IT WAS FOUR DECADES AGO WHEN RICOU BROWNING, AN UNASSUMING physical education major at Florida State University, turned into a monster. As a favor to a friend, Browning, then 23, a onetime Air Force swim team member, agreed to help a film crew scout underwater locations at Wakulla Springs State Park, where he had worked as a lifeguard. "The cameraman asked me if I'd swim for a few test shots underwater," he says.
A few weeks later, horror-movie director Jack Arnold, impressed with Browning's muscular freestyle, offered him $600 a week and the role of title monster in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Browning dived right into his new career, working for six weeks in a costume that felt, he says, "like swimming in an overcoat." After Creature became a surprise hit, he found work in two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). He also found a career in undersea showbiz directing episodes of TV's Sea Hunt and Flipper (which he also helped develop), doing stunt work on the James Bond movies Thunderball and Never Say Never Again and working in a variety of waterlogged commercials.
But no matter what he did, Browning was forever known as the lovelorn amphibian who wreaks havoc on the scientists who disturb him. Since Creature invaded video stores in 1982, Browning, 64—now retired in Fort Lauderdale with second wife Fran and writing a murder mystery—has enjoyed a kind of comeback. "I gel fan mail almost every day," he says, "and lots of calls from people who say, 'We're having a party. Could you bring your rubber suit over and jump in the pool and scare everybody?' "