and this woman asked me one day if they had approached me about this movie they were planning about some creature living down in the Amazon, and I had no idea. She said, “We’ll, there’s some swimming required, and I know you’re half-fish,” because she knew I was what they call a “free diver” as opposed to a “scuba diver.” You know, you stay down four and a half, five minutes, and you go down eighty, ninety feet, you know.
So one thing led to another, and just like that I was at the right place at the right time, and I got the part.
My co-star Julie Adams and I are very flattered, because Julie tours with me, you know. We’re always swamped. People still want to come up and talk about the film.
On if there was hesitation to act in a role that required a mask and full costume:
It’s like anything else. They hand you a job, you go, “Oh, hey! Great! I’ve got a chance to work!” Universal was known for its monster movies, because they’d already had Bela and Boris and the two Chaneys. They were very successful — in fact, it kind of scared me when I finally realized what I got, and I thought, Oh, my God, here I am in line with all these great horror movies, and I don’t want to be the one to fall down.
So I had to think about it and think about it, and I thought, Well, what makes all of them so successful? They were all successful, yet they were horror movies. And I finally came up with the answer. It was Beauty and the Beast. They all had a woman. They all had a woman. Every one of them. I mean, Frankenstein had his bride. They all had women. They all had women. King Kong, right on down.
So this I told Jack Arnold, our director. I told him that’s the way I’ll play it, because you’re playing a part where you can’t use your face. You can’t use any expression, so the only thing I can do is use body language. So that’s what I did. If you see a movie called The Seven Year Itch, well, you see through there, Marilyn had a thing for the creature all through the movie. And finally towards the end where she got her dress blown up over her head, she had just come out from seeing the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Because when they came out of the theater, the camera picked them up, and then they make the turn onto the sidewalk, and as the camera pulled back, if you look up, it’s huge letters, I mean huge: Creature from the Black Lagoon with a big standee of my holding Julie in my arms. And so, uh, the amazing thing about that, see, in those days, see, studios, you know, did things for their own studio. That was a 20th Century Fox movie, but they used a clip from a Universal International movie, which was Creature from the Black Lagoon.
I never looked at myself as an actor. I always looked at myself as an entertainer. In other words, when Universal dropped my contract, they didn’t pick me up after a year. You know, they give you a one-year option. I went on, did a few other things, you know, Hawaiian Eye and I worked on, at 20th, on Adventures in Paradise with Gardner McKay. But I wasn’t really go go go for acting. I enjoyed nightclubs. I enjoyed live people. You find a lot of people in the business today the same way. They enjoy that spontaneity of a crowd, being able to reach out and touch somebody, talk to them or get an instant rapport with them. Or as you come out from the dressing room, you can go and sit with them. And they tell you immediately what you did right and what you did wrong.
So I wasn’t really, I never pushed. I could have, you know. I know I had a good chance at it, because I love people, but it wasn’t like … I didn’t have that driving force that a lot of people had to become actors. They’d do anything for acting. I really didn’t have that.
I stayed at it until about 1960, and I still stayed in it, you know, to the point where if you want to call me, fine. If not, that’s okay, too. Then I went to work for the 7-UP company. In 1970, I moved back to Tahiti. And then in 1975, I moved to Hawaii. And I always left it open, you know, for a long time if any director wants to bring me back for something.
Today I’m completely retired. I don’t do anything. I sit home with my wife. She’s retired from Sheraton. I’m retired from, actually I retired from real estate.
I left the 7-UP company in 1970, and I moved back to Tahiti, and I didn’t do anything for five years. I built my home. I happened to have parents who left some money and some stuff, you know, so I built my home and it was great, and a friend of mine came down one time and he said, “What are you doing down here?” Before I could answer he added, “You won’t believe this.” He said, “I came down here to ask you to go to work. But you’ve got it made, you’ve got your house. You don’t want to go to work.”
I said, “Sure.” So I surprised him and went back to work, because I missed being with people.
I’ve always been one of these people that I can truthfully say through my lifetime I have no regrets. I’ve always been where I could, you know, I’ve always been in the right place at the right time. I’ve just been privileged that way. I mean, I can remember when I was a little boy, I can remember when I was older, I can remember, you know, it’s like even doing these shows that I’m doing now, everything happens by luck. It’s as simple as that.
My advice for anyone looking to make a go in the movie business is they’ve got to stay in there. You can’t give up. I know it’s an easy thing to say. I was talking to my son today about it, because he goes to film school. I told him, “You’ve got to stay in that school. You’ve got to learn all that stuff that they’re going to teach you, because the worst thing that can happen to you is you get your first job as an editor, or whatever, and they come to find out that you’re not as good as you’re supposed to be.” I said, “That’s the worst stigma you could have.” I said, “So whenever you work, always make sure that you’re prepared. Make sure that you’re the best there, because if they ever look at you and say, you know, he’s really not that good, next time let’s get somebody else.” I said, “That stigma stays with you, you’re dead.”
It’s the same thing as I always taught my children: Never lie, steal, or cheat. Because, you know, you can do all the great things in the world, and they catch you on one lie, and they brand you a liar from then on.
Because they never think of all the good things you did. You know, it’s a strange thing. So, I said, so I believe in people, if you’re going to be an actor, get in there, hit those playhouses, do whatever it takes for you to get in there and work. And don’t give it up.
Now if you’re going to give it up, then you may as well just quit. I mean, you either do it or you don’t do it. It’s just as simple as that. I don’t believe in people getting up every morning and going to work with the attitude of, Oh, shit, now I’ve got to go to that job again.
You know, why are you going, why are you working there? Quit the fucking job and, of course, get another job. Why are you getting up in the morning, you’re just killing yourself, your family, you’re killing everybody. And that’s the worst thing you could do, to get up and hate your job.