Julie Adams, Damsel in Distress in 'Creature From the Black Lagoon,' Dies at 92

Creature from the Black Lagoon_Julie Adams_Still - Photofest - H 2017
Courtesy of Photofest

A leading lady at Universal in the 1950s, she had memorable stints on 'Perry Mason' and 'Murder, She Wrote' and played Jimmy Stewart's wife on TV.

Julie Adams, the comely brunette with the cascading curls best remembered as the damsel in distress in the 1954 horror classic Creature From the Black Lagoon, has died. She was 92.

Adams died early Sunday morning in Los Angeles, her son Mitchell Danton, a TV editor, told The Hollywood Reporter.

In more than six decades in film and on television, Adams also starred with Donald O'Connor in Francis Joins the WACS (1954), played opposite Elvis Presley in Tickle Me (1965) and appeared with Dennis Hopper in The Last Movie (1971) and with John Wayne in McQ (1974).

Fans of Murder, She Wrote know Adams for playing the eccentric realtor Eve Simpson on the long-running Angela Lansbury starrer, and in the early 1970s, she portrayed Jimmy Stewart's wife in the legendary actor's first foray into starring on his own series.

As a publicity stunt, Universal Studios once declared her legs "the most perfectly symmetrical in the world" and insured them for $125,000. And in "The Case of the Deadly Verdict," a 1963 episode of Perry Mason, Adams' character had the notable distinction of being one of the lawyer's few clients to be found guilty.

A standout in a series of quickly made Westerns at Paramount, Adams (then billed as Julia Adams) blossomed after she signed with Universal and was showcased in support of such stars as Arthur Kennedy in Bright Victory (1951), Stewart in Anthony Mann's Bend in the River (1952), William Powell in The Treasure of Lost Canyon (1952), Rock Hudson in The Lawless Breed (1953) and Van Heflin in Wings of the Hawk (1953).

Then the actress was offered the role that assured her a place in monster-movie history.

Seeking to cash in on the growing popularity of 3D films, Universal began production on Creature From the Black Lagoon. Jack Arnold, who had just done It Came From Outer Space, was tapped to direct.

Conceived as an underwater version of Beauty and the Beast, it featured a mythical sea monster dubbed "Gill-Man." Played by Ben Chapman and Ricou Browning, the creature menaced a scientific expedition to the Amazon. Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nestor Paiva and Whit Bissell were cast as researchers.

The studio wanted Adams to star as Carlson's girlfriend, Kay Lawrence, who would become the creature's object of desire. But Adams considered the whole thing a step down in her career.

"I thought, 'The creature from what? What is this?'" Adams said in a 2013 interview for the Horror Society, "because I had been working with some major stars and so on. But I read it and said, 'If I turn it down, I won't get paid and I'll be on suspension.' And then I thought, 'What the hay! It might be fun.' And of course, indeed it was. It was a great pleasure to do the picture."

A young Guillermo del Toro was a fan and years later used the movie as inspiration for The Shape of Water.

"The creature was the most beautiful design I'd ever seen," he told THR's Borys Kit in October 2017. "And I saw him swimming under Julie Adams, and I loved that the creature was in love with her, and I felt an almost existential desire for them to end up together. Of course, it didn't happen."

Creature From the Black Lagoon has become a cult classic, with Gill-Man joining the pantheon of Universal legendary monsters alongside Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man and The Mummy. It spawned the sequels Revenge of the Creature (1955), also in 3D, and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). Adams did not appear in those.

In her Horror Society interview, Adams offered one reason why the first film remains so popular. "I think the best thing about the picture is that we do feel for the creature. We feel for him and his predicament," she said.

She was born Betty May Adams on Oct. 17, 1926, in Waterloo, Iowa. Her father was a cotton buyer, and the family moved frequently as she was growing up. Two years after graduating from Little Rock High School in Arkansas, Adams was crowned Miss Little Rock in 1946.

She decided to move to Hollywood and try her luck as an actress, supporting herself as a secretary as she learned her craft. Her first break came in 1949 when she landed a small part on the NBC series Your Show Time.

After making her film debut in an uncredited role in Paramount's Red, Hot and Blue (1949), Adams was cast in a slew of Westerns. Then known as Betty Adams, she served as the female fixture in The Dalton Gang (1949), then played the heroine Ann in Hostile Country, Marshal of Helldorado, Crooked River, Colorado Ranger, West of the Brazos and Fast on the Draw — all released in 1950.

"The six movies were done in five weeks. It was economical to do it that way, but I never could remember who I was," Adams quipped in an interview on the Western Clippings website.

"We had six different scripts, but we shot all the scenes of the stagecoach together, then all of the ranch scenes, all at the same time. I had three or four wardrobe changes — a farmhouse dress, a stagecoach dress. I had a difficult time remembering who I was supposed to be. 'Am I the farm girl this time or the cowgirl?' Not that it made any real difference!"

After Creature From the Black Lagoon, Adams made films at Universal including 6 Bridges to Cross (1955) — the first time she was billed as Julie Adams — The Private War of Major Benson (1955), Away All Boats (1956), 4 Girls in Town (1957) and Slim Carter (1957).

Her other films included The Underwater City (1962), The Killer Inside Me (1976), The Fifth Floor (1978), Champions (1984), Catchfire (1990) and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (2006). She had a voiceover role in Roman Polanski's Carnage (2011).

On television, Adams' career spanned The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1955 to CSI: NY in 2007. In between, she appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and on Westerns (Maverick, The Rifleman, Bonanza), crime dramas (Mannix, The Streets of San Francisco, Police Woman), mysteries (Diagnosis Murder), medical shows (Dr. Kildare, Marcus Welby, M.D.), comedies (The Andy Griffith Show, Too Close for Comfort), primetime soaps (Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place) and daytime serials (General Hospital).

Adams said her favorite TV gig was the 1971-72 NBC comedy The Jimmy Stewart Show. Having known the actor for years, she was intrigued when she heard Stewart was going to star in a series in which he would play a folksy college professor. A lot of actresses wanted to portray his wife, but Adams had an edge.

"The day I tested for the part with Jimmy, I brought into play my genuine friendship and admiration I had for him as a person. I think that came through on the screen; we had nice chemistry together," Adams said in a 2013 interview with the Classic Film and TV Cafe blog.

"After the screen test, he gave me a little nod, and as I walked back to my dressing room, I thought, 'I think I have this part!' I was so thrilled. The show was not a success and only lasted 24 episodes. But, as I've often said, my idea of heaven was going to work with Jimmy Stewart every day for six months."

In 1955, Adams was cast with Ray Danton in the action film The Looters. The two married that year and remained together until their divorce in 1981. They also appeared onscreen in the feature Tarawa Beachhead (1958) and in a 1972 segment of the series Night Gallery, and he directed her in Psychic Killer (1975).

Adams and Danton had two children, Steve Danton, an actor and assistant director, and Mitchell.

After her divorce, she entered into a long-term relationship with TV and film writer Ronald M. Cohen (Blue, Twilight's Last Gleaming). He died in 1998.

In 2011, Adams published her autobiography, The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections From the Black Lagoon.

In summer 2013, Adams received proclamations from the L.A. City Council and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors for her contributions to the film industry. She continued acting into her nineties; her final role was in a 2018 short film inspired by her biography. She maintained contact with her fans through her website.

In addition to her sons, Adams is survived by daughter-in-laws Darragh and Louise and four grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that a memorial donation be made to The Nature Conservancy or the World Wildlife Fund.

Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.