Monkey Business: The Rise and Fall of The American Gorilla-Suit Actor, Part 2

Monkey Business: The Rise and Fall of The American Gorilla-Suit Actor, Part 2

Greetings, readers.  Here today I bring you the second half and conclusion to my look into the great American actors who built careers playing gorillas.  In Part 1, I explored the early years of the phenomenon, into the mid-1950s.  In Part 2, I’ll be looking at the transition of gorilla-men from the silver screen to the television screen, and the eventual demise of the ape suit.  Once again, I am indebted to Mark Cofell of Gorilla Men in writing this article.

George Barrows

Born in New York City on February 17th, 1914, George Barrows did not get his start in films until 1936; his earliest listed gorilla role is an unconfirmed appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show in 1952.  His earliest undeniable gorilla suit role was as the surreal alien invader Ro-Man in the 1953 film ROBOT MONSTER.  In the film, Barrows wears a heavyset gorilla suit, sans mask, with a helmet that looks a little like an old-fashioned diving helmet with TV rabbit ears on top.  In shots where Barrows’ face would be visible through the mask, he appears to have a nylon stocking over his face, obscuring his features but not the shape of his head.  Additionally, he played a second role as Ro-Man’s commanding officer, the Great Guidance.

Barrows’ next major gorilla role was as “Goliath the Gorilla,” a murder suspect in 1954’s GORILLA AT LARGE.  In the film, an ex-employee is found dead outside Goliath’s tent, with evidence pointing to either a gorilla…or someone in a gorilla costume.

While Barrows had a few other gorilla-suit film roles — BLACK ZOO in 1963, THE GHOST IN THE INVISIBLE BIKINI in 1966, and HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE, 1967 — he performed for wider audiences through the medium of television, appearing as a gorilla in a 1964 episode of THE ADDAMS FAMILY (in which he became a pet to Pugsley and a domestic rival to Lurch), a 1965 episode of I LOVE LUCY (in which he menaced as a gorilla while fellow gorilla-suit thespian Bob Burns played a werewolf), two 1966 episodes of THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, a 1966 episode of THE HONEYMOONERS and an episode of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. from the same year.  In 1968, Barrows made an appearance as “Johann” in an episode of the show WILD WILD WEST, appropriately titled “The Night of the Simian Terror.”  I have been unable to determine so far as to whether “Johann” is the episode’s titular simian.

George Barrows retired from acting in 1982, and passed away in 1994 at the age of 80.

Janos Prohaska

Born in Budapest in 1919, Prohaska later emigrated to Hollywood, where be built an impressive career in the television industry, usually playing apes, bears and assorted alien monsters.

Perhaps Prohaska’s best-known “ape” performance is as the horned Mugato (named “Gumato” in the original script) on STAR TREK in 1968, specifically the episode “A Private Little War.”  Appearing as a white-furred gorilla with a large, rhinoceros-like horn and a row of spines down it’s back, the Mugato proved a memorable adversary for Kirk — and interestingly, in recent licensed STAR TREK novels, an intelligent Mugato appears as a Starfleet Officer, named Ensign Janos in Prohaska’s honor.

Prohaska’s earliest ape performance that I’ve been able to find evidence of is a 1963 episode of THE OUTER LIMITS in which he played “Darwin the Monkey.”  Following this, in 1965 he played opposite Raymond Burr on the show PERRY MASON, the episode “The Case of the Grinning Gorilla.”  He played a monkey on an episode of I LOVE LUCY, an episode of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, two episodes of LAND OF THE GIANTS, and three ape appearances on GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, one each in 1965, 1966, and 1967. He also played apes in episodes of THE RED SKELTON HOUR; LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE; and his final gorilla role, a 1973 episode of TEMPERATURES RISING.

In 1970, Prohaska played an ape on the big screen, in Woody Allen’s disowned PUSSYCAT, PUSSYCAT I LOVE YOU, and in 1971 as Heloise in ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES.  These are, to my knowledge, his only cinematic ape appearances.

According to Bob Burns, Prohaska was fiercely territorial regarding ape-work, and regarded any new ape-worker as an intrusion into an already-limited field.  Thus, when Burns got his start and met Prohaska, Burns got a rather chilly reception from the Hungarian, including a sharp verbal injunction not to touch Prohaska’s mask.

Janos Prohaska and his son Robert died in a plane crash in 1974.

Bob Burns

Bob Burns is perhaps best known these days as the world’s premier “Monster Kid” and the greatest collector and preserver of genre movie memorabilia; indeed, before any one else thought of trying to hang on to movie props for posterity, Bob was already filling his famous basement with them.  Bob’s 2001 book It Came From Bob’s Basement showcases many of the props and pieces he’s saved, as well as sharing the stories behind many of them — in a manner as if a favorite uncle, the one who sneaks you ice cream when your mother isn’t looking.  It is from this book that I first learned of criminally-unremembered monster-maker Paul Blaisdell, and it is from this book that I first became interested in the men in ape suits.

Striking up a friendship with George Barrows, and studying at the hairy feet of Charles Gemora, Burns and his wife Kathy put together his first gorilla suit in 1965, or shortly before.  His first ape appearance, as the menacing Kogar, came in 1965 in THE LEMON GROVE KIDS MEET THE MONSTERS.  That same year, Kogar menaced the Man of Steel in SUPERMAN VS. THE GORILLA GANG, and in 1966 Kogar menaced the titular “superhero” team in RAT PFINK A BOO BOO.  Kogar would pop up a couple more times in homages to the golden age of B-cinema, such as 2009’s DARK AND STORMY NIGHT.

