Haruo Nakajima, the Original Actor Beneath the Godzilla Suit

Haruo Nakajima (second from left) during the filming of Godzilla Raids Again (1955).
Haruo Nakajima (second from left) during the filming of Godzilla Raids Again (1955).
Wikipedia // Public Domain

If you can’t picture actor Haruo Nakajima’s face, that’s because his most famous movie role had him hidden inside a monster costume. The Japanese performer—who played cinema’s most famous reptilian beast, Godzilla, in both the 1954 original film and 11 sequels—died on August 7, 2017 at the age of 88 from pneumonia, but not before giving the world a glimpse of the man beneath the scaly suit.

Nakajima was born on January 1, 1929, in Yamagata, Japan. As the third of five children, he knew he wouldn't inherit his father's butcher shop (which traditionally went to the eldest son), so he enrolled in an acting program at the age of 18 after working for a brief period as a truck driver for the occupying Allied forces.

Nakajima launched his movie career by working as a stuntman in samurai movies. His most famous bit part was in Akira Kurosawa’s famous 1954 adventure-drama Seven Samurai, but his big break occurred while filming the 1953 World War II military film Eagle of the Pacific.

The script required Nakajima to jump from a burning plane, and when director Ishirō Honda saw him in action, "he thought, 'This guy is full of energy,'" the actor recalled to Great Big Story in March 2017. “They came to see me as someone who had guts, and I think that’s why they wanted me for the role of Godzilla.”

In the original 1954 Godzilla film, underwater hydrogen bomb testing disturbs an ancient sea creature from its aquatic habitat, and the beast proceeds to wreak havoc upon mainland Japan. Since Nakajima initially had no idea what the titular monster would look like or how it would move, he prepared for his role in an unusual way.

“I spent 10 days at the zoo,” Nakajima later recalled, according to Jonathan Clements’s book Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. “I’d watch the way the elephants walked, the monkeys, the gorillas, but especially the bears. I used to take two lunches with me. One was mine, and the rest of it I’d throw to the bears. When one of them snatched it up and shoveled it into his mouth, I’d watch the way he did it.”

Not that it was easy to move in the Godzilla suit. The original costume was made from ready-mixed concrete (rubber was a scare commodity in post-war Japan) and reportedly weighed around 220 pounds. It was also suffocatingly hot: Nakajima sweated so much beneath the soundstage’s bright lights that by day’s end he said he could fill half a bucket with perspiration wrung from his undershirt.

When Godzilla first arrived in movie theaters in 1954, an anonymous Nakajima watched the film from the front row to gauge the audience's reaction. "When the film was a success I was so surprised," he told Great Big Story. "I was so happy."

Nakajima starred in Godzilla movies for most of the next two decades. He also appeared in dozens of other monster movies as a contract actor for Japanese film studio Toho, which created the Godzilla franchise. But after filming Godzilla vs. Hedorah in 1971, Nakajima's exclusive contract wasn't renewed, and he donned the scaly suit just one last time for 1972's Godzilla vs. Gigan. The actor retired in 1973, and spent his remaining years attending comic cons and movie conventions, making the occasional Godzilla film cameo, and running a Toho-owned mahjong parlor.

Even though Nakajima enjoyed a successful career, he would never experience international fame: "Back then, people didn't speak positively of suit actors," Nakajima told Japanese magazine Josei Seven in 2014, according to Kotaku. "There'd be whispers going around that working inside [a suit] is not an acting job."

Yet the Godzilla franchise became a worldwide phenomenon. The films ushered in a new era of sci-fi monster movies, and after World War II, they served as a campy—yet palpable—reminder of the dangers of nuclear combat.

As for Nakajima himself, “there are not a lot of actors that you can compare him to,” Akira Mizuta Lippit, a cinematic arts professor at the University of Southern California, told The Washington Post after Nakajima’s death. “He, in fact, invented the kind of acting that he then performed. In that sense, he’s absolutely unique."

This $49 Video Game Design Course Will Teach You Everything From Coding to Digital Art Skills

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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Once you’ve nailed the basics, the lifetime membership provides unlimited access to thousands of dollars' worth of royalty-free game art and textures to use in your 2D or 3D designs. Support from instructors and professionals with over 16 years of game industry experience will guide you from start to finish, where you’ll be equipped to land a job doing something you truly love.

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Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.