Chatting with Julie Adams, the star who helped set the formula followed by the new Piranha 3DD.
From piranhas and sharks to brain-eating crabs and giant leeches, Hollywood has provided some frightening and improbable reasons over the years for why pretty girls in bikinis should stay out of the water. Long before this week's Piranha 3DD or even classics like Jaws, however, it was the lustful Gill Man from 1954's Creature From the Black Lagoon who first made young women think twice about going swimming.
A beauty-and-the-beast tale of an aquatic humanoid who falls for a female scientist during a research expedition to the Amazon, Creature helped inspire the 3D science fiction craze of the 1950s. It also made its young star, Julie Adams, sci-fi's first pin-up girl—and launched her distinguished career in film, TV, and on stage.
Still vibrant and active at age 85, Adams remains a popular draw at sci-fi and classic film conventions, where she's currently promoting her lively new autobiography, The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections From the Black Lagoon, which she cowrote with her son, Emmy Award winning editor Mitch Danton.
Over her lengthy and colorful career, Ms. Adams has seduced Elvis Presley and Dennis Hopper on screen, played John Wayne's wife, tussled in a burning basement with Barbara Stanwyck, and played the love interest to James Stewart, Rock Hudson, and Charlton Heston. She's been directed by Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh—and more recently has appeared in projects like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center and TV shows like CSI and Lost.
Yet Adams still remains best known for her role as Kay Lawrence, the sultry brunette in a plunging one-piece pined over by the Gill Man in Creature.
What was your initial reaction upon getting offered Creature?
[Laughs.] Well, I wasn't thrilled, you know, and I thought I could turn it down, but then I would go on suspension [from Universal Pictures] and wouldn't get paid ... and so I thought, well, the studio wants me to do it, what the hey, it might be fun. And it was!
What was director Jack Arnold like, and how did you two get along?
"I think there's a sweetness that saves the movie from being just a horror picture—and it has to do so much with the Creature, that we have an empathy for him."
I got along great with Jack Arnold, and he was a wonderful director. He was very low key, he seemed almost casual—but it was very easy to work with him. Any suggestion he made always made sense.
Did you interact much with William Alland, the producer?
Not that much, because he was not on the set that much—but I liked him. He was always very nice to all of us.
Alland played the reporter in Citizen Kane, and he apparently attended a dinner party hosted by Orson Welles while they were shooting Kane. Welles's lover Dolores Del Rio was also there, and she brought along Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Figueroa had heard a legend as a child about an Amazon water creature, half-man and half-lizard. And the story went that there was an Amazon village that would bring a virgin to the creature once a year in order for the creature not to terrorize the village.
Right. So Alland went home later and wrote Figueroa's story down. And then about 12 years later the whole 3D craze started, and at that point he pulled out the story and started to make a movie of it.
That's a very interesting story—it fits in, in a wonderful, cuckoo way.
Did you create some sort of a back story for your character while you were playing her?
I had thought about her, of course, that she was a doctor. I had one scene that I loved—where I was an ichthyologist pointing in a lecture about ancient fish or something. I loved that crazy scene. [Laughs.]
One of the things I've noticed in a lot of the '50s sci-fi films is that the women got to play scientists—you weren't always just love interests. Your character has a very intelligent quality, and it's explained in the film that you were crucial to Richard Dennings' character—to his research. Did you like that?
I did like that. Because I was smart in school, I always made good grades—so it was kind of nice to play somebody who seemed to be bright, and knew what she was doing, knew what her job was and did it very well.
Creature really seems to be your film, because the camera is focusing on you most of the time, especially in your private moments. You and the Creature also have a kind of bond, you sense that he's there even before the other scientists do. Did you feel that it was your film when you were making it?
I don't know that I thought it was my film ... but I did feel that she [Kay Lawrence] had a kind of understanding of the human part of the Creature. A sense that this was not just some misstep of nature, that there was something poignant, there was something moving, there were human qualities within this Creature.
Was that something you got from reading the script, or that you thought of adding on your own—or that the director suggested to you?
I think that was in reading the script and seeing where it was going. I felt that she had, perhaps, women's intuition—a sense that there was something more to this Creature than simply that it was a monstrous being.
That seems to be a big point that sci-fi films of that era were making, that science can only go so far. Frequently in the big '50s sci-fi films where there's some kind of a threat—a creature or some kind of alien—women's intuition is very powerful in understanding these things where science can't.