In the early stages of my research it became quickly apparent that the information in print or on the web about gorilla suit performers was limited at best.
Both Ray “Crash” Corrigan and Charles Gemora have websites that highlight their careers; Ray is more prevalent in the public eye because of his status as Western serial star and Charley was recently acknowledged on the latest release of WAR OF THE WORLDS for his hand in the Martian construction and performance. The remaining handful of men are known or appreciated by a few. The nature of their profession generally precluded screen credit or public knowledge of their efforts. The illusion of a wild, hairy brute could be undone by admitting there was a man behind the grunts and jungle savagery.
Steve Calvert was a second generation gorilla man, the inheritor of Corrigan’s suit and legacy. Appearing in both film and the evolving medium of television, Calvert was a strong presence in 1950’s entertainment. He had both the ability to horrify the audience and tickle their funnybone.
Steve retired from the business nearly 50 years ago but fortunately for his fans, he was interviewed by writer/director/producer Ted Newsom before he passed away. Ted’s article was one of his earliest journalistic efforts and is possibly the sole account of Steve’s experiences from the man himself. Recently I was contacted by Mr. Newsom who graciously suggested running the article on Gorillamen.com. I happily accepted but also asked if there was anything he would care to add, always ravenous for any tidbit of gorilla man lore. Ted has updated his article with new facts and a host of wonderful anecdotes.
Gorilla Men is proud to reprint the expanded version of “CONFESSIONS OF A HOLLYWOOD GORILLA” that appeared in FILMFAX 16 back in 1989.
"I Was a Simian Stand-In!"
CONFESSIONS OF A HOLLYWOOD GORILLA
Veteran Stuntman Steve Calvert was one of Hollywood's most Harried Actors
Article by Ted Newsom
During his 20-year career in films, Steve Calvert wrestled with Superman, Jungle Jim and Lassie, shared monkeyshines with Ed Wynn, Bob Hope and Buster Keaton, and even conquered the world single-handedly. Yet the most bleary-eyed film buffs wouldn't even recognize Calvert on the street for the simple reason that he never showed his face.
A bartender at Ciro's in the evening, Calvert moonlighted - or, rather, sunlighted - as a stunt man, movie double and movie extra beginning in 1937. Close friendship with actor Robert Lowery resulted in his joining the Screen Extra's Guild, the forerunner to his membership in the Screen Actors Guild. Then in 1948, cowboy actor Ray "Crash" Corrigan decided to sell his gorilla costume.
Calvert poses for a gag shot with his wife and daughters outside his home, circa 1953.
Calvert borrowed $1800 for a down payment and headed for the Corriganville Ranch, where the movie stunt man taught Calvert the walk, mannerisms and psychology of the great ape.
"You have to reverse your human instincts and thought patterns", explained Calvert in his San Fernando Valley home. "You don't walk around, you lumber through. You act ferocious - not because you're antagonistic, but to scare the humans away so they won't give you any unwanted trouble."
Calvert studied simians in zoos and on film for six months, aping the apes, basing his characterization on Gargantua, Ringling Brothers' showpiece. He also used those six months to get in top shape to handle the Kong- sized costume, which weighed 85 pounds.
"The temperature inside that suit got up to 125 degrees," recalled Calvert. ”Any longer than five minutes in the headpiece and I'd black out from lack of oxygen."
Just two weeks after buying the costume, Steve chased Johnny Weissmueller through the backlot sets of one of the first "Jungle Jim" pictures. "Sam Katzman hired me at $200 a day for nine days. That took care of the down payment," he laughs. “The facemask was detailed enough to take big close-ups," remembers Calvert proudly. "On JUNGLE JIM they used a 2-inch lens, filling the screen with just my head, and it looked great!"
Calvert's gorilla - with its huge shoulders, oversized teeth and wild, matted fur - was far more frightening than his "gorilla" competitors. Diminutive Charlie Gemorra, through his ape suit was more anatomically accurate, was too small to inspire terror. George Barrows, Calvert's main competitor, had greater size and bulk but maintained an erect, very human posture, spoiling the animalistic illusion.
Apeman Steve Calvert gets a helping hand (actually a foot) from his wife.
Throughout the 1950's, Steve Calvert became the set piece of a number of B-pictures. The realism of his gorilla costume, though, was often at odds with incredible plots.
BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA saw Lugosi as a mad doctor matching wits with a pseudo Martin-and-Lewis duo named Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo. In the movie, Bela transforms the Dino-clone Mitchell into an ape (No, he doesn't sing "Gorilla My Dreams").
