Ricou Browning, who made the Black Lagoon scary, dies at 93
Ricou Browning, who played the title character, or at least the underwater version of it, in one of the most enduring creature features of the 1950s, “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” died Feb. 27 at his home in Southwest Ranches, Florida, northwest of Miami. He was 93.
His daughter Renee Le Feuvre confirmed the death.
Browning was 23 when Newt Perry, a promoter of various Florida attractions for whom he had worked as a teenager, asked him to show some Hollywood visitors around Wakulla Springs, a picturesque spot near Tallahassee. The entourage — which, as Browning told the story later, included Jack Arnold, the film’s director, and cameraman Scotty Welbourne — was scouting locations for a planned movie about an underwater monster.
“Scotty had his underwater camera,” Browning recalled in an interview recorded in “The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy,” a 2014 book by Tom Weaver (with David Schecter and Steve Kronenberg), “and he asked me if I would get in the water with him and swim in front of the camera so they could get some perspective.”
Arnold not only liked the location; he also liked Browning. He called him days later and asked if he would want to play the creature for the underwater scenes to be shot in Florida. (An actor named Ben Chapman portrayed the monster in the scenes on land, which were filmed in California.)
“We’ve tested a lot of people for this part,” Browning recalled Arnold telling him, “but I’d like to have you play the creature — I like your swimming.”
In August 1953 he was brought to California to be fitted for the suit that would turn him into the Gill Man, and six months later “Creature From the Black Lagoon” was released. It was the latest in a tradition of monster movies from Universal Studios that included “The Mummy” (1932) and “The Wolf Man” (1941), and it took its place in monster movie lore.
In the film, which was released in 3D, scientists working in the Amazon discover a creature in a lagoon that takes a shine to a female member of the party, Kay (played by Julie Adams). About 28 minutes into the film, Kay decides to go for a swim in the lagoon, and the creature, still undiscovered by the research party, swims beneath her like an underwater stalker, a scene both creepy and oddly poignant.
“This scene turned it from a regular old monster movie to a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ thing,” Weaver said by email, “a big reason for the movie’s ongoing popularity.”
Some critics weren’t impressed by the movie.
“The proceedings above and under water were filmed in 3-D to impart an illusion of depth when viewed through polarized glasses,” A.H. Weiler wrote in The New York Times. “This adventure has no depth.”