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Tor Johnson, Horror Icon - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

September 2010

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The career of Tor Johnson is an interesting one: He has over the years become an icon of horror cinema and subsequently his features have become the subject of the (allegedly) all-time bestselling Halloween mask, and yet he has only appeared in a handful of bona fide shockers, and virtually all were of the schlock variety, all made towards the end of his career. On top of that his acting abilities (and thus roles) were limited to primitive brutes, and thus his performances were more carried by his exaggeratedly bulky body and his somewhat bizarre menacing facial features rather than any kind of emoting. Heck, Tor Johnson was not even an actor as such by profession but a wrestler, and even in the wrestling arena he wasn't a championship fighter but a heel who made the heroes look better. And according to some accounts, Johnson wasn't even a great wrestler, relying more on his size than any impressive moves to try and defeat his opponent.

 

And despite all of this, Tor Johnson was/is an icon ...

 


 

Early Life, Early Career

 

Tor Johnson  was born Karl Oscar Tore Johansson in 1903 in Halmar, Sweden. As he soon grew up to be large in size, wrestling became his almost natural sport of choice, and since his early teens he trained and later competed as a wrestler in his native Sweden.

In 1928, he emigrated to the United States, not so much in search of adventure or the like but to find a climate that would have a positive effect on the a rheumatic heart condition he suffered from pretty much all of his adult life - and he found the conditions he found in California, where he arrived in 1931, perfect for his health.

 

A man of his build and experience, Johnson had no problems finding employ in the local wrestling circuit, and while he might never have won a championship he soon became a beloved heel or bad guy wrestler due to his menacing and overpowering appearance - even though in private life he was said to have been the gentlest of guys, a man who was best friends with many of his opponents in the wrestling ring, a man who was often embarrassed by his own physical strength he had sometimes problems to control.

 

It should be noted here that Tor Johnson was not naturally bald but is said to have had full blond hair - but he shaved his head to create a more menacing look for himself - though it's doubtful if he shaved his hair before the late 1930's, and in his early film appearances he can actually be seen with hair on his head.

 

Johnson wrestled under a variety of names early in his career, but in 1939, when managed by Jack Pfeffer, he became the Super Swedish Angel. The name itself was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of fellow wrestling heel Maurice Tillet, dubbed the French Angel. Tillet's name itself, or at least the Angel-portion was a cruel play on his looks. You see, Tillet (born in 1903 just like Tor Johnson) suffered from acromegaly since age 17, a disease that causes unnatural growth of hands and facial bones, which gave Tillet a rather grotesque appearance - but rather than hide in a hole, Tillet made the best of it and had a long and prosperous career as a wrestling heel (including winning championships) before he died from heart disease in 1954.

Based on Tillet's popularity coupled with his grotesque looks, promoter Jack Pfeffer hired wrestlers all over the place based mainly on their ugliness, had their heads shaved to better resemble Tillet, and gave them names containing the word Angel, for the audience to immediately make the connection to the French Angel.

Tor Johnson by the way became the Super Swedish Angel mainly because the name Swedish Angel was already taken by Phil Olafsson, who back in the day was a more successful and popular wrestler but who is today pretty much forgotten, and who, unlike Johnson but like Tillet, also suffered from acromegaly.

(By the way: Because of their similar wrestling names, bald heads and sort-of grotesque appearances, Tor Johnson and Phil Olafsson are sometimes confused with each other, to a point that in some sources, Johnson instead of Olafsson is credited as one of the wrestlers engaging in a tug-of-war with the titular ape in Mighty Joe Young [1949, Ernest B.Schoedsack], even though a single glance should convince you otherwise - provided you know what Johnson and Olafsson look like. There is also a rumour that Johnson and Olafsson had a wrestling match in the late 1940's to determine who will be allowed to continue to be the Swedish Angel - this might be stuff of legend, though.)

 


 

Comedy

 


Tor Johnson always saw himself a wrestler first, but his larger-than-life appearance and his almost caricature-like facial features made him almost a natural for the movies: He needed little in terms of makeup to look the way he looked, was instantly recognizable, could easily be identified as a wrestler, boxer, weightlifter, or general strongman, and due to his background in wrestling, he was physically fit. Sure, he had a thick Swedish accent that made his dialogue almost unintelligable, but with an appearance like his, he didn't need too much dialogue to bring his point across.

 

Hardly surprisingly, Johnson's early filmroles were almost exclusively in the comedy genre, basically because his grotesque looks as well as limited acting abilities made him unfit for (mainstream) drama - but if you needed a joke about a strongman, Johnson alone was already half the joke.

