The swimmer, stuntman, actor, and filmmaker Ricou Browning departed this world on February 27, at the age of ninety-three. It was said Browning could hold his breath underwater for up to four minutes at a time, which turned out to be a highly marketable skill when it came to shooting the role that would become his forever claim to fame, 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon. Browning is the only actor to appear as the Creature (or “Gill Man”) in the film’s dreamlike underwater passages, shot partially on location in Wakulla Springs, Florida; actor Ben Chapman donned the green rubber suit for the “topside” scenes being shot back on the Universal backlot in California. (When you google “Ben Chapman creature,” the first thing to pop up is a famous picture of Browning in the suit, a grin effortlessly cracked, with the monster’s severed head under his arm.) Why does this distinction matter? Because Browning’s aquatic athleticism is what made the creature real, and therefore terrifying. Submerged, the Creature’s balletic, silent menace makes a harsh contrast with the lumbering bipedal amphibian seen aboveground: bug-eyed, mono-expressionistic, arms outstretched. With Browning goes the final link to the original era of “Universal Monsters,” which begins with Lon Chaney’s Quasimodo in the 1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame and concludes with the Black Lagoon sequels Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).
The story goes that Browning, then a twenty-three-year-old lifeguard at Florida’s Weeki Wachee resort, had been asked to show a group of cameramen from Universal Pictures around Wakulla Springs as they inspected possible locations for a forthcoming monster picture. (According to official tourist guides, “Wakulla” is derived from Seminole, and means “river of the crying bird” or “strange and mysterious waters.”) The request came from Browning’s old friend Newt “The Human Fish” Perry, the founder of Weeki Wachee, who had been an underwater double for Johnny Weissmuller in select Tarzan films shot in Florida in the late 1930s and 1940s. One of the cameramen asked if he could shoot some underwater footage to get a sense of the creature’s proportion to fish and grass, with Browning swimming in frame. Some time later, the studio called him: “We like the way you swim,” they said, before offering him the role of the monster. This is how Browning recounted the offer to a crowd at the CineSalem convention in Massachusetts sixty-four years later. He would never interact with his costars in Los Angeles during the film’s production, nor was he credited onscreen. But for the underwater scenes shot in Wakulla Springs on the first Creature he received a princely sum of $600 a week, $6,780 in 2023 dollars. Browning explained that this was good money at the time, but also that it would soon become the lowest he was paid for any of his work in showbiz. “And by the way,” he added, “I had to pay to go see the movie.”
Wheelchair-bound in his twilight years, Browning was a fixture of horror, comic, and science fiction conventions like this one. In their obituary, Florida’s mom-and-pop newspaper the Hernando Sun said he would frequent garage sales hunting for merchandise he could then autograph and distribute for free at public events. Watching phone video fragments of his Q&As on YouTube, what comes through every time is a wholesomeness that is uncannily American—too perfect for a creature who made his bones in the gee-whiz era of drugstore milkshakes and Atlas Man bodybuilding kits. But outside of the inalienable Creature connection, what’s less obvious is that Browning played a crucial role in Hollywood’s midcentury love affair with aquamarine cinematography. He worked extensively with the illustrious Hungarian-born producer Ivan Tors (now suspected of having been a spy, given his work for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II), who was at one point the kingpin of film and television in Florida, focusing in particular on unfakeable underwater shoots and family-friendly stories adjoining human and animal costars. Browning directed underwater sequences for Tors’ hugely popular scuba diving show Sea Hunt starring Lloyd Bridges; he also claimed that he found himself playing “all the bad guys.” (Funny enough, his old friend Newt Perry was Bridges’ swimming double.) But Sea Hunt was broadcast for just under four years; Bridges would later say that the show’s producers “wanted more cops and robbers. I wanted to look at the real villains of the sea, like the oil companies.”
