Tor Johnson – The Gentle Giant – By Dennis Grisbeck

Out of the countless B-movie actors that have appeared throughout the decades, only a handful possessed a certain charisma that makes them memorable even today. One such actor that is still recalled with an endearing fondness is the iconic Tor Johnson. Probably best remembered for his lumbering "Lobo" character, Tor starred has appeared over 30 movies in a career spanning nearly 3 decades. Ironically, it is Tor’s appearances in the worst grade-B and grade-Z movies that has given rise to his enduring popularity.

Tor was born in Sweden as Tor Johansson at the turn of the century on October 19, 1903. Standing at nearly 6’4" tall and weighing over 300 pounds, Tor moved to American in the late 1920’s where he used his uncommonly large stature to work as a professional wrestler. In order to Americanize his name, Tor changed his last name to the more familiar "Johnson" and adopted the wrestling moniker "Super Swedish Angel" when performing in the ring. Although he naturally had a full head of blonde hair, Tor shaved his head in order to fit his role as the "villain" while pounding his opponents to a pulp in his numerous wrestling matches.

His impressive size and strength soon caught the attention of local casting agents, and Tor began to appear in uncredited and bit parts in films as early as the 1930’s. His first two roles (uncredited) where as Sonnevich in the sappy 1934 hospital drama Registered Nurse, and simply as "Torturer" in the depression era comedy Kid Millions. For the next two decades, Tor would continue to appear in small roles, often credited simply as "The Weight-lifter" or "The Wrestler", while continuing to be a crowd favorite in the wrestling circuits. A couple of his more notable movie appearances include the W.C. Field’s 1935 comedy "The Man on the Flying Trapeze", and the farcical 1950 film "Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion". (Now there’s a pair of names you wouldn’t associate with Tor Johnson!)

By the mid-1950’s, Tor had become too old to keep up with the younger athletes in the ring, and The Super Swedish Angel retired from wrestling. As fate would have it, Tor met and befriended an eager film maker by the name of Ed Wood Jr. Quickly realizing Tor’s potential for playing hulking "monsters", Ed first cast Tor as Bela Lugosi’s aberrant lab assistant, Lobo, in the truly awful "Bride of the Monster" (1955). Even though Tor’s "Lobo" character died in "Bride of the Monster", Lobo mysteriously reappeared in Ed Wood’s 1959 effort "Night of the Ghouls". Always one to strike while the iron is hot, Ed cast Tor yet again that same year as Inspector Clay in the infamous "Plan 9 From Outer Space". In an interesting bit of trivia, in Bela’s scene where he picks the roses before he’s killed by a car, the house he walks out of was the real-life house of Tor Johnson. (Ahhh, the ever-resourceful Ed Wood!) If you haven’t seen Tim Burton’s 1994 Ed Wood biographical homage "Ed Wood", do yourself a favor and see it. Tor Johnson is perfectly portrayed by professional wrestler George "The Animal" Steele. The resemblance is uncanny!

Through another twist of fate, Ed Wood happened to be an acquaintance of another super-low budget movie producer…Anthony Cardoza. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, then the name of Anthony’s partner should: Coleman Francis. (It should also be raising alarm bells!) Anthony happened to be looking for somebody to play the role of a "monster" in Coleman’s latest "effort", and Ed suggested that Tor would fit the bill perfectly. After a brief discussion on the phone, Tor agreed to play the role of Dr. Joseph Javorsky, a Russian scientist turned "monster" by accidental exposure to an atomic blast in the horrendous "The Beast of Yucca Flats" (1961). Tor’s fee? A whopping $300 dollars. At this point in his life, Tor’s weight was nearing 400 pounds, and he couldn’t manage to walk up the hot desert hills for most of his shots in the film. In fact, the film crew was forced to rig up a set of pulleys and drag the ponderous Tor Johnson up the hillsides with a system of ropes! In an insightful Tom Weaver interview, Anthony Cardova mentions times that he would go over to Tor’s house for dinner where Johnson’s wife, Greta, would serve massive Swedish dinners. In fact, Anthony remembers he gained nearly 60 pounds because he went out eating so often with Tor during the shooting of "Yucca Flats". ("You gotta eat! You gotta eat!" Anthony recalls Greta saying to him whenever Tor invited him over for dinner.)

With the decline of B-movies, the ageing actor didn’t appear in any more movies after Yucca Flats. Tor did however make some guest TV appearances through the 1960’s on such shows as Groucho Marx’s "You Bet Your Life", a few spots on "The Red Skelton Show", and even a guest appearance on "Bonanza" where he played "Busthead Brannigan". Tor also appeared in numerous commercials during the 60’s to make ends meet.

Despite his menacing physical appearance, off screen and at home, Tor was known as a kind and generous man. (His wife Greta hated the roles Tor would land in his films because they in no way portrayed the person that Tor really was.) Tor’s son, Karl, also started out as a wrestler; even wrestling against his own father on occasion. (Karl wrestled under a different last name so nobody would know that they were in fact related.) After wrestling, Karl was serving as a lieutenant in the San Fernando Police Department when Ed Wood (undoubtedly at Tor’s suggestion) gave Karl a handful of uncredited roles along with his father in a couple productions; namely "Farmer Caldwell" in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and "Dead Man" in Night of the Ghouls. Karl also played the "Monster in the Basement" alongside Tor’s Lobo and the ubiquitous John Carradine in Boris Petroff’s terrible "The Unearthly" (1957).

Unfortunately, Tor’s size eventually strained his heart to the limit. In 1971, Tor fell ill, and on May 12th, the Super Swedish Angel succumbed to heart failure at the age of 67. Every B-movie fan will always remember Tor’s contributions to cult-movie history, be it as Lobo, Inspector Clay, or Dr. Javorski, petting a rabbit as he dies in the desert heat of Yucca Flats.