In BRIDE OF A GORILLA a voodoo curse changed a gaunt Raymond Burr into a werewolf-ape (Calvert again) much to the consternation of his fiancée, the lovely Barbara Payton. Attempting to emulate the Val Lewton style of psychological subtlety, writer-director Curt Siodmak kept Calvert's on-screen gorilla appearances to a minimum, to keep up the facade of ambiguity: is Burr an ape, or just imagining it?
Out of all these movies, Calvert's favorite was Adrian Weiss's BRIDE AND THE BEAST. In this clump of lunacy written by none other than Ed Wood, a big game hunter keeps an angora-loving ape (Calvert, of course) in a cage at home. The hunter's fiancée develops a strange (!) and mutual (!!) attraction to the ape, who also is attracted to her fluffy angora sweater. Calvert's gorilla is shot dead by the brave (or jealous?) husband too early in the film, at which point it becomes a jungle-movie stock shot festival. In the insane climax, though, it is revealed that the leading lady was a gorilla in a past life, and the film ends happily, with the woman setting up housekeeping with her simian boyfriend, leaving the husband to finish honeymoon alone.
"I did a 15-foot deadfall from a balcony in that one," explained Calvert. "Mattresses and cardboard boxes helped break my fall, but the metal framework of the face mask really slammed into me. Whew! Needless to say, they saved that shot in the film for the last!"
Since the script called for two gorillas to appear on screen at the same time, Calvert called his friend Bobby Small, a circus clown and stuntman, to don the second costume.
Along the way, television tapped Steve's hairy, padded shoulders. He played in comedy skits with Bob Hope, Ed Wynn, Tennessee Ernie Ford and even a skinny comic named Johnny Carson. His TV appearances with Hope led to a role in THE ROAD TO BALI in which the gorilla takes a romantic shine to the comedian.
"I took my 18-month-old son Billy down to the set," Steve recalls grinning," and Dorothy Lamour fell in love with him. She'd hold him on her lap, tickling him and playing with him. The A.D. (assistant director) would call, but she'd say, 'Later, I'm having fun!' They were inseparable - until Billy wet all over her sarong, of course."
Calvert found Hope "great fun to work with, wonderful. Bing, though, was a little harder to get to . He didn't like working with animals. We're natural scene stealers, you know."
Then in 1953, Calvert's son Bill realized a little boy's dream when he met George Reeves on the set of TV's SUPERMAN, when Steve did a couple days as the titular character in the "Jungle Devil" episode.
"I remember going into this office and everyone was playing cards," recalled Bill Stevens, Calvert's son. "Like a typical five year old dork, I asked George Reeves, 'Do you really fly up in the air?' And he said, 'No that's just on television.' And I remember that he and the whole room smelled like cigarettes."
Calvert explains some of the drawbacks of the family business to his young son, Billy.
His father, however, encountered some super problems.
"The producers wanted an albino gorilla, so we sprayed the suit and the head silver. That spray deteriorated the rubber and the head started to rot! It cost me $350 to get the head remade, so I just about broke even on the show."
Another Reeves (no relation to George) was beefy B-picture tough guy Richard Reeves, who became Calvert's pal. "We saw each other a lot - mostly in the unemployment line," Steve says.
Calvert got out of the hairy suit and into a tin one to menace Reeves in TARGET-EARTH in 1954. In this film, an army of cyclopean Venusian robots conquer Earth with their death ray. "I was the whole army!" explains Calvert gleefully. "The general, the captain and the private! I'd walk down the street, they'd cut to a close-up of Richard Denning or somebody else and cut back to me walking the other way, supposedly another robot."
He recalled a dicey moment in the cumbersome metal suit when a marauding robot was to crash through the hotel window and step inside onto a table. "The candy glass was shattered all over the table and in those metal boots it was hard to keep by balance on the glass. I slid a little-- didn't fall, but almost."
"I hired Steve because I'd done the Lugosi picture with him," remembered producer Herman Cohen. "He was a good guy, a friend. I knew him as the bartender at Ciro's, which was THE big night club on Sunset. Years later when I did KONGA, he was my first choice to play the gorilla, but he'd retired by then."
Calvert played both a gorilla and a robot in BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS (his pal Small joined him when both characters appeared together in the comedy climax), donned a grizzly-bear outfit for bits on BAT MASTERSON and LASSIE and made countless public appearances in the gorilla costume, including a joint appearance with Bela Lugosi at the premiere of HOUSE OF WAX.
