Today is National Gorilla Suit Day, a holiday invented by Mad’s Maddest Artist, the incomparable Don Martin, in his 1963 book, Mad’s Don Martin Bounces Back! In honor of this auspicious day, let’s take a look at some of the great gorilla suits and their wearers.
10. Charlie Gemora
One of the first “gorilla men” in the film industry, Gemora was the go-to gorilla guy from the ’30s until his death in 1961. The suit he assisted Pete Westmore on for The Lost World in 1925 is reportedly the first gorilla suit ever made for film.
9. Ray “Crash” Corrigan
Corrigan was a cowboy star and stuntman in the 1930s; he also owned a ranch in Simi Valley which he rented to movie studios as a location, eventually opening it to the public as a tourist attraction. In the early 1940s, he had a gorilla suit made and began taking on ape roles as a sideline. By the ’50s, the majority of his roles were gorillas.
8. Ro-Man (George Barrows)
Robot Monster, one of the worst and cheesiest low-budget sci-fi movies ever made, nonetheless features a memorable villain in Ro-Man, a gorilla in a space helmet who conquers the world with a bubble machine. The gorilla suit used for the film belonged to George Barrows, the actor who played the role.
7. Mugatu (Janos Prohaska)
Best remembered as the Cookie Bear on the Andy Williams Show, Prohaska, a Hungarian-born stuntman and costume designer, played gorillas on many ’60s TV shows and films including Gilligan’s Island, and also played a number of aliens and monsters on shows such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Bewitched, Lost in Space, The Outer Limits (he played the faux-alien in “The Architects of Fear”), and Star Trek; in addition to creating the Horta, Prohaska added a horn to the head of his white gorilla suit to portray the Mugato in “A Private Little War.”
6. General Ursus (James Gregory)
No list of movie apes would be complete without mention of John Chambers and Planet of the Apes. Though most of the major characters in the series are chimpanzees and orangutans, there were a couple of gorillas in prominent roles; General Ursus, played by James Gregory in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, is the most notable, though there are also two ordinary gorillas featured in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (both played by Janos Prohaska.) In 1968, Chambers was presented with a spacial Oscar for his work on the first film of the series. John Goodman portrayed Chambers in Argo.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stuart Freeborn)
The same year that John Chambers astounded the world with his ape creations, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece featured apelike hominids created by Stuart Freeborn. His work was overlooked by the Academy because it was so good the audience didn’t realize the apes were people in costumes. Freeborn’s greatest claim to fame was designing makeup and puppet effects for characters named Chewbacca, Jabba the Hutt, Yoda and the Ewoks.
4. Tracy (Bob Burns)
Though he often played “straight” gorilla roles (his character was named Kogar), Bob Burns is best-known for playing Tracy on the ’70s TV series The Ghost Busters, co-starring with Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch. Aside from having one of the largest collections of movie memorabilia (including the Time Machine), Burns is famous for his elaborate Halloween events; for many years, he went all-out decorating his home with recreations of famous horror films. The website dedicated to these events is sadly defunct, but it can be found on the Wayback Machine. “Beast Wishes,” a recent documentary about Bob and his wife Kathy, is available on Amazon.
3. Greystoke (Peter Elliott)
Peter Elliott has established himself as the most naturalistic ape performer of the present day, having played gorillas in Greystoke, Congo, Gorillas in the Mist, Buddy and King Kong Lives. Most of these costumes were created either by Rick Baker or the Henson Creature Shop.
2. An Ape Named ‘Ape’ (Henson Creature Shop)
Beginning with Buddy (1997), the Henson Creature Shop got into the gorilla game; they followed this up with George of the Jungle, for whom they constructed Ape, voiced by John Cleese. At least one of the other gorillas from George of the Jungle has found work in a number of other productions, worn by an actor named Tom Fisher. It was Fisher who portrayed Spanky, the mobster gorilla in the pilot episode of The Middleman.
1. Rick Baker
Rick Baker has long been the premiere designer of gorilla suits, beginning with the ultra-low-budget Schlock with John Landis, he has created (and sometimes portrayed) gorillas for many films, including The Thing With Two Heads, The incredible Shrinking Woman, King Kong, and the remakes of Mighty Joe Young and Planet of the Apes. Baker also created many alien characters for Star Wars and the Men in Black series, Harry the bigfoot for Harry and the Hendersons, and the werewolf in An American Werewolf in London. He created the ultimate gorilla suit for Gorillas in the Mist, where his apes appeared on-screen alongside real gorillas and were absolutely convincing.
These are my picks for the all-time great gorilla suits; feel free to add any I overlooked in the comments section.