After he caught a rerun of Lassie on television, Browning and his creative partner (and brother-in-law) Jack Cowden were inspired to create the wildly successful 1963 film and, later, TV series Flipper, about a young boy’s bond with a very special bottlenose dolphin, for Ivan Tors’ production company. Ric O’Barry, trainer of the dolphins who starred in Flipper, described Browning as “the straightest arrow I ever knew. . . . Cautious, balanced, four-square in every way, Ricou’s idea of reality began and ended in what he could see and touch.” Of her father, Browning’s daughter Renee Le Feuvre told the Ocala Star Banner in 2013 that “every time he got an idea for a movie, he would bring the animals home . . . We had a sea lion that sat at the dinner table . . . We had otters, a baby black bear, and a female peacock that would sit on our shoulder and drink iced tea out of our glass. All the kids in the neighborhood wanted to come over [to] our house because it was like a zoo.” Today, Browning’s son Ricou Jr. claims a list of credits as water-safety director on dozens of films (including on Michael Mann’s Miami Vice) and works as marine coordinator as well, effectively a liaison between local infrastructure and out-of-towner production companies looking to shoot on location in the South Florida ecosystem.
Indeed, the keyword in all these stories is Florida. In those days, the Sunshine State came into its own as a powerhouse, soliciting migration from the midwest and the north by the lure of cheap real estate, low taxes, and ample room for the aerospace, agriculture, and entertainment industries. O’Barry also described Browning as a worshipper of Walt Disney, and it’s perhaps instructive to consider his breakthroughs alongside Uncle Walt’s designs on his home state, including the original concept of EPCOT Center—less an amusement park than a centrally planned experimental city, aborted after Disney’s death in 1966 to the relief of Disney shareholders. Tors and Browning played a crucial role expanding the state’s profile as a hub of location photography for film and TV, helping sell Florida as a destination for tourists seeking closer rapport with sea mammals and marsh critters. (As another point on this axis, Ric O’Barry’s story is also fascinating: he surmises that he was once the highest-paid animal trainer in the world, but had a road-to-Damascus moment when he believed that Kathy, one of the dolphins who had starred in Flipper, committed suicide by self-asphyxiation at the Miami Seaquarium in 1970. The Seaquarium maintained that Kathy suffered a long illness before her death. Now a full-time advocate for dolphins’ rights, O’Barry is prominently featured in the 2009 documentary The Cove.)
Browning choreographed and codirected the elaborate underwater battle sequences in Terence Young’s 1965 James Bond extravaganza Thunderball, shot in the Bahamas, as well as the underwater scenes in an otherwise limp shipwreck movie called Island of the Lost in 1967—directed by John Florea but written, intriguingly, by Richard Carlson, one of the leads in the original Creature. Browning’s first solo credit as director was the 1973 family drama Salty, about two boys—one played by young adolescent Clint Howard—who become friends with a sparky sea lion after their parents are killed in a hurricane. (This, too, became a television series, albeit nowhere near the cultural phenomenon of Flipper.) In 1978 Browning directed the grindhouse thriller Mr. No Legs (alias Gun Fighter, working title Killers Die Hard), about two cops trying to bust a cartel of drug dealers lorded over by the titular crime boss played by real-life double amputee (and Korean War vet) Ted Vollrath. Nasty and hateful, Mr. No Legs is of comparable regional interest to Browning’s family-friendlier fare because its drug runners operate out of the Ybor City suburb of Tampa, smuggling heroin via the state’s signature “Cuban” cigars, culminating in a brain-flattening freeway car chase (a la Dukes of Hazzard) that lasts almost fifteen minutes. As with Flipper, Browning collaborated on both Salty and Mr. No Legs with Jack Cowden; their last screenplay together was on a low-budget mutant crab thriller called Island Claws which never found theatrical distribution and was ultimately broadcast on TV as Night of the Claw.
Yet for all these experiments and adventures, Browning never quite managed to outrun his most famous gig. At the 2018 “Spooky Empire” horror convention in Orlando, he said he didn’t think much about the Black Lagoon movies in the sixties and seventies, until the press tour for Salty was derailed once entertainment journalists caught wind of the fact he had been the Creature. (Browning duly requested the publicity team strike that credit from his resume.)