The excellent Lugosi biography by Robert Cremer takes at face value an anecdote told to Cremer by Ed Wood about the appearance. Supposedly, Lugosi objected loud and long at having to appear with a guy in an ape-suit and balked en route, refusing to have anything to do with it. "I got along fine with Bela," remembered Steve. "I don't remember anything like that at all. They picked me up on the way to the theater, I rode down with them, and he led me into the theater on a chain. We'd worked together before. I don't know why he'd be embarrassed. After all, he was dressed up like Dracula himself."1
Through it all, Calvert's face was never seen.
"I was always shy," he admits, "so I felt safe behind the mask. As long as nobody knew who I was, I could portray anything. But if I tried it barefaced, I'd just freeze up."
Even on the rare occasions that Steve Calvert received screen credit, he was never identified as the gorilla.
Calvert and ape suit get some special personal attention from his wife, circa 1960
"Audiences were aware of how unmanageable gorillas were, how awesome. The studios kept up the misconception that the gorilla was real, and I never insisted on screen credit. It would've spoiled the illusion."
Many of his lesser appearances have faded from memory, but one stands out from the rest - a skit he did with Buster Keaton.
"It was the best comedy I ever worked on. I forget the picture, but I recall every moment of the particular scene. It's one of those things an actor - or whatever you want to call me - runs into once in a lifetime. There were no setups or rehearsals, we just fell into a bit, and it rolled and rolled."
"Keaton's asleep in the barbershop chair, getting a shave. I lumber in. The barber does a double take, rolls his eyes and scrams out. I pick up the razor, sniff it, then smell the shaving cream, lick it, then finish the shave Buster wakes up, does this droll double take and then calmly strolls to a table tennis setup. He picks up a ball and paddle, looks over at me. I walk over, nod, and pick up the other paddle. Then we start this crazy game of ping-pong.
"It was all ad-libbed and the cameras kept running. Our minds seemed perfectly synchronized. I'd grunt and get surly, then Buster would give me this deadpan disapproving look, then I'd turn away, embarrassed. I'd do a move, and Buster would do a take, then he'd do some business and I'd do a bigger take. Then I'd imitate his business and he'd pull an even bigger take. Keaton was fantastic, a pure pantomime artist. Maybe we were a little alike in a way, in that our characterizations came from posture and gestures - not facial movements. That was the most satisfying performance of my life"
Outside interests and a heart attack led to Steve's retirement from films in the early 1960s. "You might work 20 weeks in a row, then not work for more than a year."
Steve Calvert gave the costume and mask to Western Costume. Over the years, the rubber and hair disintegrated and fell away until the only part left was the mask's metal framework. This "went missing" from Western Costume and ended up in the collection of Forrest J. Ackerman.
In his "retirement" years, he worked steadily as a carpenter for a Los Angeles video store chain. "I wouldn't mind getting back into the business again," he admitted, "but not in the ape suit. I'm too old for gorilla warfare.
Ted Newsom knew Steve for almost 15 years, meeting the gorilla man back in 1977. They met through Calvert's son Bill, a friend of Ted's wife and even shared an apartment together when that marriage later dissolved. Ted describes the former screen terror as a "..very serene guy". Their connection went beyond reporter and story. Both men had struggled with alcohol - "Steve was sober for the last 20 some years of his life; I never knew him when he was drinking. AA gave him balance and sobriety, and he introduced me to it."
Ted spoke at his funeral in 1991.
Ted Newsom concluded his article revisions with this recollection:
“I invited him to a couple of sci-fi conventions as a guest, which gave him a lot of smiles, realizing that the work and fun he'd had as an ape had affected to many people over the years. He got a big kick out of the idea that anyone would ask him to autograph photos from his films.”
With Steve Calvert's movies and television appearances readily available on DVD, many of them inexpensive to purchase, his beastly mug will be enjoyed for years to come.
November 16 Update
Trailer for BRIDE OF THE GORILLA
You can find Ted's latest film on Amazon.com - THE NAKED MONSTER
The IMDB describes it as.. "Using soundtracks and extensive footage from many old movies, this spoof/homage of 1950's science-fiction films brings back many favorite actors from these classic movies, some reprising their former roles, to help destroy a giant stop-motion monster that is threatening to destroy Los Angeles."
In the director's own words (from Cascadia Con): "What began as a summer lark became a magnum opus. Whatever the result, we accomplished what we wanted to do: a sci-fi monster movie with the greatest sci-fi stars of the 1950s.We shot the film in only 21 days by stretching the schedule over 20 years, and brought it in under the estimated budget of $375 million, with state-of-the-art SPFX (circa 1957), presented in Monsterama, a unique new process that makes viewers imagine they are watching a real motion picture"
(1)Ed Wood was a close associate of Bela in his twilight years. One evening Ed was summoned to the Lugosi abode with an order to bring scotch. Arriving around 3:00 am, Ed Wood found the horror icon distraught and brandishing a pistol. Lugosi spoke of wanting to die but was coaxed into relinquishing the firearm. Pressed about what had set him off, Lugosi lamented about his current status.
