Movies didn’t invent rubber monster suits to fool audiences. That credit might rest with American showman P.T. Barnum who would dress a performer in an ape suit as part of his circus sideshow. But an ape suit is probably where the tradition of suit acting in the cinema had its roots when an uncredited actor appeared as a primate in the 1918 silent film Tarzan of the Apes. A decade later the compact Charles Gemora would get credit (and start a career impersonating apes) for donning a gorilla suit and playing “The Ape” in The Leopard Lady. Of course there is a long history of hokey rubber suit monsters from the silly dinosaur in Unknown Island (1948) to the endearingly DIY styling of the sea monster in The Horror of Party Beach (1964).
But it was Japanese special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya and performer Haruo Nakajima who helped elevate suit acting to an art form in 1954 with Godzilla.
Filmmaker Frank H. Woodward was so impressed by the work these performers did that he dedicated a documentary Men in Suits (2012) to them and their craft.
“What I’ve always loved about monster movies, especially the ones I grew up on like Creature from the Black Lagoon and Star Wars, is that they made magic into reality,” Woodward said. “To my young eyes, George Lucas went out and rounded up every beastie in Central Casting to make the Cantina Bar come alive. And those creatures were there! You could feel the space they occupied. The way smoke and light curved around their horns or how their tentacles squirmed around when they moved. Later, of course, I realized that squirm was just loose latex, but the magic that made Greedo feel like an actual threat to Han Solo came from someplace else. It came from the actor underneath the rubber. The guy in the suit.”
Movies have used other techniques to make us believe that fantastical creatures are real. Willis O’Brien famously employed stop motion animation to bring King Kong, The 8th Wonder of the World, to life. Other films have used make up, prosthetics, and costuming as opposed to full on rubber suits as in the old Frankenstein and The Wolf Man or the original Planet of the Apes or with Ron Perlman’s Hellboy. More recently Andy Serkis and teams of digital artists have produced amazingly subtle work with motion capture suits and CGI in films like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Planet of the Apes reboot.
But there is something special about the practical effect of men in suits.
Woodward explained his fascination with them: “It was only when I was introduced to more intricate characters like the Predator and those gorillas in the mist that I came to respect the actor inside. It was their movement, the way they held their body, and, if they were lucky to have use of their own eyes, the way they engaged their fellow actors. That made the reality of a creature suit totally magical.”
Here’s a list paying tribute to performers who not only endured the agony and unique challenges of wearing painfully heavy creature suits but who also elevated it to an art form. They made us believe apes, kaiju, aliens, and other monsters were real in the context of their films. Since narrowing the list to 10 was brutal, I went with not just the best suit actor performances but with films that were also great and in which the suit performance was key.
Top 10 Men in Suits Creature Performances:
1. Gojira/Godzilla (1954)
The King of the Monsters serves up the undisputed king of suit acting: Haruo Nakajima (who passed away August 7, 2017). Nakajima was 25 years old when he first put on the Gojira suit that weighed more than 200 pounds (which was probably more than the 5’ 6” actor weighed). Temperatures inside the suit could rise past a hundred degrees and the actor often found himself in pools of sweat that collected inside the suit. But Nakajima never let the pain or hardship of moving inside this creature suit appear visible to the audience. What we saw was an amazing creature come to astonishing life on screen.
As the suit improved over the two decades Nakajima played Gojira, he was able to improve his performance in each of the 11 films he appeared in as Gojira. One of the reasons Godzilla is such an iconic and memorable monster is that Nakajima is inside that suit performing live and giving Big G a truly big and unique personality.
2. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Okay, I could do an entire list of 10 great suit performances just from Japanese kaiju films like Godzilla and Gamera but I want a list that reflects more of the diversity of the craft. I did, however, want to highlight at least one kaiju baddie that faced off against Godzilla and after consulting with a fellow kaiju fan we decided the best example would be Hirose Shoichi as Ghidorah because not only is Ghidorah the first real villain Godzilla had to face, but also because the three-headed costume itself was such an unwieldy challenge.
Of course, I also have to give a shout out to Kenpachirô Satsuma as Hedorah, the Smog Monster. That costume looked impossibly heavy and difficult to work in as well. Satsuma would later take over the duties of playing Godzilla from Nakajima in 1984.
3. The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)
It took two actors to bring The Gill Man to life: Ben Chapman when the creature was on land and Ricou Browning for the underwater scenes. Also key to making this monster so effective was the suit created by Bud Westmore, Jack Kevan, Chris Mueller, and Millicent Patrick (although her involvement was uncredited and that’s a whole other story). In order to create the Gill-Man suits (there were more than one since the two actors were significantly different in height and one had to go into the water), full body casts of both actors had to be made and the suit took months to make. It’s especially impressive to see how well the suit looked and worked underwater and how beautiful Browning’s movements were for the Gill-Man swimming.
4. The Shape of Water (2017)
It seems appropriate to go from the Gill Man to the Amphibian Man created by Doug Jones for Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water. The film pays obvious tribute to The Creature From the Black Lagoon, of which both Jones and Del Toro are long-time fans. Jones is the finest suit actor working today and this film represents not just his best work but the film that showcases him in the best way. Jones also excelled in Del Toro’s Hellboy (as Abe Sapien) and in Pan’s Labyrinth (as both Fauno and the Pale Man).