If the Universal Monsters idea had one sweeping theme, it was the fault line separating humanity from its opposite. And maybe the Creature represented the apotheosis, a brute force of unknown origin who harkened back to King Kong’s abduction of Fay Wray while his unrelenting, inexplicable violence anticipated Michael Myers’s “The Shape.” Then again, the original trilogy makes it clear that the Creature is acting out of self-defense once humans invade his ecosystem, ultimately bringing him to heel by surgically modifying his lungs so he can breathe oxygen in The Creature Walks Among Us. (Exiting a screening of Black Lagoon in Billy Wilder’s The Seven-Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe’s character sighs that the monster “just wanted to be loved . . .”)
But unlike Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, or HG Wells’ Invisible Man, the Creature was an original (strictly legally speaking) intellectual property of Universal’s, making it all the more curious that the franchise has not been attempted again in almost seventy years. Ben Chapman told the fan website Chaos Control that he hoped they “never, ever remake The Creature From The Black Lagoon, for the simple reason that it’s now a classic horror movie.” But studio executives felt different at various points over the last few decades: in the early nineties, John Carpenter developed a Black Lagoon remake with creature master Rick Baker, scuttled after the failure of his for-hire flop Memoirs of an Invisible Man starring Chevy Chase. Pleasantville filmmaker Gary Ross, whose father Arthur was one of the original Black Lagoon screenwriters, was working on a remake in the 2000s, promising an irony-free approach to the subject matter. Breck Eisner, the son of Disney CEO Michael Eisner and director of 2005’s cursed Clive Cussler adaptation Sahara, was tapped to bring the Creature back to life for a new generation, intending to shoot in the same Brazilian village where Werner Herzog mounted Fitzcarraldo. Even after some Gollum-like maquettes for the twenty-first-century Creature had been built, the 2007–2008 Writers Guild strike put an end to that idea. Trade papers in 2015 alleged Scarlett Johansson was in talks with Universal to star in a reboot, but nothing came of it.
Given the current dictatorship of “cinematic universes” administered by Marvel, Disney et al., it’s not hard to see why the Creature represents (and has represented, since the rollout of a unified Universal Monsters VHS series in the 1990s), a constellation of moneymaking opportunities: Halloween costumes, toys, makeup kits, novelizations, home video boxes, the siren song of Universal Studios Florida. After enthusiasm for the Mummy series starring Brendan Fraser began to flag, there was 2004’s Van Helsing as well as 2010’s inspired-but-beleaguered Wolfman remake starring Benicio del Toro, then 2014’s Dracula Untold, set in the late Middle Ages. The most notorious attempt to defibrillate the franchise (now dubbed the “Dark Universe”) was 2017’s The Mummy, nominally directed by Alex Kurtzman but, in reality, obsessively supervised by its star Tom Cruise, who exercised such airtight creative control that one wonders if the movie would have performed better titled Tom Cruise Meets the Mummy. A grand-canvas misfire, this Mummy gained first notoriety when its trailer, released in December 2016 with the wrong audio track, confronted audiences with high-pitched vocals of Cruise and others screaming, on loop and unmixed.
2017 is also the year Fox released Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which is as close to a contemporary Creature as one can get without violating copyright law. (Del Toro, intriguingly, was also in talks to remake the original Black Lagoon in the early 2000s.) Especially after The Shape of Water—detailing a romance between a lonely mute woman played by Sally Hawkins, and an “Amphibian Man” played by Doug Jones—won the Academy Award for Best Picture, people started asking Browning about it. In the 2018 “Spooky Empire” Q&A, Browning spoke favorably enough about the movie, noting that he and Guillermo del Toro had been in correspondence. But he said Del Toro told him he always had problems with the end of the original Creature and, after a beat, mentioned in kind that he felt the happy ending of The Shape of Water “sucked”: a loyal company man to the end. The way these IPs refuse to rise from the dead must be maddening for the executives at NBC Universal, but also becomes a kind of left-handed compliment: their repeat failure bears testimony not just to Browning’s achievements in embodying the monster but also to the Creature’s standing as a high point of Modernist kitsch, untainted by the ripples of time.