Julie Adams, a Hollywood film and television actress for more than six decades widely remembered as the terrorized swimmer in the 1954 cult classic “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” died Sunday in Los Angeles. She was 92.
Her death was confirmed by her son Steve Danton.
A lithe beauty from Arkansas — she was Miss Little Rock of 1946 — Adams subdued her Southern drawl, got into the movies in 1949 and appeared in about 50 feature films with a Who’s Who of leading men, including Charlton Heston, Glenn Ford, Tony Curtis and Elvis Presley.
Her starring breakthrough under a long-term contract with Universal-International Pictures was Anthony Mann’s “Bend of the River” (1952), in which she played a frontier woman who falls for James Stewart on the Oregon Trail in a cast that also included Rock Hudson and Arthur Kennedy. It was one of the top box-office hits of the year.
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A year later, she starred with Tyrone Power in “The Mississippi Gambler” and with Van Heflin in “The Wings of a Hawk,” a tale of guerrilla resistance to federal despotism under President Porfirio Díaz of Mexico. Critics called both films standard, if scenic, but praised Adams’ performances.
Her slender, expressive face, flitting from joy to love to fear as needed but never far from tears, became familiar to millions on television. She was seen on more than 90 series, including “The Rifleman,” “Bonanza” and “Perry Mason” in the 1960s; “Mannix” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” in the ‘70s; “Capitol” in the ‘80s; and “Murder, She Wrote” (1987-93), on which she played a real estate agent and friend of the show’s central character, writer and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury.
In a retrospective interview with film historian Tom Weaver in 1991, Adams voiced no serious regrets, although she noted, “No matter what you do, you can act your heart out, but people will always say, ‘Oh, Julie Adams — “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”‘”
She was initially skeptical about the role and the movie, which seemed to her like a horror comic book. She was to play the victim of a gruesome merman who takes her off to his grotto, with filming done both above and under water in 3-D black and white. She considered rejecting the part but feared suspension by Universal, which, after all, had made “Phantom of the Opera” in 1925 and “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” in 1931.
Like the title character in the classic 1933 movie “King Kong,” the creature is a proud, sensitive monster who falls in love at first sight with a beauty and must die for his devotion. In a lost world up the Amazon, the creature lurks in the depths as Kay Lawrence (Adams) and two scientists (Richard Carlson and Richard Denning) chug upstream on an expedition aboard their laboratory boat.
In a white one-piece bathing suit, Kay takes a swim in a murky lagoon as the creature, a reptilian terror about the size of a tall (costumed) man with gills, webbed feet and hands, stalks her with backstrokes from below in a submarine pas de deux.
At one point he glides up and touches her foot. Startled, she dives but finds nothing in the murk. Later, the creature is caught and caged. He escapes and carries her to his cavern, where armed men ultimately arrive to rescue her.
Critics were unenthusiastic. But the film, directed by Jack Arnold, was a hit, taking in $1.3 million at the box office (a little more than $12 million in today’s money), even though not every theater showed it in 3-D. It generated two sequels, “Revenge of the Creature” (1955) and “The Creature Walks Among Us” (1956), both starring other women.
The original attracted later generations of fans when it was rereleased to theaters in 1975 and on home video in 1980.
Director Guillermo del Toro acknowledged that “Creature From the Black Lagoon” had been an influence on “The Shape of Water,” his Oscar-winning 2017 movie about the unusual relationship between a woman and an amphibious creature. In a 2018 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he traced his film’s genesis to the first time he saw “Creature,” when he was 7 years old.
“The creature was the most beautiful design I’d ever seen,” he said. “And I saw him swimming under Julie Adams, and I loved that the creature was in love with her, and I felt an almost existential desire for them to end up together.”
Giving little thought to the legacy of her role, Adams continued her Hollywood successes. In recent years, however, as her career faded, she found herself with a new lease on entertainment life, in demand by monster movie fans seeking autographs, memorabilia (including lurid posters of her in the scaly arms of the creature) and stories of her black lagoon adventure.
In 2011 she published an autobiography, “The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections From the Black Lagoon,” written with her son Mitchell Danton. In 2012 she starred at three conventions for science fiction and horror fans: Monsterpalooza in Burbank, California, WonderFest in Louisville, Kentucky, and Monster Bash in Butler, Pennsylvania.
She was born Betty May Adams in Waterloo, Iowa, on Oct. 17, 1926, to alcoholic parents who moved often. She grew up in Blytheville and Little Rock, Arkansas, and attended Little Rock Junior College. But after being named Miss Little Rock, she dropped out at 19 and went to Hollywood, resolved to be an actress.
She married screenwriter Leonard Stern in 1951; they divorced in 1953. She married film director Ray Danton in 1954. They had two sons, Steven and Mitchell, before they, too, were divorced. She is survived by her sons and four grandchildren.
After making low-budget Westerns for Lippert Pictures, Adams signed with Universal, which changed her name to Julia, then to Julie, and insured her legs for $125,000.
Her other notable films included “Six Bridges to Cross” (1955), with Tony Curtis; “Away All Boats” (1956), a war drama with Jeff Chandler; “Tickle Me” (1965), with Elvis Presley; and “The Last Movie,” (1971), a Venice Film Festival award winner for which Dennis Hopper was producer, director and star, about the effects of a Hollywood movie company on a Peruvian Indian village.
In recent years Adams, who lived in Los Angeles, appeared on TV in episodes of “Family Law” (2000), “Cold Case” (2006) and “CSI New York” (2010). She also attended conventions and film festivals to meet devotees of her creature feature from long ago. Cinecon, the classic film festival in Hollywood, honored her in 2011 with a career achievement award.