If Ben Chapman's name isn't exactly a household word, then at least one of the characters that he has portrayed in his screen career is -- it was Ben Chapman that viewers were watching in the rubber suit as he stalked his victims in Creature From the Black Lagoon. Born in Oakland, CA, in 1929, while his Tahitian parents were visiting America, Chapman grew up in Tahiti but came to the United States to live when he was 11. He attended school in San Francisco and earned money on the side working as a dancer and singer, doing Polynesian specialty numbers, in local night clubs. As was the case with many Californians who had unusual talents and were in need of money, he eventually gravitated toward Hollywood, making the rounds of the movie studios and the casting offices to let them know of his availability -- in a 1999 interview, Chapman also cited members of his family who had found work in movies, most notably exotic action star Jon Hall, whom he identified as a cousin. Chapman's first onscreen work was a small, uncredited role in Pagan Love Song, starring Esther Williams and Howard Keel, and he managed appearances in other movies before the draft and the Korean War took him out of Hollywood for two years.
He returned to work without skipping a beat and became a regular denizen on the Universal lot -- among the many small roles that he played was that of a Polynesian chieftain in a short film featuring Pinky Lee, Mamie Van Doren, and Lisa Gaye. It was while at Universal that the casting office suggested to director Jack Arnold that Chapman, who stood six foot five and was highly athletic, would be ideal to play the title role in Creature From the Black Lagoon. He played the creature (often referred to as the Gill Man) on land, while Ricou Browning portrayed the creature underwater. This dual casting has led to a certain confusion among fans and engendered a rivalry between the two actors that lasted into the 1990s, particularly as each has sought to take credit for aspects of the Gill Man's enduring appeal. Chapman's acting of the role -- to which he added some special touches of his own, particularly in the death scene -- coupled with Browning's underwater portrayal, ensured that the creature insinuated itself into the popular culture for decades to come, making such disputes relevant in the first place. Chapman subsequently appeared in one Ma & Pa Kettle movie, Ma & Pa Kettle at Waikiki, and in the low-budget Jungle Jim adventure Jungle Moon Men, both released in 1955. He did some television work during the late '50s and in between acting jobs tended bar in Malibu, CA. He moved to Hawaii in the 1960s and became a successful real estate executive, but as of the 1990s he was active on the movie convention circuit as a guest, based entirely on his work in Creature From the Black Lagoon. He should not be confused with the similarly named production executive Ben Chapman (1908-1991) who worked on movies and in television (including projects with Ricou Browning) as an assistant director, unit manager, and production supervisor from the 1940s until the 1980s.