Today is the birthday of Tor Johnson. Since his birthday falls so conveniently during the Halloween season, I thought we’d devote a post to him in our month long series about classic horror we launched here.
Most folks who know him at all are aware that Johnson was a Swedish wrestler who appears in a handful of Ed Wood films and other grade z horror movies. Most people assume that that was the extent of his career, and who can blame them? But the astounding reality is that Johnson had been in films for 20 years before he even met Wood. Even more surprising is these were almost all major Hollywood studio productions, some of them even classics. When you peruse the list below, which only includes some of them — you will be amazed. For no doubt you’ve seen many of these movies without ever realizing Johnson was on screen. Granted most of his roles in these films are walk-ons, sight gags, or “the wrestler in the wrestling scene.” Still, if you’re like me, your jaw will drop. For two decades, it seems the 300 lb. Tor Johnson was hiding in plain sight.
In this Eddie Cantor comedy, Eddie goes to Egypt to collect an inheritance. Tor Johnson plays the role of “Torturer”.
A classic W.C. Fields comedy. If you remember the film, Fields gets in trouble when he ducks work to attend a wrestling match. Johnson is one of the wrestlers.
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
Remember the scene where Nick and Nora go to a wrestling match? See the still above for confirmation.
Ghost Catchers (1944)
Johnson’s role in this Olsen and Johnson comedy is “Mug”.
The Canterville Ghost (1944)
Johnson plays Bold Sir Guy, one of the tougher knights the cowardly Charles Laughton is supposed to fight before he perishes, becoming the titular spirit.
Lost in a Harem (1944)
The Road to Rio (1947)
In this Hope and Crosby “Road” picture, Johnson plays Sandor, the carnival strong man.
State of the Union (1948)
Johnson has a brief scene as a wrestler in this Frank Capra political comedy.
Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950)
Johnson’s character’s name in this A & C comedy is “Abou Ben”.
Angels in the Outfield (1951)
You really have to squint to see him in this one — he’s wrestling in a wrestling match the characters are watching on tv.
The Lemon Drop Kid (1951)
Johnson actually made it onto the poster for this Bob Hope holiday classic. He plays one of the Runyonesque (literally, because it was written by Damon Runyon) street hoods who help Hope out by playing Santa Claus.
Johnson plays a circus strong man in the classic bio-pic about the great escape artist.
Bride of the Monster (1955)
Okay — NOW we’re in familiar territory. Ed Wood gave Johnson his first opportunity to play a sustained character throughout the length of a feature. Granted the character is only “Lobo” and his only lines amount to grunts, but it’s something to build on, eh? Or not.
Another walk-on as a circus strong man in this classic musical.
The Black Sleep (1956)
Check it out! We already knew Johnson could hold his own with Bela Lugosi from Bride of the Monster, but in this film he also gets to share the screen with John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr. Did he rise, or did they fall? (I think they met in the middle). In this film, in case the photo didn’t make it clear, Johnson plays the victim for once.
The Unearthly (1957)
In this film, Johnson is reunited with John Carradine, who plays a mad scientist, with Johnson as his assistant “Lobo II”
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
In this film, Ed Wood gave the world something it didn’t know it needed — Tor Johnson in an English speaking role. As the sheriff in this film, almost nothing the man says can be understood. But that’s okay. Soon he will be overtaken by ghouls, re-animated, and do this:
Night of the Ghouls (1959)
Johnson returns (by popular demand no doubt) as Lobo in this semi-sequel to Bride of the Monster.
The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)
One of the few films I’ve seen that’s as bad as any Ed Wood movie. The entire movie is MOS—no sync sound, just narration and dubbed dialogue when actors are off camera, in extreme long shot or in shadow. Tor Johnson plays a Soviet scientist who, escaping from some spies, walks onto an atomic test site. The result is only that it makes his skin gross and he goes around strangling people. That is the full extent of the “Beast”. As a starring role, such as it is, it represents the culmination of Johnson’s film career. But he did return for this very special movie:
Johnson has a walk-on as “Guard” in the Monkees‘ one and only feature film. At this stage he was 65 years old and could well retire. He passed away in 1971. But his visage continues to stalk the land to this day: