Ricou Browning, underwater creature in ‘Black Lagoon,’ dies at 93

Ricou Browning never planned to become a monster. But in 1953, while he was working as a lifeguard at Florida’s Wakulla Springs, the 23-year-old was enlisted to help a group of filmmakers scout locations for an upcoming movie, “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” As a favor, he jumped into the spring’s sapphire-hued waters for a test shot, showing off a graceful swimming stroke that he had developed since childhood, while diving for coins at the beach and performing stunts in underwater shows.

Two weeks later, he got a call from director Jack Arnold. “We like the way you swim,” Arnold told him. “You want to be the creature?”

Mr. Browning, who died Feb. 27 at 93, saw no reason to pass up a $600-a-week paycheck. Diving headfirst into show business, he donned a cumbersome full-body suit to play the scaly, fleshy-lipped Gill-man, the amphibious humanoid who terrorizes actress Julie Adams in “Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954).

Over the next three decades, he made a career out directing and acting in aquatic sequences, working with seals, dolphins, sharks and many waterlogged celebrities. He swam with Esther Williams for the musical romance “Jupiter’s Darling” (1955), doubled for actor Jerry Lewis in the Navy comedy “Don’t Give Up the Ship” (1959) and guided Sean Connery through an undersea fight scene for the James Bond movie “Thunderball” (1965), overseeing a similar sequence when the movie was remade as “Never Say Never Again” (1983).

He also directed underwater scenes for the hit adventure series “Sea Hunt” (1958-61), starring Lloyd Bridges as a former Navy diver, and came up with the idea for the family film “Flipper” (1963), about a boy who befriends an injured wild dolphin. Even the golf comedy “Caddyshack” (1980) featured a contribution from Mr. Browning, who directed a country-club pool sequence in which a Baby Ruth candy bar, misidentified as “doody,” sparks as much panic as the shark in “Jaws.”

Mr. Browning eventually started directing movies of his own, including the unlikely action film “Mr. No Legs” (1978), which involved a double amputee with twin shotguns built into his wheelchair.

But he remained best known for “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” which was scorned by critics initially but entered the monster-movie canon alongside Universal movies about Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster.

“It’s funny how it works out,” Mr. Browning told the Miami Herald in 1993. “It’s kind of a cult thing, I guess. I probably earned less money on that than anything I ever did.”

“Creature From the Black Lagoon” was filmed in 3D and set in the Amazon, where Adams’s character, Kay Lawrence, accompanies two scientists (Richard Carlson and Richard Denning) on an expedition, only to dive into a lagoon and fall into the webbed hands of the Gill-man.

The character was played on land by another, more physically imposing actor, Ben Chapman, while Mr. Browning appeared in all the water sequences. Many featured his friend Ginger Stanley Hallowell, who played Adams’s underwater double and appeared with Mr. Browning in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, in which the Gill-man stalks Kay through the water, swimming under her before reaching out to graze her leg.

“We just dreamed it up,” Hallowell said in a 2013 interview with Florida’s Ocala Star-Banner. “Water would go into Ricou’s eyeholes, so the only way he could see me was to turn upside down. During the whole sequence, he was supposed to be swimming underneath me and I wasn’t supposed to know he was there. Every now and then I’d feel this scaly hand come up and skim my leg or my bottom and I’d say, ‘Oh, Ricou must be there.’”

By today’s Hollywood standards, Mr. Browning’s costume was fairly primitive, made of foam rubber and latex via a mold of his body. He wasn’t able to wear goggles, because there was no easy way to take them off if water got inside, so he peered through keyhole-like openings in his mask. To counteract the suit’s buoyancy and stay underwater, he wore a lead chest plate and carried weights.

“It was kind of like swimming in your overcoat,” he said in an interview with Tom Weaver, a horror film scholar.

Mr. Browning could hold his breath for more than four minutes, but to stay underwater for extended periods he used an air hose linking him to the surface, a technique he had previously employed as a performer in underwater shows at Wakulla Springs and Weeki Wachee, another freshwater spring near Tampa. If he ran into trouble, he would go limp, a signal for the safety diver to bring air.

Weather also proved to be an issue on the film, which was shot in winter, with temperatures dropping into the 30s, according to Mr. Browning. The suit only did so much to keep him warm, he said, so sympathetic crew members offered him shots of brandy during the early days of filming. “Soon they had a drunk creature on their hands,” he recalled, “so I had to cut that out.”

The film grossed $1.3 million at the box office, or about $14 million in today’s money, enough that Universal made two sequels, “Revenge of the Creature” (1955) and “The Creature Walks Among Us” (1956). Both featured Mr. Browning, who received publicity for the last two films but wasn’t credited on-screen. The studio, he said, “didn’t want people to think the creature was human.”

Ricou Ren Browning was born in Fort Pierce, Fla., on Feb. 16, 1930, and grew up in nearby Jensen Beach and Tallahassee. His father served in the Seabees, the Navy construction force, and he learned how to be a swimmer from his mother, who worked as a bookkeeper at Florida State University and urged her three children into the ocean almost as soon they could walk.

As a teenager, he began working with swimming coach and promoter Newt Perry, who turned Weeki Wachee Springs into a major tourist attraction. The springs featured underwater shows, some of which were produced by Mr. Browning and starred swimming “mermaids” like his sister, Shirley; future screen partner Hallowell; and his first wife, Margaret Kelly, whom he married in 1951 after serving in the Air Force. They had four children: Renee LeFeuvre, Kelly and Kim Browning, and Ricou Jr., who became a marine stunt coordinator.

Mr. Browning studied physical education at Florida State before focusing on his film career, which included an early job as a stunt diver for Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954). A few years later he began working on “Sea Hunt,” initially as a double for the show’s underwater heavies. He developed a close relationship with the producer, Ivan Tors, who hired Mr. Browning as president of his Florida studios after working with him on projects including “Flipper.”

Conceived as an aquatic version of “Lassie,” the long-running TV show about a boy and his beloved collie, “Flipper” came together after Mr. Browning and Perry traveled to South America, where they captured freshwater dolphins to bring back to a Florida marine park. Mr. Browning began working with the animals and refined his idea for a dolphin movie with his brother-in-law, Jack Cowden, who shared a story credit on the film.

A sequel soon followed, as well as a three-season TV series, with Mr. Browning directing many of the episodes. He also directed the movie “Salty” (1973), effectively a sea lion version of “Flipper,” and worked on underwater commercials.

His first marriage ended in divorce. In 1977, he married Fran Ravelo, who died in 2020. Mr. Browning’s family said he died at his home in Southwest Ranches, Fla., but did not cite a cause. In addition to his children, survivors include 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Browning died only a few weeks after Hallowell, who died Jan. 19, according to a death notice in the Orlando Sentinel. The movie they made together has continued to exert an influence in recent years, inspiring films including Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 Oscar winner “The Shape of Water,” a love story between a woman and a Gill-man-like creature.

“I get fan mail almost every day,” Mr. Browning told People magazine in 1994. He also got plenty of calls, he added, “from people who say, ‘We’re having a party. Could you bring your rubber suit over and jump in the pool and scare everybody?’”

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