On February 27, 2023, Ricou Browning died of natural causes at the age of 93. The name may not be as well-known as Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff, but surely most readers will have heard the title Creature from the Black Lagoon—or at least recognize the Gill-man, the creature to whom the title refers.
Browning was the stunt performer who wore that amphibious costume in the underwater scenes of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), the sci-fi-horror classic directed by Jack Arnold and shot in 3D for Universal-International Pictures. He was also the last surviving actor to play one of the studio’s classic-era monsters.
As above, so below: Black Lagoon followed It Came from Outer Space (1953, also directed by Arnold, also shot in 3D) in Universal’s monster-themed sci-fi films for the Atomic Age. The only film in this cycle to spawn direct sequels, it finally gave the studio a successor to Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, and the Wolf Man, the ambassadors of Universal Pictures horror in the 1930s and 1940s. Revenge of the Creature (1955, yet another Arnold/3D production) sees the Gill-man escape captivity from Marineland of Florida, and in The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), directed by John Sherwood, the Gill-man begins mutating into a human with tragic results. Looking for continuity in the trilogy at the level of production personnel, one might readily identify William Alland, who produced most of Universal’s sci-fi films in the 1950s (a former actor, Alland played reporter Jerry Thompson in Citizen Kane ). But below the line and behind the mask, there was Browning, who reprised his role for the underwater scenes in both sequels, making him the only performer to appear in all three films.
In his book The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy, Tom Weaver tells the story of how Browning was studying physical education at Florida State University when he got the Gill-man gig. The director and some crew members were visiting Wakulla Springs, Florida, scouting locations for the film, and Wakulla manager Newt Perry asked Browning to be their guide in his absence. Browning, a Florida-native, was one of the swimmers and divers whom Perry coached, and underwater camera operator Charles “Scotty” Welbourne asked him to swim in front of the lens to help give perspective for the test footage. Although not yet a professional stunt performer, Browning was no stranger to the theatrical milieu. He performed in attractions at Wakulla Springs, where he appeared in short-subject films shot by sportswriter Grantland Rice, and at Weeki Wachee Springs, where he doubled for actor Forrest Tucker in the underwater scenes of the feature film Crosswinds (1951). According to Weaver’s interview with Browning, Arnold offered Browning the part because he liked the way he swam.
Browning would play the Gill-man in the second-unit scenes shot underwater in Wakulla Springs, supervised by James C. Havens, while Ben Chapman would play the role on terra firma back at Universal under Arnold’s direction. Famous for his ability to hold his breath underwater for two-to-four minutes, Browning took breaks to exhale and inhale from the end of an air hose, a technique he learned from Perry when performing in his aqua shows at Weeki Wachee Springs. The most memorable scene is the Gill-man’s stalking of the lovely Kay when she goes for a dip in the lagoon—unaware he is swimming parallel to her below the water’s surface, their bodies facing each other. Monster-movie fans will recall Julie Adams (credited as Julia Adams) as Kay, but that was actually Ginger Stanley in those underwater shots (Stanley passed away just before Browning on January 19, 2023, at the age of 91). They play it like a weirdly beautiful pas de deux, and the effect is hypnotic.
Of course, anyone who has seen Black Lagoon and paid attention will tell you that the real monster is not the Gill-man, but Mark Williams (Richard Denning), the harpoon-happy scientist funding the expedition to the upper Amazon that has invaded his home. Kay and her ichthyologist fiancé David Reed (Richard Carlson) are interested in photographing the Gill-man in his natural habitat for the purposes of study (the nearby discovery of a fossil from the Devonian age suggests that the Gill-man might be the missing link between marine and land animals). Meanwhile, Mark is only after credit and publicity for the success of the expedition, treating it as a “big game hunt”—not to mention an opportunity to compete with David for Kay. Why wouldn’t a viewer start rooting for the Gill-man after Mark harpoons him unprovoked? Even Kay and David are implicated in the ecological harm the expedition causes. Halfway through the film, note how Kay carelessly tosses her cigarette in the water, and the next scene opens with the dead fish that have floated to the surface as David and Mark pour rotenone into the lagoon in an attempt to poison the Gill-man, who has now begun defending himself.
Browning was one of the unsung heroes of the Hollywood horror film, but that label doesn’t do justice to his varied and accomplished career. As a stunt performer, he also appeared in Disney’s science-fiction adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and the Jerry Lewis Navy comedy Don’t Give Up the Ship (1959). In addition to directing the underwater action sequences for the James Bond films Thunderball (1965) and Never Say Never Again (1983), he and Jack Cowden co-created the beloved bottlenose dolphin Flipper, who made his big splash in MGM’s 1963 film of the same name, directed by James B. Clark and written by Arthur Weiss (as a writer and director, Browning also worked on the Flipper television series that ran on NBC from 1964 to 1967). One can’t help but wonder whether Marineland’s “Flippy, the Educated Porpoise,” who makes a cameo in Revenge of the Creature, inspired Browning in any way.
A feature-film director in his own right, Browning helmed the comedy-drama Salty (1973), which he co-wrote with his Flipper collaborator Jack Cowden, swapping a Florida dolphin for a Florida sea-lion. Browning and Cowden then shifted from their usual family audience to the exploitation market when they reunited again with Mr. No Legs (1978). Directed by Browning and written by Cowden, this R-rated action film delivered just what its sensationalistic title promised: a pair of cops pursue a Florida drug kingpin, whose enforcer is a double amputee with a double-barrel shotgun installed in each of us his wheelchair’s armrests!
For me, however, Browning will always be the Gill-man, first and foremost: Hollywood’s greatest aquatic creature. If the Creature trilogy has lost the fear-factor it once possessed, it has aged into an unlikely set of comfort movies, the cinematic equivalent of a relaxing swim, with the most graceful partner at the lagoon.