Ben Chapman dies at 79

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HONOLULU -- Ben Chapman, a decorated Korean War veteran and real estate executive best known for playing the title character in the 1954 horror film "Creature From the Black Lagoon," died last week. He was 79.

Chapman's role as the Gill Man -- the quintessential 1950s monster in Universal Pictures' black-and-white film in 3-D -- made him a darling on the collectibles and sci-fi circuit throughout the world.

The gig brought him enduring pleasure, said his son, Ben Chapman III, of Honolulu.

"His 'Creature' fans kept him going and he looked forward to trips to the mainland. But over the past year, he was slowing down because of heart problems; he had breathing problems," his son said.

Chapman had a Web site (www.the-reelgillman.com) where fans would reach him, said his son, who was among family members at Chapman's bedside when he died on Feb. 21 at Tripler Army Medical Center.

A Tahiti native, Chapman got the Gill Man part because of his size, 6 feet 5. He wore a foam rubber suit that defined his character: part-amphibian, part-man.

"Creature" was released in 1954, when Chapman was a contract player at Universal.

In a 1993 interview with The Honolulu Advertiser, he said, "I never knew, when I did the movie at age 25, that it would be such a monster film," pun intended.

Chapman said there were actually two actors who played the Gill Man. He was the creature on land; Ricou Browning was the actor in water sequences.

In publicity photos, Chapman was the one beneath the foam-rubber body suit and the large-lipped headpiece. He posed with Julia Adams, the object of the Gill Man's affection in what he once likened to a beauty-and-the-beast tale: a soul with a ghastly exterior falling in love with the woman of his dreams.

The Gill Man is shot and stabbed in the final moments of the film. He sinks into the depths of the water, only to return in a pair of sequels that never replicated the success of the original. Neither sequel featured Chapman.

Ilene Wong, co-producer of the Hawaii All-Collectors Show, said Chapman would bring a briefcase of memorabilia posters to her event. He would also have a good pen on hand for autographs.

"He was always very happy and so giving. People would ask him about the movie, or Hollywood, and he would always provide the answers, help out," Wong said. "He was just wonderful. In fact, we expected him this year. I think we will make a shrine for him."

Chapman was born Oct. 29, 1928, in Oakland, but was reared in Tahiti till age 12 or 13, after which he moved to San Francisco.

He served in Korea with the Marine Corps, earning a Silver Star and Bronze Star. He also earned two Purple Hearts for battle injuries to his legs. Chapman's son said doctors wanted to amputate his legs. Instead, Chapman nursed himself back to health.

He is also survived by his companion of 25 years, Merrilee Kazarian, who describes herself as "Mrs. Creature"; another son, Grant Chapman of Las Vegas; step-daughter Elyse Maree Raljevich of Coto De Gaza, Calif.; sister Moea (Harry) Baty of Los Angeles; and several nieces and nephews.
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