However, Burns’ big break in monkey show business came in 1975, after he softened Kogar’s ferocious looks.  He quickly landed the role of Tracy the Gorilla in Filmation’s live-action series THE GHOST BUSTERS (predating the Bill Murray/Harold Ramis/Dan Aykroyd vehicle by almost a decade), starring Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch as two guys hunting ghosts with their pet gorilla in tow.  According to Burns, he walked into the audition in costume, and was told “Tracy thinks he’s a person.  What would Tracy do right now?” and so Burns, in costume, picked up a newspaper, sat down, crossed his legs and began reading.  The part was his.

While Burns has largely retired from the gorilla suit business, he occasionally still gets up to his old tricks — including appearances in the aforementioned DARK AND STORMY NIGHT and 2005’s THE NAKED MONSTER, and even speaking to school children about film special effects and demonstrating the latest incarnation of the Kogar/Tracy suit for them.  As an aside, among Burns’ collection lurks a fairly humble metal skeleton that was once the Eighth Wonder of the World.  Yes, Burns owns the original King Kong armature once used by Willis O’Brien.  And for his preservationist efforts, Burns was asked to appear in Peter Jackson’s 2005 spin on KING KONG — as a panicked bystander during Kong’s trip through the Big Apple.

Rick Baker

While special make-up effects wizard Rick Baker is perhaps better known for his werewolves (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, WEREWOLF, the 2010 WOLF MAN remake), no discussion of the modern gorilla suit actor would be complete without recalling his performance as King Kong in Dino De Laurentis’ 1976 remake of KING KONG.  A budding make up artist at the time, Baker both designed and wore the Kong suit for this film.  While financially successful, the critical response to the film was mixed.  It did lead to a sequel, KING KONG LIVES, but the less said about that film, the better.  Prior to this, Baker had appeared in a homemade ape suit in 1972’s THE THING WITH TWO HEADS, and in 1973’s SCHLOCK.

In 1984, Baker handled special make up effects to create the Mangani (‘great apes’) in GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN OF THE APES, a “realistic” look at the mythic King of the Jungle created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1916.  In 1988 Baker designed the ape suits for GORILLAS IN THE MIST, the docudrama about Dian Fossey, who was to gorillas as Jane Goodall is to chimpanzees.  With GORILLAS IN THE MIST, Baker changed the entire “man in an ape suit” game.  Prior to this, gorilla suits were largely about the myth of gorillas, the legendry of the great beast-men of African jungles.  No longer, though: Baker’s gorilla suits in GORILLAS IN THE MIST were so realistic, and the apes depicted in such a sympathetic light, that it was no longer about the myth of gorillas; it was about the actuality of gorillas.

After this, gorilla suits as a serious property began to tail off, with the last major use of an ape suit in a feature film being 1998’s MIGHTY JOE YOUNG remake.  Beyond this, ape suits have largely been relegated to camp and comedy, while “serious” ape work has become the realm of computer generated effects, such as 2005’s KING KONG, for which Andy Serkis provided motion capture work.

***

Gorilla suit work has been a…perhaps not noble, but at least notable, aspect of cinema since it’s earliest days.  The men in the furry suits performed grueling work to make the illusion come to life, and every one of them suffered for their art.  It’s not fair that they be forgotten, swept onto the dust heap of history as examples of a less technologically-sophisticated Hollywood era.  And to be perfectly honest…it’s men like these that I became a student of history for.  And not just these men, not just Charlie Gemora and Crash Corrigan and George Barrows…but for everyone like them, every story that will be lost if not remembered, transcribed, and transmitted.  That’s what history is — not an endless dry parade of names and dates, such as is taught in the classroom, but stories of men and women and, yes, gorillas.  It is stories such as these that I take pride in remembering, and transmitting to others.  As Grandfather Thucydides wrote, “I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”


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Bill Adcock likes long walks off short piers and eating endangered species. In addition to his work for the Blood Sprayer, his writing can also be found at his personal site, Radiation-Scarred Reviews, which he's maintained since 2008. Bill has also contributed, as of this writing, to GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY issues 2 and 3, and CINEMA SEWER issue 27.

2 Responses to “Monkey Business: The Rise and Fall of The American Gorilla-Suit Actor, Part 2”

  1. I ENJOYED YOUR STORY OF ALL THE APE MEN. ALL MY LIFE AND STILL I HAVE COLLECTED AND BUILT MY OWN GORILLA SUIT IN TRIBUTE TO THIS GUYS. I HAVE THE MOVIES AND LOVE THE OLD MONSTER MAG’S THAT SHOWED THE PHOTOS. GREAT STORY AND GOD BLESS YOU. LARRY ( POO-POO THE GORILLA, MY STAGE NAME GIVEN TO ME BY MY DAUGHTER ) PALMER.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Amusingly, Blaisdell’s original designs were rejected, until he cut down the bulging rear skulls and resealed the heads.  The original, watermelon-shaped heads can be seen in some publicity photos.  He also re-utilized his “grease gun full of chocolate syrup” technique when a farmer’s bull gores a Saucer-man through the eyes, though the scene was cut down before release due to excessive goriness.  While most of the Saucer-men were played by little people, some doubling was done by Blaisdell himself, and his good friend, Gorilla Man Bob Burns. […]

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