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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
despite all of this, Tor Johnson was/is an icon ...
Early Life, Early Career
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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 ...
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
In 1967, a man called George Steele who bore quite a resemblance to Tor Johnson entered the
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
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
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,
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