Passage quoted from the Lugosi biography THE MAN BEHIND THE CAPE
Pg 217– Pg 218
“Some kids wrote to the television station the played DRACULA and asked if Bela Lugosi was still alive.: Tears streamed down his face as he continued: “The kids, they see my old movies. You know, Eddie, the kids are not dumb today like many would like us to believe. They know the pictures are not new. They can add! NO wonder kids ask if I am alive – or dead.” Then growing angry, he said: “What do you think we can do about that Eddie? You are the writer, You are the promoter. How are you going to tell those kids that Bela Lugosi is not dead!”
Ed’s head swam with desperate schemes to keep the spark of hope alive. “How about a personal appearance, Bela? If they see you in the flesh, they’ll know that Bela Lugosi is still here. What do you say?”
“A personal appearance. Hmmmm. Yes! I do it, Eddie!”
Eddie was both relieved and panic-stricken – he didn’t have the slightest idea of where to begin.
Alex Gordon came to the rescue with a proposal from Warner Brothers for Bela to appear at the Paramount Theater’s premiere of the HOUSE OF WAX. Bela was reluctant, but his friends finally prevailed. Alex arranged to meet Bela at his apartment with a chauffeured limousine. Bela climbed in wearing tux and
Dracula cape, but a circuitous route to the theater immediately aroused his suspicion.
“Alex, where are we going? This isn’t the way to the Paramount. Where are you taking me?”
“Oh it’s just a shortcut, Bela. Relax. We’ll get there,” Alex said, doing his damndest to squelch the note of anxiety in his voice.
Moments later the limousine stopped in front of the Mayfair Hotel.
“Why do we stop here, Alex?” Bela asked.
Almost in a whisper, Alex said, “To pick up a gorilla.”
“What do you mean gorilla?” Bela shouted, as he struggled to get out of the car.
“I told you Bela, that this is a publicity stunt. All you have to do is hold him on a chain and walk into the theater for your interview. It’s good publicity.”
With that, Alex jumped out of the limousine. He returned minutes later with a man dressed p in Ray “Crash” Corrigan’s gorilla costume. Bela was drenched in chagrin by the time they pulled up in front of the theater. The searchlights were focused n Maureen O’Hara, Rock Hudson, and Tony Curtis as they moved through the ogling fans as Bela made an unceremonious exit from the limousine at the end of a playful gorilla’s chain, the camera’s immediately switched focus.
Alex recalled the disastrous sequence of events: “I tried to get Bela over to the refreshment bar where he was to be served a glass of milk, but the gorilla was jumping around scaring the audience, and Bela didn’t know enough to let go of the chain. When they finally got to the refreshment bar, Bela thought he was supposed to pull a Dracula stunt, so he grabbed one of the girls and bit her on the neck. She immediately dumped a big glass of milk all over him!”
When Alex got Bela into the lobby, the news commentator, Shirley Thomas, had forgotten her prepared interview. Bela preferred prepared interviews, because he was hard of hearing. When Shirley asked questions at random, Bela answered according to the prearranged order. It was total chaos.
COMMENT LEFT BY MASK MAKER AND MUSICIAN, VERNE LANGDON
The following statement in the latter part of the Steve Calvert article is erroneous: "...Steve Calvert gave the costume and mask to Western Costume. Over the years, the rubber and hair disintegrated and fell away until the only part left was the mask's metal framework. This "went missing" from Western Costume and ended up in the collection of Forrest J. Ackerman..." Regardless of however Mr. Calvert disposed of Ray's suit, and whatever it was that Mr. Calvert handed over to Western Costume, it was Ray "Crash" Corrigan himself who came to Don Post Studios in 1963 0r 1964 - at my personal invitation - to have a life mask done of himself which we added to our Don Post Private Collection. When Ray came back to see his mask hanging on the wall, and receive a complimentary copy we made for him, he presented me with the armature for his gorilla head. As was very often the case, I donated it to Forry for his collection, and within two or three years it disappeared from Forry's collection, as "FJA" loved to loan, or often outright give, his artifacts to 'adoring' fans. In the interest of keeping the record straight, and with my hunblest apologies to the memory of Mr. Calvert or whomever else took it upon himself to ad-lib that piece of 'data', it is incorrect information. What I am giving you is the correct origin of the Corrigan armature in Forrest J Ackerman's collection