 


As if to contradict me though, Johnson's first appearance on the movie screen was actually in a drama, Registered Nurse (1934, Robert Florey), starring Bebe Daniels in the title role - but Tor's role was very small and he didn't even receive an on-screen credit.

 

With film number two though, Kid Millions (1934, Roy Del Ruth), a musical comedy starring Eddie Cantor, Tor Johnson made comedy his home, a genre he remained loyal to for the next roughly two decades.

 

Tor's first on-screen credit followed in 1935 in the comedic short Some Class (Lloyd French), but after that, Tor went uncredited for the next 15 years - though a man of his features is actually hard to forget. Comedic highlights from Tor Johnson's career were:

  • The W.C. Fields-starrer Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935, Clyde Bruckman) has Tor Johnson in his element as a wrestler [W.C. Fields bio - click here].
  • Johnson plays another wrestler in the comedic murder mystery Shadow of the Thin Man (1941, W.S. Van Dyke), the fourth film in the popular Thin Man-series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy.
  • The Meanest Man in the World (1943, Sidney Lanfield) stars Jack Benny and Priscilla Lane.


  • Swing Out the Blues (1943, Malcolm St.Clair) is a musical comedy featuring Tor Johnson as a weightlifter.
  • In the horror comedy Ghost Catchers (1944, Edward F.Cline), Tor Johnson plays one of the mugs opposite popular comedy duo Chic Johnson and Ole Olson. Lon Chaney jr is also in this one [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here].
  • The Canterville Ghost (1944, Jules Dassin), a film that retells Oscar Wilde's original story as a piece of American World War II-propaganda, could have been a highlight in Tor Johnson's career as he plays Charles Laughton's adversary in a duel, but unfortunately, his distinct features are hidden behind way too much costume and facial hair for him to be actually recognizable.
  • Tor Johnson is equally unrecognizable in the Abbott & Costello-movie Lost in a Harem (1944, Charles Reisner), which features him as an Arabian palace guard.
  • In Road to Rio (1947, Norman Z.McLeod) on the other hand, one of the funniest Bob Hope-Bing Crosby movies, Tor Johnson is instantly recognizable as circus strongman chasing Bob Hope up a ladder onto a tightrope.



  • With State of the Union (1948), Tor Johnson made it into a top-notch Hollywood film, as it is directed by Frank Capra and stars Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn - but again Johnson's role is no more than that of a mere wrestler.
  • In the wrestling comedy Alias the Champ (1949, George Blair), Johnson essentially plays himself, meaning a wrestler called the Super Swedish Angel. The film is significant inasmuch as it featured then popular wrestler Gorgeous George in his only big-screen appearance.


  • In Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950, Charles Lamont), Tor Johnson plays yet another wrestler, this time in front of a Sahara backdrop.
  • In Bob Hope's so-so Cristmas comedy The Lemon Drop Kid (1951, Sidney Lanfield), Johnson plays yet another wrestler, and one of those guys Hope turns into Santa Claus. Johnson does have quite a bit of screentime in the finale by the way.


All that said, one has to point out that Tor Johnson was never totally restricted to comedy, he had the occasional role in a film of another genre as well, like the foreign legion adventure Under Two Flags (1936, Frank Lloyd) starring Ronald Colman and Claudette Colbert, the adventure/exotic romance Sudan (1945, John Rawlins) starring Maria Montez and Jon Hall [Jon Hall bio - click here], or the film noir Behind Locked Doors/Human Gorilla (1948, Budd Boetticher). Especially in Behind Locked Doors, Johnson showed that he was actually a bit more than a cheap joke, as he gives his role - a former boxing champ gone mad -  a tragic dimension.

 

It wasn't until the 1950's though that Johnson really branched out genre-wise. Sure he continued to appear in comedies, and made appearances in circus-themed movies like the Tony Curtis/Janet Leigh starrer Houdini (1953, George Marshall) and the Rodgers and Hammerstein-musical Carousel (1956, Henry King), but there was also the Western The San Francisco Story (1952, Robert Parrish), the swashbuckler Lady in the Iron Mask (1952, Ralph Murphy), and several appearances on television, including on Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1954), but it wasn't until the middle of the 1950's that one man saw his true potential and made him an icon of horror ...

 


 

Horror

 

It's rather ironic that the man who saw Tor Johnson's true potential as a boogeyman and almost single-handedly made him a fixture in the horror genre is now credited by many (not by me) as the all-time worst director - and I'm talking about Ed Wood of course [Ed Wood bio - click here].

