Monsters and Matinees: Celebrating Ricou Browning

Celebrating Ricou Browning

“The Gill-Man is coming!”

That was me, giddy as a teen, just three years ago when it was announced that Ricou Browning would be appearing in my hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.

The idea of being in the room with Mr. Browning was unbelievable and was surely going to be a highlight of my life since I had loved classic horror films since I was a kid.

Ricou Browning in costume for Creature From the Black Lagoon.

He was the last of the Universal monsters, playing the underwater scenes as the title character in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and its two sequels. It was hard to fathom how it was going to be possible to meet one of the original Universal monsters and I couldn’t help thinking about what I would say to him if I had the chance.

But that announcement was in January of 2020. Two months later, the Covid-19 shutdown began, canceling everything nationwide including Mr. Browning’s visit and the convention he was to appear in.

This was the announcement for Ricou Browning’s planned 2020 appearance in Buffalo, N.Y. It was canceled two months later when the pandemic shut down live events.

While we waited for events to return, Mr. Browning’s family reached out to fans in September of 2021, asking us to send him a physical card or letter because of his declining health. And we did.

Now we’ve sadly learned that Mr. Browning died of natural causes on Feb. 27 in his Southwest Ranches, Fla. home at the age of 93.

“It is with deep sorrow I post the passing of a literal legend, Ricou Browning,” wrote family member Kristin LeFeuvre in a Facebook tribute.  “The Creature from the Black Lagoon was always a treat to be around. A man of little words, but a quick wit and a flashy smile.”

As we send our sympathy to his family and loved ones, we celebrate him not only as the Gill-Man but for his lengthy career as a director, writer, producer, stuntman and underwater coordinator and innovator.

Ricou Browning in a publicity shot for Creature from the Black Lagoon.

When Hollywood needed an expert for underwater footage and stunts, they called on him as a stunt diver/double for Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), the Lloyd Bridges TV show Sea Hunt (30 episodes, 1958-61) and The Aquanauts (1960-61).

That’s him doubling for Jerry Lewis in Don’t Give Up the Ship (1959) and directing the underwater sequences in Hello Down There (1967), Island of the Lost (1967) and the Bond films Thunderball (1965) with bad guys, knives, harpoons and sharks, and Never Say Never Again (1983).

He was the co-creator and the driving force behind Flipper, the 1963 movie about a pet dolphin and the TV series that followed (1964-67), writing episodes, directing 37 of them, and overseeing all the underwater photography. He worked well on land, too, directing 14 episodes of the TV series Gentle Ben (1967-69).

And he had a humorous streak, as seen in the hilarious Jaws-inspired candy bar in the pool scene of Caddyshack (1980).

That’s a wonderful career by any measure. And it’s all owed to the Gill-Man.

Ricou Browning’s film legacy

“We liked the way you swim. How would you like to be the creature of the Black Lagoon?”

Those were the words of director Jack Arnold in a phone call that changed the life of 23-year-old Florida lifeguard Ricou Browning, as Mr. Browning recalled during an interview in the fantastic David J. Skal documentary Back to the Black Lagoon: A Creature Chronicle (more on that later).

Ricou Browning wore a monster suit, but was still a graceful swimmer
in Creature From the Black Lagoon.

He was working at Wakulla Springs, Fla. – one of the world’s largest freshwater springs and a tourist attraction to this day – when he was asked to help scout locations for Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Wakulla Springs looked like it had not been touched by time which was perfect for the film about a creature that could have been from another time. Filmmakers immediately liked what they saw and asked if the young Ricou would swim so they could film perspective shots showing the size of things like logs, fish and people.

Just a couple of weeks later, Jack Arnold made that call and his life would never be the same.

Ricou Browning in the first sequel, Revenge of the Creature.

Mr. Browning would also play the creature for the underwater scenes in the two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). For the topside (land) scenes, filmmakers wanted a more menacing creature so other actors were used; Tom Chapman in the original film, Tom Hennesy in the second and Don Megowan in the third.

Here’s the sad part though: none of the men received film credit for their work. Even when Mr. Browning repeatedly requested credit for Revenge of the Creature (1955), the studio turned him down. Instead, he was given publicity chances like photo ops to help him “get other jobs.” (There was a time when studios didn’t like to credit an actor for a creature-type of role so as not to take away the mystery.)

In addition to his underwater creature scenes, Ricou Browning, right, made a cameo as a lab assistant in Revenge of the Creature. He is pictured with Lori Nelson and John Agar.

Despite the studio’s best efforts, we know their names today.

People unfamiliar with Creature from the Black Lagoon may wonder what’s so special about a guy in a suit since movies are full of them. But Mr. Browning’s Gill-Man was special because it had character, personality and heart.

He was eloquent under the water despite the heavy suit and massive webbed hands and difficulty seeing because he couldn’t keep the water out of his eyes. He moved with long, graceful strides and effortlessly flipped and turned like he was dancing underwater.

And that brings us to one of the most iconic scenes in all of horror: The underwater ballet between the Gill-Man and the unknowing object of his affection Kay (played by Julia Adams, later known as Julie Adams). The pas de deux between the two was menacing, yet gorgeous. It could have been a scene from an Esther Williams film, if it didn’t involve a Universal monster.

In one of the most famous scenes in classic horror, the creature (Ricou Browning) mimics the motions of Kay who has no idea he is there in Creature From the Black Lagoon.

Who can forget the gracefulness of the scene as we watched the Gill-Man swimming within inches of Kay without her knowledge. Not me.

And not director Guillermo del Toro who saw Creature from the Black Lagoon when he was only 6. He is on the record saying that that he was charmed by the scene, as so many were, but was shocked when the creature and his human lady love didn’t get together. He vowed to fix that someday and he’s a man of word giving us his love letter to the creature in his Oscar winning film The Shape of Water (2007).

That film is how del Toro celebrated Mr. Browning. While, I could never make such a grand gesture, nor did I ever meet him, I finally realized what I wanted to say to Mr. Browning. I put it in a card for him that I can sum up in two words: Thank you.

Ricou Browning as Creature From the Black Lagoon.

To learn more

To learn more about Ricou Browning and Creature from the Black Lagoon and its sequels, I highly recommend the documentary Back to the Black Lagoon: A Creature Chronicle,” written, directed and produced by horror expert and author David J. Skal.

The documentary dives into all three films and we get to hear Ricou Browning discussing his work in them. You can find the documentary on multiple home video releases of the movie and rent it through various streaming platforms.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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