Ben Chapman died this past Thursday, at the age of 79. That name might not mean much to the average horror fan, but to those with a passion for the classic Monster movies of fifty, sixty, and seventy years past, those for whom the phrase “It’s a UNIVERSAL Picture…” still holds much significance, it means that another icon of youth is gone. The Gill-Man is dead.
To be accurate, I should say that a Gill-Man has died. Chapman is one of four actors who played the role officially, the others being Tom Hennesy, Don Megowan, and, of course, Ricou Browning. Hennesy and Megowan played the Creature while on land, in the two sequels to CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Browning played the Gill-Man during his underwater scenes in all three films. And Chapman was the first, the actor who portrayed the Creature during out of the water scenes in the first film in this legendary series. Browning was the one who swam along with Julie Adams as she shimmered her way into the Creature’s heart, as well as those of thousands of adolescent boys; but it was Chapman who was lucky enough to carry her off in his arms.
Don Megowan has been dead for many years now, Tom Hennesy seems to have dropped out of sight, and Chapman has been in poor health since falling ill at last year’s Monster Bash, where he was a regular guest. Still this comes as something of a shock to those who are fans of these actors; this realization that, as fresh as the images of their on-screen exploits may seem to us, they are still images that were captured more than half a century ago. The Gill-Man’s grace and power, Kay’s youth and beauty… all just memories preserved on celluloid.
The first generation of horror icons, Chaney, Lugosi, Karloff, and their contemporaries, are long gone… most before we were old enough to be aware of the fact. The second generation too has passed… Chaney (quite literally a second-generation icon…), Rathbone, Price. Now, the third generation is fading away, and in many ways, this hits much harder.
It as though we were leafing through old picture albums full of family snapshots. The first generation is our distant ancestors, the ones who came over from the old country, or settled the West. We know the names and can sort of recognize the faces, but they remain almost mythic heroes to us, passed down from elder to youth and on again, in an unbreaking chain.
The second generation is similar to our grandparents, mostly inhabitants of our memories, but good, warm memories. Memories of simpler days and simpler joys, of nights spent curled up in front of a television set with a cabinet three times bigger than the screen, watching a middle-aged man in monster make-up do a bad Bela imitation as he introduced the evening’s movie.
But this third generation, they are the aunts and uncles, the parents of our MonsterKid selves. We grew up with them always there, always around. They’re the foundation our love of Horror was built upon, as familiar to us as our own, real families, in many ways.
Though we have always had the work of earlier generations to enjoy and admire, this third generation is the one we grew up with, the one we felt was ours. John Agar, Richard Denning, Richard Carlson, Peter Cushing, Malia Nurmi… Ben Chapman. So many gone already. So few remaining. So little time left to appreciate them while they’re with us; instead of, like this column, after they’ve gone.