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 on Feb. 27 at his home in Southwest Ranches, Fla., northwest of Miami. He was 93.

His daughter Renee Le Feuvre confirmed the death.

Mr. 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 Mr. Browning told the story later, included Jack Arnold, the film’s director, and the cameraman Scotty Welbourne — was scouting locations for a planned movie about an underwater monster.

“Scotty had his underwater camera,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Arnold not only liked the location; he also liked Mr. 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,” Mr. Browning recalled Mr. Arnold telling him, “but I’d like to have you play the creature — I like your swimming.”

Mr. Browning in a scene from “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” the first of three movies in which he played the title character. “I’d like to have you play the creature,” he recalled the film’s director telling him — “I like your swimming.”Credit…Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

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 3-D, 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,” Mr. 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.”

Yet the movie did decently at the box office and became a sort of cultural reference point. Mr. Browning, who had the ability to hold his breath underwater for minutes at a time, played the swimming version of the creature in two sequels, “Revenge of the Creature” (1955) and “The Creature Walks Among Us” (1956).

He went on to share a story-writing credit on the 1963 film “Flipper,” about a boy who becomes friends with a dolphin, and then, the next year, was a creator of the television series of the same name and directed and helped write a number of its episodes during its three seasons. He also did some of the underwater stunt work.

In an introductory essay in Mr. Weaver’s book, Ms. Adams, whose “Black Lagoon” character was played by Ginger Stanley in the underwater scenes, recalled waiting eagerly in California to see the “dailies” — footage from the day’s shooting — coming out of Florida.

“The dailies were long, silent takes of him and Ginger Stanley deep in the crystal clear water of Wakulla Springs,” she wrote. “They’d swim for a while, get some air from an air hose, and then go back and resume their action. It was so exciting to see the Gill Man brought to life by Ricou’s unique swimming style, and I was captivated.”

Ms. Stanley, Mr. Browning’s underwater partner in that eerie scene that helped define the film, died in January in Orlando, Fla., at 91.

Ricou Ren Browning was born on Feb. 16, 1930, in Fort Pierce, Fla. His father, Clement, worked construction in the Navy, and his mother, Inez (Ricou) Browning, was a bookkeeper.

He first saw Wakulla Springs as a teenager and earned some money by swimming deep in the water for the benefit of tourists in glass-bottomed boats, who would watch him plunge to depths of 80 feet and leave tips.

“Some of us kids would earn 30, 40 dollars a day,” he told Mr. Weaver for his book, “and that was big, big money.”

In the 1940s he also got his first taste of the movie business, appearing in several short films made in the area by Grantland Rice, who was better known as a sportswriter. In one, according to Mr. Weaver’s book, Mr. Browning is among the teenagers packed into a Model T Ford that drives into the waters of Wakulla Springs.

After serving in the Air Force from 1947 to 1950, Mr. Browning returned to Florida. He was the underwater double for Forrest Tucker in “Crosswinds” (1951), an adventure story about an effort to recover gold from a sunken plane, which was filmed in Florida. He was performing in Mr. Perry’s underwater shows at Weeki Wachee, another Florida attraction, and studying physical education at Florida State University when he was recruited for “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

In his book, Mr. Weaver recounts the hit-or-miss process of coming up with the right creature costume, and the difficulties Mr. Browning had to deal with once the right look was found. One problem was that the costume was made of foam rubber, which floats.

“I wore a chest plate that was thin lead,” Mr. Browning told him, as well as thigh and ankle weights.

Another problem, Mr. Weaver said, was that Mr. Chapman, the actor playing the on-land version of the creature, was quite tall; in Florida, Mr. Browning had scenes with Ms. Stanley and several other stand-ins.

“Ricou was average height,” Mr. Weaver said, “so short people were hired to play the hero-heroine-bad guy so that Ricou would look comparatively king-sized.”

Mr. Browning’s later film work included directing the comedy “Salty” (1973), about a sea lion, and the crime drama “Mr. No Legs” (1978), about a mob enforcer who is a double amputee, as well as doing stunt work in several movies, including serving as Jerry Lewis’s underwater double in the 1959 comedy “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”

Mr. Browning’s first marriage, to Margaret Kelly in 1951, ended in divorce. His second wife, Fran Ravelo, whom he married in 1977, died in 2020. In addition to his daughter Renee, he is survived by three other children from his first marriage, his sons, Kelly and Ricou Jr., and his daughter Kim Browning; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Weaver noted that all of the other actors who portrayed monsters in the classic Universal films died some time ago.

“Ricou,” he said, “had the distinction of being the last man standing.”

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