[Days of the Dead: Atlanta] The Stories of Ricou Browning and Gill Man from 'Creature from the Black Lagoon'
When I walked past Ricou Browning’s booth at DAYS OF THE DEAD in Atlanta, I couldn’t believe it was actually him—I DIDN’T believe it until I saw the sign posted saying, “Fist Bumps Only, Please.” I assumed it was for the same reasons that my Jiddo (grandfather) doesn’t shake hands anymore...
...1. He has arthritis—Ricou is four years older than my grandfather at 89—and 2. People are gross, and they don’t want to touch us. (Mr. Browning did not say this. My granddad did.) When I was doing the mental math, which I’ve honestly never been good at, I was like, 89? That can’t be right. He looks 70. He’s a diver, though. Of course, he was and is and will be in excellent shape forever. But wait, if that’s him, why weren’t people lined up all the way around the ballroom of the Sheraton like they were for Linda Blair or Doug Jones? Why was I allowed to get so close to him? As soon as my inner monologue reached all of those questions, I ran away. In retrospect, I am convinced that the line was short because, like me, the other horror fans were starstruck, too. He’s a legacy. Ricou Browning played Gill Man in The Creature from the Black Lagoon, among his many other accomplishments, like directing the underwater scenes for Thunderball and creating the show Flipper.
When Ricou Browning and his daughter Renee came into the ballroom where he would entertain our Q&A session, all of us seated there applauded. He wheeled himself in front of the stage, where the other chairs were set, and phones went up all around to take pictures of the legend. I had been prepping all morning to face down my starstruckness and ask one question, JUST ONE, MARY KAY, COME ON, but when Browning said, “I’ve found it works best to let people ask questions, and then I’ll talk about what they’re interested in,” I panicked—I can’t go FIRST, I thought. I’m gonna work up my nerve, but I ain’t there yet.
Obviously, I didn’t go first. Many braver souls than I asked many better questions than I. The interviewer himself started off, saying that for his regular job, he worked for OSHA, and because Browning was a stunt coordinator, he asked, how did that work before OSHA was a thing? Browning said he chose his own safety people, and “that worked pretty good.” (He used this humble understatement several times, and I don’t know if it endeared him to the rest of the crowd as much as it did to me, but I was like, YES SIR. THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON WAS PRETTY GOOD.) The next question, from the audience, was about underwater safety, to which he answered, “When I went limp, I needed air.” He also said that for Black Lagoon, they filmed from 9-4 underwater, but before that, they rehearsed above, “topside,” dry, until they got it right.
Browning is an amazing storyteller, and obviously super accomplished, but he’s also very humble. At some questions, like, “How long could you hold your breath,” he replied that he never really measured it, but then his daughter, Renee, who sat beside him throughout and is in the process of writing his biography, said, “People who worked with him said that he could hold his breath for up to four minutes if he was still. He won’t brag about it, but that’s what the people who worked with him said.”
Other questions he answered with more forthcoming tales, telling us about trying on the first iteration of the Gill Man suit, and being chemically burned by the glue so badly that the blister is a scar on his chest to this day. He told us that when they debuted the first full costumes that everyone loved Julie Adams’ white swimsuit, but that his costume looked too much like a lizard, so they went back to the drawing board. He had four suits finally, and he used all of them. They were made of rubber, he said, so he couldn’t sink in them, and so they had to add plates of lead to the chest and thighs, and then he added “that worked pretty good.” As for the head, he said that he tried to wear goggles under the mask, but they made the mask standout from his head, and when they filled up with water, he couldn’t empty them, so he ended up filming with the naked eye. Everything was blurry, and looking through the mask was like looking through a keyhole. When he exhaled, the air pooled at the top of the head, and that’s why, “if you rewatch it, you can see bubbles.” When asked about the hands of the Gill Man costume, he said that for gripping, there were wires in each finger, so that worked well, but for swimming, it didn’t work so much. He also went out of his way to let us all know that he did NOT hurt the bird when he dragged it underwater—that it was his friend’s bird which he borrowed for the day, and returned when they were finished shooting.
