Meet the real gorillas who inspired Hollywood's most famous gorilla suit
George Barrows modelled his famous gorilla costume after these popular real apes in America.
For The Addams Family episode "Morticia Joins the Ladies League," a gorilla named Gorgo joins the Addams family after Pugsley befriends the ape at a failing circus.
Inside the gorilla suit for this fan-favorite episode was George Barrows, an actor who created his famous gorilla costume in 1949, when jungle movies were popular and there was great demand for gorilla suits, but not enough gorilla suits to go around.
At the time, Barrows told the Alternative Press in 1966 that there was only one other actor who had a gorilla outfit, so Barrows cornered the market and ended up being featured in more than 100 TV and movie roles as a gorilla.
The suit was so popular, Barrows didn’t even have to wear it to profit off it. Once, an English movie paid him $750 a week to use the gorilla suit for five months.
The suit only cost Barrows $500 to make, a sum he exponentially earned back.
When Barrows was creating the gorilla suit, he wanted it to be realistic, so the actor did his homework, researching gorillas and studying photos of the most famous gorillas in the world.
Among these famous gorillas who became muses for Barrows’ gorilla suit was a gorilla named Bushman, a gorilla who once made headlines when he escaped from his cage at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
The story goes that Bushman’s cage was not properly locked after a cleaning and he simply walked out. When his trainer tried to walk the escaped gorilla back into its pen, the gorilla unexpectedly bit his trainer’s arm and fled to a staff kitchen where he was much harder to approach.
Nothing worked to get the gorilla back into his cage, until his trainer remembered the gorilla was terrified of alligators. The trainer led a baby alligator on a leash into the kitchen, and Bushman shrieked and ran back into his cage.
Other gorillas Barrows used to inspire his suit live today in sculpture form at the Smithsonian Museum. Mbongo and Ngagi both came from the Congo and lived at the San Diego Zoo, where they became central attractions for crowds.
The last muse for Barrows’ gorilla suit came from the circus, much like Pugsley’s new friend Gorgo on The Addams Family, and it’s likely this gorilla also served as an inspiration for the Gorgo character.
Gargantua was a gorilla who became a Ringling Brothers circus attraction so spectacular, he’s credited with saving the circus from bankruptcy.
This gorilla was memorable to circusgoers because of a scar on his face that made him appear menacing.
The circus claimed he was the largest gorilla in captivity and insisted he was "The World's Most Terrifying Living Creature!"
Where Bushman, Mbongo and Ngagi drew tens of thousands of visitors annually, it’s said that Gargantua drew millions.
Occasionally the Peabody Museum of Natural History in Connecticut still puts out Gargantua’s skeleton on display today.
For Barrows, constructing his gorilla suit out of these popular gorillas was a strategy to make extra money as an actor, but it wasn’t his entire game. As an actor, he didn’t just play gorillas.
On The Addams Family, he once appeared as a policeman, and in his career, he typically played businessmen and bad guys whenever he wasn’t suited up and staring out the eyeholes of his gorilla suit.
In his interview with Abilene Reporter-News, he said that to make the gorilla realistic, he made the arms 20 inches longer than a human’s. To move the gorilla’s fingers, he had to build in controls into the arms.
And although audiences today might see the eye cut-outs in the gorilla head as an obvious indicator the gorilla isn’t real, Barrows insisted it was the fact that his real eyes shown through that set his gorilla suit apart to film studios – "otherwise, it’s just a Halloween costume."