 

While in films by other directors, Tor Johnson was usually cast as little more than a novelty piece, your typical sideshow strongman (with the exception of Behind Locked Doors of course, in which his role has some dramatic depth), Wood actually found a way to really incorporate Johnson into his movies and give him parts that actually required some acting, though all tailored to fit Johnson's somewhat limited acting range as well as his bulky stature.

(It's interesting to note in that respect that around the time Wood began featuring Johnson in his movies, Johnson quit his wrestling career to focus on filmmaking.)

 


The first movie Wood cast Tor Johnson in was Bride of the Monster (1955), in which Tor plays Bela Lugosi's [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] bulky and dim-witted lab assistant Lobo, who's also a failed result from one of his earlier experiments. Looking like he did, Tor, who was made up with an extra scar in his face, could qualify as the monster, but he shows heart when he falls in love with leading lady Loretta King and ultimately opposes his own master - Bela - to save her. Ed Wood wanted to make Tor Johnson a monster the audience could sympathize with, a little bit like Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931, James Whale) [Boris Karloff bio - click here], and to a degree he even succeeded, thanks in part to Tor's performance of course.

That said, while Tor's performance is at least adequate, his demise in the film is less so, despite the fact that he is defeated in a wrestling sequence - the problem though is that he wrestles Bela Lugosi, who at the time this was shot was already very frail, and he just doesn't make a believable adversary for Tor, let alone the man who defeats him.

(In real life, Johnson and Lugosi were said to have become close friends while filming Bride of the Monster by the way.)

 


Ed Wood cast Tor Johnson next in a vampire/alien invasion flick that eventually wound up being Plan 9 from Outer Space, a film that was finished in 1957 but didn't get released until 1959. For many, this is the worst film ever made, but while that's a gross exaggeration, one cannot fail to notice the problems this film has, of which many were unavoidable and accidental (like the death of one of its leads, Bela Lugosi, after only a few days of shooting), while others were caused by lack of budget (like the incredibly primitive sets and special effects). However, one of the problems of this film is actually the terrible miscasting of Tor Johnson. Thing is, after getting a good performance out of him in Bride of the Monster, Wood probably overrated his abilities as a director and gave Tor Johnson the role of a police chief, a role that required quite a bit of dialogue - and dialogue was something that Tor just wasn't too good with, mainly because of his thick Swedish accent and somewhat slurring pronounciation, which made him almost impossible to understand. It's only later in the film when he's turned into a zombie and prowls around a graveyard with Vampira and Bela Lugosi (or rather his double) that he seems to be in his element.

 


In his final film for Ed Wood, Night of the Ghouls (1958), Tor Johnson returns as Lobo from Bride of the Monster, but for this movie, which is basically a campy collection of horror clichées, the character is reduced to another hulking brute and derived of any tragic dimension suggested in the earlier film. Still, Night of the Ghouls, one of the lesser-known Ed Wood-films, is great fun to watch.

Tor Johnson and Ed Wood remained good friends for years after this, their third and final film, and that they didn't work together on more films is due primarily to the fact that Wood didn't make a film all through the 1960's.

 


Ed Wood's casting of Tor Johnson in a horror movie had an almost immediate impact on his reputation within the genre, because in 1956, the after year Bride of the Monster was made, director Reginald Le Borg, himself no stranger to horror cinema (though prior to 1956 he mainly directed comedies and musicals), cast Johnson in his horror-all-star affair The Black Sleep, which also starred Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here], Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here], Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here] and John Carradine [John Carradine bio - click here]. Unfortunately though, the film is nothing but a major disappointment, an incredibly boring, suspense-free piece of horror cinema that wastes the performance of many a great performer - and even if Tor Johnson is certainly not on par acting-wise with most of his co-stars, his performance is wasted as well.

 


In 1957, Tor Johnson returned to the role of Lobo, but this time not for Ed Wood but for director Boris Petroff and studio Republic [Republic history - click here] in the movie The Unearthly, your typical mad scientist flick, this time with John Carradine handling the lead [John Carradine bio - click here]. Tor always liked to point out that this Lobo here differed from the one he played in the Ed Wood flicks inasmuch as he could actually talk - but in all honesty, Lobo still remained a hulking brute in this one, just as in Wood's movies.

 


For many, Tor Johnson's ultimate horror flick was also the last he did in the genre, The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961, Anthony Cardoza), a trash classic that tops many a worst movies list. In this film, Tor Johnson actually plays a scientist - which is a bit of a stretch given his appearance ... until he gets caught in a nuclear blast and is turned into a monster that roams the countryside and kills people.