One of my favorite stories that he told—and the Q&A was truly full of them—was of taking a break underwater by the breathing hose, in the suit, and feeling a pinch on his foot. He looked down, through the blurry Gill Man mask, to see a loggerhead turtle biting his foot, and eventually pulling the foot of the costume off and swimming away with it. Because it was the last of the four suits they designed for him, he had to tell the crew that the turtle stole his foot, and they had to chase it down, bring him up, dry him out, and reattach that part of the costume. He also mentioned that in the water where they were filming, it was 71 degrees, which was warm enough (he said—not for me, though), but out of the water it was in the 40s. Each of the crew felt bad for him, so when he came back topside, they offered him a shot of brandy. He said, “Well, sure.” And because none of the crew knew other crew members were doing the same thing, he got a little drunk while filming, but no one knew it.
Someone in the audience asked which of the three Creature films was his favorite, and what his favorite project that he worked on was, too. Browning said that the first film was his favorite because, “I got paid the most” for that one, and because more money was spent on its filming. Similarly, his favorite project to work on was Thunderball because the producers told him, “Don’t worry about the budget,” and that had never happened before. When he was directing underwater, he told his actors, “If you can think of a way to die, do it.”
When asked if he knew what a legacy he was working on while he was working on The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he said he bought a ticket to see the film when it came out in theaters, and he saw it, and he enjoyed it, and he thought they did a “pretty good” job. It wasn’t until twenty years later that he got a letter from a fan asking for a photo. He didn’t have one, so he asked a neighbor for one, made a copy, sent it to the fan, and “charged him five bucks.”
It’s then when I worked up my nerve to ask my question, which, because I was so starstruck, I kind of mumbled, and Renee had to relay to Mr. Browning because he (like my Jiddo) is hard of hearing: “Guillermo del Toro said that he remembered the scene of you swimming below Julie in Creature from the Black Lagoon as a child, and said that he wished she had fallen in love with the creature, and that was the inspiration for the movie, The Shape of Water. I was just wondering if you saw that movie, how you liked it, and what you thought about retelling the story that way.”
Mr. Browning said, “I saw the movie, and I talked to the director on the phone. He’s a really nice guy, and I said I thought he did a great job directing it, but it was a terrible movie.” We all giggled a little. He then went on to critique the plot, saying the girl and the creature, “they meet, and they have sex, and that’s it. He should have put that at the end of the movie instead of right at the beginning.” I loved the movie, but I can’t disagree. Pacing-wise, it makes sense. He said Guillermo del Toro agreed with him over the phone, too, but, he said, “I already made the movie.”
Browning also said that the creature should have died—“she doesn’t turn into a fish. She would have drowned. And (the creature) got shot so many times he should have died.” The right way to end it, according to Browning, was that “he pushed her up to the surface, and then he dove back down into the water to die.”
That makes sense to me. He said that del Toro agreed, too.
Browning added, “The man who plays the creature, Doug Jones, he and I are good friends, too. He called me when he started doing the role.” I was so delighted. OF COURSE Doug Jones did his homework. OF COURSE they are best friends. The interviewer mentioned that Doug Jones was at the convention as well, and Browning replied, “Yes, but he went home last night.”
Browning went on to tell stories about creating Flipper after seeing that his kids were obsessed with Lassie, and when I told my dad about getting to see him and talk to him and how I looked him in the eye while he told me that he was good friends with Guillermo del Toro and Doug Jones, my dad said, “Flipper was my first favorite when I was a liiiittle kid. That and Gentle Ben. About a boy who had a bear cub.” Then I got to relay to my own dad how Ricou Browning searched for the dolphin to play Flipper. Which, I don’t know about you, but I LOVE knowing more than my dad. It almost never happens. Plus, my dad was part of the entire generation that grew up loving animals in large part to what Mr. Browning did in creating Flipper.
At the time, Browning said, trainers didn’t swim with dolphins. They trained from a bench topside. When he asked the Miami aquarium if he could swim with the dolphins, they said No. So, he talked with a friend who had a dolphin in a pond that he would use to help acclimate other dolphins before they went to live at the aquarium. When Browning waded into the pond to meet her, she swam around him and put her nose under his arm, which is when he looked up to his friend and said, “I think we found Flipper.”
Because he had never trained a dolphin before, he took some trial and error with his son Ricky, who was the first to grab onto Mitzy’s dorsal fin—by accident—and be taken back to Ricou.
This Q&A session was one of my favorites I’ve ever been to, the kind that’ll make you nostalgic for a time before you were born. If you get the chance to see Ricou Browning at one of these events, you should absolutely take it—he and the Creature are, after all, the only surviving of the original Universal Monsters.
By Mary Kay McBrayer