'Black Lagoon' star Ben Chapman, 79
Ben Chapman, a Honolulu resident best known for playing the title character in the 1954 horror film "Creature From the Black Lagoon," died yesterday at Tripler Medical Center. He was 79.
Chapman was a retired real estate executive. But his role as the Gill Man the quintessential 1950s monster in Universal Pictures' black-and-white film in 3-D became his worldwide calling card and made him a darling on the collectibles and sci-fi circuit throughout the world. The gig brought him enduring pleasure, said his son, Ben Chapman III, of Honolulu.
"His 'Creature' fans kept him going and he looked forward to trips to the Mainland. But over the past year, he was slowing down because of heart problems; he had breathing problems," his son said.
"He had created a 'Creature' Web site (www.the-reelgillman.com) where his fans would reach him," said Chapman, who was among family members at his father's bedside when he died shortly after midnight yesterday.
"Creature" was released in 1954, when Chapman was a contract player at Universal. In a 1993 Advertiser interview he said: "I never knew, when I did the movie at age 25, that it would be such a monster film," pun intended.
A Tahiti native, Chapman got the Gill Man part because of his size, 6 feet 5. He wore a foam rubber suit that defined his character: part-amphibian, part-man.
Ilene Wong, who, with Wayne Maeda, produces the summertime Hawai'i All-Collectors Show at Blaisdell Center, said Chapman took part in the show every year since 1999.
"He was always very happy and so giving. People would ask him about the movie, or Hollywood, and he would always provide the answers, help out," Wong said. "Ben would bring his briefcase and inside he had his memorabilia posters, 8-by-10 glossies and a good pen for autographs. He was just wonderful. In fact, we expected him this year. I think we will make a shrine for him."
As Chapman explained in a 1993 interview, there were actually two actors who played the Gill Man. He was the creature on land; Ricou Browning was the actor in water sequences.
In publicity photos, Chapman was the one beneath the foam-rubber body suit and the large-lipped headpiece, posing with Julia Adams, the object of the Gill Man's affection in what he once likened to a beauty-and-the-beast tale: a soul with a ghastly exterior falling in love with the woman of his dreams.
The Gill Man is shot and stabbed in the final moments and he sinks into the depths of the water, only to return in a pair of sequels neither with Chapman that never replicated the success of the original.
The Gill Man's place in the Universal monster lineage was a priority for Chapman, since he was the longtime lone survivor in a parade of horror monster flicks that dated to the 1920s. He cited predecessors Lon Chaney Sr. in "Phantom of the Opera" and "Hunchback of Notre Dame" in the 1920s, Bela Lugosi in "Dracula" and Boris Karloff in "Frankenstein" in the 1930s, and Lon Chaney Jr. in "The Wolf Man" and "The Mummy" in the 1940s.
Will Hoover, a friend and Advertiser reporter, said, "Ben even at 79 was nothing but an overgrown kid, always laughing, always joking, never serious. He was a shinning example of the adage 'You're only young once but you can be immature forever.' "
Island actor Branscombe Richmond, now based in Los Angeles, is a distant cousin of Chapman's. "I can reflect about so many memories about Ben," Richmond said. "Ben and my Dad, Leo C. Richmond, were among the first Polynesians to appear in films in the 1940s."
Richmond added: "As a child, we were all in 'Mutiny on the Bounty' with Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard and Hugh Griffith. It took two years to make, and the movie filmed in Tahiti and in Hollywood, but everyone spent a good year in Tahiti and by the time the film was done, so many of the crew had Tahitian wives."
Chapman was born Oct. 29, 1928, in Oakland, but was reared in Tahiti till age 12 or 13, then relocated to San Francisco.
He was a Korean War veteran. Chapman's son said doctors wanted to amputate his legs. Instead, Chapman nursed himself back to health.
Survivors also include his companion of 25 years, Merrilee Kazarian, who describes herself as "Mrs. Creature"; another son, Grant Chapman of Las Vegas; step-daughter Elyse Maree Raljevich of Coto De Gaza, Calif.; sister Moea (Harry) Baty of Los Angeles; and several nieces and nephews.
Chapman's ashes will be scattered off Waikiki. Services are pending.
Correction: Ben Chapman did not appear in the movie, "Wake of The Red Witch." A previous version of this story contained inaccurate information.
Another Correction: The late Ben Chapman, star of the 1954 film "Creature from the Black Lagoon," never received the Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts he had claimed for decades, according to Marine Corps officials and a copy of Chapman's military Report of Separation, the Marine Times reported March 17, 2008. An Advertiser obituary reported that he had received those medals.