The film was made on the ultra-cheap, and it shows even more than in Johnson's Ed Wood-movies: for example, despite being a sound film, it was shot as a silent and corny, almost insane narration was added later on as well as a bit of dialogue, but to avoid having to deal with lip-synching the dialogue, the camera never shows anyone actually speaking, just those listening. In a way, this film is bad as can be, but entertainingly so.

 


The Beast of Yucca Flats was Tor Johnson's last feature film in any kind of significant role. He did make an uncredited appearance in the Monkees-movie Head (1968, Bob Rafaelson) though. Otherwise however, he kept out of the movie theatres, on one hand because in the 1960's, American cinema underwent a rather radical change that left little room for actors that got their roles thanks to their peculiar appearance rather than anything else, on the other hand, he was getting on a bit in age as well, by 1960 he turned 57, not exactly a young one anymore.

However, with the 1950's, Johnson had turned his attention towards this new medium, television, which not only transmitted several of his wrestling bouts but where characteristic faces like his also came into high demand quite soon, and so over the years he could be seen opposite Groucho Marx in You Bet Your Life and every now and again on comedy programs like the Red Skelton Show as well as in several drama shows like Bonanza (1960), Peter Gunn (1960) or the Shirley Temple Theatre (1961). He also appeared in several commercials besides that. Of course, like in B-movies before, he was mostly reduced to strong man-roles that took advantage of his stature - but then again, that's what he did all of his life ...

 


 

Fade-out and Legacy

 

Tor Johnson died in 1971 in San Fernando, California, of a heart ailment. He was 67 years old.

He left behind a wife and a son, Karl, who was born in 1924, when Tor still lived back in Sweden. Karl took after his father and grew up to be a very big man. And just like his father he got into wrestling eventually, and even wrestled his father in the ring at at least one occasion - but since they were never identified as father and son by their league, their bout was not promoted a father versus son match. Later, Karl followed his father into the movie world, but was far less successful than his father, and apart from a few roles in the horror pics his father did late in his career, he hardly secured any roles. He later became a policeman in San Fernando, California.

 

Especially after his death, many stories were told about Tor Johnson, like that he drank beer by the case, ate icecream by the gallon, and stole toilet seats from the hotels he staid in because he had a habit to break his toilet seats at home due to his weight. These stories are carried even by serious media, but should still be taken with a grain of salt, as they sound a little bit too much like a mixture of a cheap joke, hearsay, sheer exaggeration and pure fabrication.

True or not though, these stories prove that Tor Johnson has become more than a mere big guy, a mere wrestler turned actor, has become something shrouded in its own legend.

What adds to this is that Tor's likeness was made into a best-selling (according to some sources record-selling) Halloween mask, and it's very probably that only the fewest people wearing the mask have actually seen any of Tor's horror flicks.

 


In 1967, a man called George Steele who bore quite a resemblance to Tor Johnson entered the stage of professional wrestling - and over the years this resemblance became more and more striking, especially when he, wrestling for the WWF in the 1980's, was rechristened George 'The Animal' Steele, and turned into the hulking brute with animalistic instincts Tor Johnson used to portray during much of his career. This was much to George Steele's dismay actually, because he actually had a college degree and had been a teacher prior to his wrestling career and was a rather eloquent man, rather the opposite from his half-human-half-animal character. However, when Tim Burton decided to make Ed Wood's biography [Ed Wood bio - click here] into a movie - Ed Wood (1994) - Steele gladly jumped the opportunity to play Tor Johnson - a casting decision that was a no-brainer really, given the two men's resemblance.

 

Another sign that Tor Johnson might be gone but not forgotten is that his likeness - adopted by other actors - does appear time and again in genre movies, and the most prominent actor who embodied Tor is perhaps David C.Hayes [David C.Hayes interview - click here], who did not only appear as Lobo in two Ed Wood-adaptations by underground director Andre Perkowski [Andre Perkowski interview - click here], Devil Girls and The Vampire's Tomb (both 1999), but also portrays Johnson's character in a sequel to The Beast of Yucca Flats, Return to Yucca Flats: Desert Man Beast (2010, Leon Cowan).

 

All of this shows above everything else how iconic Tor Johnson has become over the years. True, he was not the greatest actor (and didn't try or claim to be), true his characters lacked any and all depth most of the time, true he hardly ever acted in significant movies or movies that topped the box office - but he was good at what he did, and his image has survived the decades while many other actors of greater talent have long faded into obscurity ... and that alone is quite an achievement for a man who at first seems to be nothing more than a hulking brute ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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