Gorillas I Have Loved

Ape performers from INSTINCT.
Ape performers from INSTINCT.

Tuesday was, as we all know, National Gorilla Suit Day, and that means it’s time for me to find some new way of celebrating in text-and-pictures. I previously documented this illustrious day at Wired, GeekDad (a couple of times), at Blue Collar, Black Tie, and in many Facebook posts.

"Don Martin Bounces Back."
“Don Martin Bounces Back.” As one does.

A brief synopsis for the latecomers: Back in the 1960s, MAD’s Maddest Cartoonist, Don Martin had a healthy little sideline publishing paperback books of original material that never appeared in MAD Magazine (and consequently has never been collected anywhere, not even in that big fat two-volume book set from a couple-few years ago, which you really ought to own despite this tragic omission; but I digress); one of these marvelous collections included a lengthy tale in which benighted protagonist Fester Bestertester rails against a fake holiday invented by the gorilla suit manufacturers’ cabal in order to sell their product, and is hilariously punished for this affront in a myriad of ways. (Look, go buy the book; I’ll wait.) From that time to this, loyal fans of Martin have acknowledged and celebrated his contribution to the calendar. January 31 is National Gorilla Suit Day, and Don Martin is its patron saint.

Naturally, this leads us to discussions of the great Hollywood Gorilla Men, a roster that includes names like Charlie Gemora, Crash Corrigan, Janos Prohaska, Bob Burns, and Rick Baker, to name a few. Some of these performers are also noteworthy for having built their own gorilla suits, most notably Prohaska and Baker, who also created a number of other famous monsters, aliens, and Things that Go Bump in the Night. If you saw a monster on Star Trek or Outer Limits, it was most likely Prohaska; Baker has been THE premiere effects makeup genius of the industry for the last 40 years or so.

Since I’ve written at length about most of these guys, I thought this time I’d take a look at some of the lesser-known Gorilla Men.

We’ll start with Don McLeod. You may (if you’re old like me) remember a series of commercials for American Tourister luggage, in which the strength and durability of the product was demonstrated by throwing a suitcase into the cage with a gorilla and watching as he beats the crap out of it. The first print ad used a real gorilla, but real gorillas are not good at taking direction, and this was right around the time some species of gorilla landed on the Endangered Species list, which ended any possibility of using a real one in the ads, so the job of suitcase-bashing ape was given to Don McLeod, and he was pretty convincing at it.

You may also remember him from Trading Places, the Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd vehicle that made Jamie Lee Curtis a star. At the end of the movie, – spoiler! (but come on, it’s been like 30 years already yet) – the bad guy ends up in a gorilla suit with his mouth taped, tossed in a cage with an amorous male gorilla who thinks our villain is a female. That ape was McLeod, and he got big laughs for it.

Don McLeod and Paul Gleason get busy in TRADING PLACES.
Don McLeod and Paul Gleason get busy in TRADING PLACES.

Don McLeod has also had a few other interesting roles, playing a werewolf in The Howling and Peter Pan’s shadow in Hook, to cite just two. He’s also an accomplished mime and Butoh dancer.

Shoichi Hirose is a Japanese actor who has appeared in a great many films, including Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, and Yojimbo, but his big credit for the purposes of this post is a little movie called King Kong Vs. Godzilla, in which Hirose played Kingukongu, AKA King Kong. He also played Ghidorah in two movies for Toho Studios. Born in 1918, Hirose is enjoying his retirement in Japan.

Misty Rosas, a 4’9″ stuntwoman, dancer and actress, played gorillas in Congo and Instinct, and was the physical performer for Beary Barrington in the Country Bear Jamboree movie. Congo’s Amy the gorilla required a unique performance including sign language; she wore a gadget that supposedly translated her movements into synthesized speech.

Aside from suit work, Rosas does motion-capture performance, acts, sings, dances, and does stunt work, often doubling for children. You can learn more about her at mistyrosas.com.

Misty Rosas on the set of INSTINCT.
Misty Rosas takes a break on the set of INSTINCT.

Of course, the genius behind the gorillas in Congo and Instinct was Stan Winston, one of the great effects wizards. He did a lot of amazing work over the years, including the Jurassic Park and Terminator movies. Most people are surprised to learn that the majority of scenes with the T-1000 were practical effects, not CGI. Winston did work in both fields, however; he was one of the founders of effects house Digital Domain and later started his own digital effects company, SWDigital. Here’s a bit of behind-the-scenes footage of his gorillas from Instinct.


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