LOS ANGELES Julie Adams nearly turned down the role that has made her a legend among sci-fi and horror films fans: Kay Lawrence in 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon.
But who could blame her? As a contract player at Universal six decades ago, she had played opposite Arthur Kennedy in 1951’s Bright Victory, Jimmy Stewart in the 1952 Western Bend of the River and heartthrob Tyrone Power in 1953’s Mississippi Gambler. And now the studio wanted her for a black-and-white 3-D horror film that was sort of a fishy version of Beauty and the Beast.
“I thought ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon! What?’” recalled the 85-year-old actress during a recent interview at her comfortable L.A. home. “I thought about turning it down and then I thought if I do that I’ll go on suspension and I won’t get paid. Then I thought it might be fun, and of course, it was.”
It was more than just fun.
Adams is much in demand at conventions and autograph shows because of her iconic role as the girlfriend of ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) who, while on a scientific expedition down the Amazon, becomes the object of affection of a tall, amphibious creature called the Gill-Man. Adams recalled that her form-fitting one-piece white bathing suit caused quite a stir because it “pulled up a little bit on the upper leg,” she said laughing. “We were quite risque.”
The actress recently released her autobiography, The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections From the Black Lagoon (Hollywood Adventures, amazon.com) which she wrote with Mitchell Danton, her youngest of two sons with her late former husband, actor-director Ray Danton.
She’s still having fun. She appeared at the Los Angeles Monsterpalooza convention and this weekend she’ll be back at the same location for the Hollywood Show. In May, Adams is heading to Louisville, Ky., for WonderFest and in June it’s off to Monster Bash in Butler, Pa.
In attending these conventions, she’s realized that the film appeals to all age groups. “One man came up one day with his little girl. He said, ‘She wants a picture of the creature. She loves the creature.’ I said ‘Wasn’t she scared? And he said, ‘Oh, no. She plays creature in the bathtub!’”
Born Betty May Adams in Waterloo, Iowa, she grew up in Arkansas. An only child, she and her alcoholic parents moved from small town to small town until she finally had some stability in her life when she went to live with her aunt and uncle in Little Rock, Ark.
The movies were an escape for her, but that wasn’t the reason she caught the acting bug. When she was in the third-grade production of Hansel and Gretel, someone forgot their lines. “I ad-libbed and saved the day,” she said. “I felt this flush of power. I had this wonderful feeling and I thought I wanted to have more of that feeling.”
It wasn’t long after she moved from Little Rock to Long Beach to live with an aunt following high school that she got her chance. She was working as a secretary when her aunt, who had bathing suit stores in Long Beach and knew some talent scouts, arranged an interview with one at Warner Bros. She didn’t get a job, but was given some sage advice: Lose the Southern twang.
She landed a tiny, uncredited role in the 1949 Betty Hutton musical, Red, Hot and Blue. Adams segued to doing seven quickie westerns starring James Ellison and Russell Hayden before getting signed to Universal, where she joined such young contract players as Piper Laurie, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis.
“Who could have asked for anything better? I was cast in movies with great actors, with great leading men,” she said of her career.
“It was a great learning experience to work with James Stewart,” said Adams, who nearly 20 years after Bend of the River played his wife on the actor’s short-lived NBC sitcom, The Jimmy Stewart Show.
“I remember so vividly playing a scene with Jimmy Stewart. I was in the back of a covered wagon and we were doing this little talk in the wilderness. They did his close-up first. I was looking at him and thinking, ‘How does he do that?’ He is not ‘doing’ anything and yet everything is there.”
After leaving Universal, she continued acting in films, including Dennis Hopper’s controversial 1971 The Last Movie, and guest-starred in such popular TV shows as Bonanza and Murder, She Wrote (she played the role of Angela Lansbury’s friend, real estate agent Eve Simpson).
She also does theatre across the country, including Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which she played the morphine-addicted wife of an actor. “I really thought with that character I kind of said to my mother, ‘Come on out and have your say.’ She did. It was kind of cathartic in a way.”