Ricou Browning, who took to the water as the menacing Gill-Man in the Creature From the Black Lagoon and as the creative force behind the original Flipper movie and TV show, has died. He was 93.
Browning died Monday of natural causes at his home in Southwest Ranches, Florida, his daughter Kim Browning told The Hollywood Reporter. “He had a fabulous career in the film industry, providing wonderful entertainment for past and future generations,” she said.
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The Florida native also served as a stuntman on Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), doubled for Jerry Lewis in Don’t Give Up the Ship (1959) and “played all the bad guys in [TV’s] Sea Hunt,” he said in a 2013 interview.
Plus, Browning directed the harpoon-filled fight in Thunderball (1965), another underwater scene in Never Say Never Again (1983) and the hilarious Jaws-inspired candy bar-in-the-pool sequence in Caddyshack (1980).
Browning, who said he could routinely hold his breath for four minutes at a time, played the Gill-Man in the underwater scenes in Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), the Universal Pictures 3D classic that starred Julie Adams as the girlfriend of a researcher (Richard Carlson) on a scientific expedition to the Amazon.
Browning noted that his costume “was cumbersome at first. When I first put it on, it seemed awkward and clumsy,” he said. “But once I got into the movie, I forgot I had it on. I became the creature.”
With Gill-Man joining the Universal monster Hall of Fame alongside the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man and The Mummy, Browning returned for the sequels Revenge of the Creature (1955), also in 3D, and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).
Browning said he came up the idea for Flipper after he and Newt Perry, who had worked as Johnny Weissmuller’s stand-in on Tarzan films, captured fresh-water dolphins in the Amazon during a trip to South America.
“We brought them back to [a Florida state park in] Silver Springs,” Browning recalled. “I became their parent, apparently, and took care of them. One day, when I came home, the kids were watching Lassie on TV, and it just dawned on me: ‘Why not do a film about a boy and a dolphin?’”
Browning and his brother-in-law Jack Cowden wrote the story for what would become MGM’s Flipper (1963), starring Chuck Connors and, as his son, Luke Halpin, who both take care of an injured dolphin (real name: Mitzi). Halpin then returned for Flipper’s New Adventure (1964) and for the NBC adaptation that ran for three seasons, from 1964-67.
Browning also directed 37 episodes of the Florida Keys-set Flipper and was in charge of underwater operations on the show.
Browning was born on Feb. 16, 1930, in Fort Pierce, Florida. He attended Florida State University and worked for Perry as a performer in water shows at Weeki Wachee Springs, a Florida tourist attraction, and in underwater newsreels. He also was on the U.S. Air Force swim team.
Browning was charged with showing the area of Wakulla Springs, Florida, to location scouts from Universal who were seeking filming locations for Creature From the Black Lagoon. He also did some swim moves for them, and that led to his Gill-Man gig. (Ben Chapman played the beast on land in the first movie.)
“The lips of the suit sat about a half-inch from my lips, and I put the air hose in my mouth to breathe,” he said in a 2019 interview. “I would hold my breath and go do the scene, and I’d have other safety people with other air hoses to give me air if I needed it. We had a signal. If I went totally limp, it meant I needed it. It worked out well, and we didn’t have any problems.”
Browning said he filmed his scenes in wintertime, and it was pretty cold. “The crew felt sorry for me, so somebody said, ‘How would you like a shot of brandy?’ I said, ‘Sure,’” he recalled. “Another part of the crew [also] gave me a shot of brandy. Pretty soon they were dealing with a drunk creature.”
While filming Revenge of the Creature in St. Augustine, Florida, he said a turtle bit off one foot of his costume and swam away with it. “It was the last pair of feet that I had on the shoot, so the prop men and the other stunt divers had to chase that turtle down and get the thing out of his mouth,” he said.
After the Creature films, Browning appeared on a 1958 episode of the Lloyd Bridges-starring Sea Hunt, and producer Ivan Tors hired him to supervise the underwater photography on that syndicated adventure series as well as on CBS’ The Aquanauts.
(Tors also supplied Thunderball with divers and diving equipment and produced the Flipper films and TV show. In the ’60s, he named Browning president of his North Miami-based Ivan Tors Studio.)
Browning directed the features Salty (1973) — about a sea lion — and Mr. No Legs (1978); served as a technical adviser on Mike Nichols’ Day of the Dolphin (1973); and helmed episodes of the Dennis Weaver-starring CBS series Gentle Ben, about a bear.
In 1968, he was elected to lead the new Florida Motion Picture and Television Producers Association, and Film Florida awarded him its first Florida Legends Award in 2006.
Survivors include his four children, Ricou Browning Jr. (a marine coordinator, actor and stuntman like his dad), Renee, Kelly and Kim; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. His wife, Fran, died in March 2020.
What was it like growing up in the Browning household? “Every time he got an idea for a movie, he would bring the animals home,” Renee said. “We had a sea lion that sat at the dinner table. … We had otters, a baby black bear and a female peacock that would sit on our shoulder and drink iced tea out of our glass. All the kids in the neighborhood wanted to come over our house, because it was like a zoo.”
Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.
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