Julie Adams was initially unimpressed when she learned she’d been cast as the love interest in The Creature From the Black Lagoon – the big-budget 1954 film with a distinctly B-movie plot. The actor accepted the role only because she was compelled to by her Universal Pictures contract.
However, her performance as Kay Lawrence, a geologist on expedition to the Amazon, whose beauty attracts the lust of an amphibious creature described in the trailer “the man-beast from the dawn of time”, would prove to be one of the defining moments of her 40-year career.
Adams, who died aged 92, was born Betty May Adams in Waterloo, Iowa, to Ralph Adams and Esther (nee Beckett). Her father was a cotton buyer whose job saw the family constantly on the move. In a 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Adams described both her parents as alcoholics. Ralph in particular was a heavy drinker. When he became abusive, 19-year-old Julie, who had won the “Miss Little Rock” beauty contest in Arkansas, escaped to live with an aunt in Long Beach, California.
There, Adams set about pursuing an acting career. Her aunt arranged for her to have an interview at Warner Bros. While nothing came of that first meeting, Adams did take the interviewer’s advice to lose her southern accent, and was soon cast in a minor role in 1949 comedy Red, Hot and Blue. A number of budget westerns followed, after which Adams signed an exclusive contract with Universal. She changed her name from Julie to Julia (she would change it back in 1954), and Universal had her fabulous legs insured for six figures. Those legs, shown off in a high-cut, white swimming costume in Black Lagoon, were her USP.
Adams had her first lead for Universal in 1951’s Bright Victory. A year later, in 1952, she starred opposite Rock Hudson in Horizons West. That same year, she was cast in what many consider her breakthrough role opposite Jimmy Stewart in Bend Of The River. Adams described working with Stewart as “a great learning experience” and the pair became good friends. They would reunite on screen some 20 years later, in the NBC sitcom, The Jimmy Stewart Show, in which she played his wife.
Under contract to Universal, Adams was able to work with many of Hollywood’s greatest. As well as Hudson and Stewart, she worked with Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston and Tyrone Power.
“Who could have asked for anything better? I was cast in movies with great actors, with great leading men,” she said of the time. She would even come to look back fondly on her half-man, half-fish co-star in Black Lagoon. In 2013 she said: “The look of the creature still captivates audiences today ... the astonishing afterlife of this film never ceases to amaze me.”
When her Universal contract came to an end in 1957, Adams embarked upon an equally successful career in television. She appeared in Bonanza and Perry Mason. In Murder, She Wrote, Adams had a recurring part as estate agent Eve Simpson, friend of Angela Lansbury’s amateur detective. She also made guest appearances in The Incredible Hulk and Cagney and Lacey. And she did continue to make films outside the Universal brand. Most notably, in 1965, she starred opposite Elvis Presley in Tickle Me, as an older woman who seduces Elvis’s younger rodeo star. In 1974, she played John Wayne’s ex-wife in McQ.
In real life, Adams was married twice, firstly to screenwriter Leonard Stern. During their 1953 divorce hearing, Virginia newspaper The Bee reported that Adams testified to the court “her husband told her she didn’t have the acting ability to go with her $200,000 legs”.
Two years post her divorce from Stern, Adams married actor and director Ray Danton, with whom she had starred in The Looters (1955). As a married couple, the Dantons appeared together in Tarawa Beachhead (1958). They had two sons, Steven and Mitchell, who would both go on to work in the film industry. After Adams and Danton divorced in 1981, Adams had a long relationship with screenwriter Ronald M Cohen.
In later life, Adams threw herself into the science fiction and horror film scenes, making guest appearances at many fan events. At the 2011 CineCon Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, she was presented with a film career achievement award. A year later, she took home the Rondo Award for the Monster Kid Hall of Fame at Wonderfest.
In 2011, Adams also published her autobiography, The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections From The Black Lagoon. In her last film role, she was cast as herself in the 2018 adaptation of the book, directed and produced by her sons, Mitchell Danton and Steve Danton, who survive.
Julie Adams, actor, born 17 October 1926, died 3 February 2019