In The Shape of Water, Jones not only manages to look graceful in a heavy, painful suit but he also gets to dance like Fred Astaire in a dream sequence. This film is a fairy tale for anyone who felt like Julie Adams and the Gill Man should have lived happily ever after together.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Dan Richter’s appearance as a man-ape in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey may have been brief but its impact was phenomenal, both in terms of its influence on cinema and its position in the narrative of the film. Richter was a mime and he helped choreograph the Dawn of Man sequence in Kubrick’s film. It was a turning point in the epic film as Richter’s man-ape plays with a bone and discovers its potential as a tool and weapon. You could say it represented the moment when primitive man first discovers technology. The sequence was breathtaking and one of the most memorable in film history.
6. Alien (1979)
Horror is as much about what you don’t see as what you do. Ridley Scott masterfully ratcheted up the tension in this sci-fi horror film by teasing the audience with hints of what the alien creature was and what it could do before letting you catch ever so brief glimpses of what he actually looked like. Bolaji Badejo brought the first xenomorph to life in 1979 and it was the only time he enacted the role even though the film launched a profitable franchise. In fact, Alien was the only feature film this 6’ 10” Nigerian man ever made. But if you are only going to make one, this was an unforgettable one and he helped to create one of the most terrifying monsters of all time. Sadly, the actor died of sickle cell anemia in 1992.
7. Predator (1987)
Kevin Peter Hall’s exquisitely intimidating performance as the lethal alien at the center of Predator helped launch this film as a blockbuster franchise. The alien being may have been invisible for most of the movie but when he finally appears in all his glory it is a sight to behold. He repeated the role for Predator 2.
8. Gorillas in the Mist (1988)
Make up artist and creature designer Rick Baker deserves as much credit as any of the actors who have worked in his creature suits or make up. Sadly, some brilliant work he did was wasted in awful films such as the 1976 King Kong remake and Greystoke, Legend of Tarzan. But in 1981, the Academy essentially had to create an Oscar for make up effects in order to recognize his work on An American Werewolf in London.
For Gorilla in the Mist, the biography of naturalist Dian Fossey, Baker would create a mix of make up, puppets, and gorilla suits to bring to life the gorillas that Fossey studied and befriended in the jungle. As Fossey’s beloved Digit, John Alexander led a group of actors and mimes that would interact extensively with Sigourney Weaver’s Fossey on screen. Alexander’s performance is moving and absolutely convincing. This is an instance where the suit actor is not creating some fantastical creature or terrifying monster but rather making us forget that there is even an actor onscreen. Audiences were completely taken in by the work he and Baker did, and believed that they were seeing real gorillas on screen.
9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
As with Baker, Jim Henson was a genius when it came to creating creatures. In Henson’s case he generally worked with puppets in innovative ways to give us characters on Sesame Street, The Muppets, and to create films such as The Dark Crystal. But for the first theatrical film to bring the famous TMNT comic book characters to life Henson’s Creature Shop designed some “rubber suits.” The style of the suits fittingly drew on the Japanese tokusatsu style of special effects. There were two sets of suits made for the four teenage mutant turtles, one that was heavier and more detailed for the dialogue scenes and then lighter weight ones for action scenes and stunt work. The facial expressions were controlled from inside the suits via motorized cables.
With the exception of Josh Pais, who played Raphael and voiced the character, the other three turtles required two actors to bring them to life on the big screen. David Forman was in the suit for Leonardo with Brian Tochi providing the voice; Leif Tilden was Donatello with Corey Feldman as the voice actor; and Michelan Sisti was Michaelangelo with Robbie Rist voicing. TMNT may not be high art but it was lots of fun and the suit actors prove far more engaging and appealing than the newer CGI turtles in the rebooted franchise.
10. Star Wars (1977)
And, finally, let’s end with a film that is just overflowing with monsters, creatures, robots, and all sorts of impressive work. The first Star Wars (yeah I know we are supposed to call it A New Hope now) gave us Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca in a furry suit, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker hidden inside the droids C-3PO and R2D2, David Prowse beneath the Darth Vader suit with James Earl Jones’ voice, and a host of aliens and creatures in the Cantina scene. George Lucas’ epic Saturday morning serial ignited imaginations with what could be done.
The film is a celebration of behind-the-scenes ingenuity in creating all these amazing creatures and aliens on what was by no means a big budget. The Cantina scene alone is guaranteed to put a smile on your face and make your jaw drop at all the possibilities film is capable of. And that is essentially what suit acting at its best is all about, the joy and wonder of a team of supremely talented individuals creating something that had never existed before on screen.
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Stopping at 10 is painful because there are so many more I could include. So here are some honorable mentions: Teruo Aragaki in a number of Gamera films; Kevin Peter Hall as Harry in Harry and the Hendersons; Brian Steele (and as mentioned earlier Jones) in Hellboy I and II; John Rosengrant and Mark ‘Crash’ McCreery as raptors in Jurassic Park; and Tom Woodruff, Jr. as Gillman in Monster Squad and as the title character in Pumpkinhead.