Not of this World #2 Tor Johnson- Super Swedish Angel/Monster
Updated: Oct 2, 2022
Not of this World #2
Tor Johnson Super Swedish Angel/Monster
For most of us, our first exposure to Tor Johnson was between the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. If you are of a certain age and bent, then Famous Monsters joined Mad magazine as your childhood's Old and New Testament. Tor appeared in those magic pages many times in all his bald, white-eyed monster glory.
But where does a monster come from? I assumed Tor was created in a make-up room by Jack Pierce or Dick Smith. (Pierce made Frankenstein, and Smith was known as the Godfather of Makeup) For you youngsters, Rick Baker or Tom Savini. If you don't know who these guys are, do a Google search! I'm not here to hold your hand! Tor Johnson came from a little suburb of Stockholm, Sweden, Brännkyrka. (Pronounce that one, I dare ya!) This happened around 1902 or 1903 no one alive knows for sure.
As Tor grew up, the show biz bug bit him and hard! But amateur productions of Strindberg were not in his future. Because when Tor grew up, he really grew up! He was 6'4" and 440 pounds of man meat, topped with flowing golden locks. The soon-to-be monster was not suited for the grease paint of the theatrical stage. No, Tor Johnson had a higher calling to the squared circle, the wrestling ring!
Let's hop into the way back machine to discuss wrestling. Back in the day, it was just like today, only less bombastic. Also, today's wrestlers are very handsome comparatively. A big name in worldwide wrestling was a French lawyer named Maurice Tillet. Tillet was also big, not Tor big, but big. He spent some time as a French submariner before taking his place at the bar. One day he noticed some changes in his hands and face. A doctor diagnosed him with Acromegaly. His relatively large size, 5' 10" and 250 pounds (During the depression, people were smaller!) and deformed features made Maurice doubt that anyone would want a monster for a lawyer. Fate has a way of interceding, and a chance meeting with Karl Pojello led to a somewhat lucrative career (for the depression) barnstorming wrestling venues in Europe.
World War Two happened, and the two friends set sail to Boston. Maurice, who had developed a following as the French Angel, continued in America, held the world champion title on two separate occasions, and was undefeated for 14 months of weekly matches. But what does this have to do with Tor?
Stay with me.
The French Angel inspired a whole mess of wrestling angels to appear on the scene. Paul Olaffsen, The Swedish Angel who also had Acromegaly, became a star. Tony Angelo the Russian Angel, Jack Rush the Canadian Angel, Wladyslaw Tulin the Polish Angel, Stan Pinto the Czech Angel, Clive Welsh the Irish Angel, Jack Falk the Golden Angel, Gil Guerrero the Black Angel, and Jean Noble the Lady Angel. (And me, Tiny Sammartino, the little Angel! -joking!) Ninety percent of these angels could have played monsters, and many of them are the thing of nightmares, but Tor Johnson, comparatively, was good-looking, and his flowing locks were unique. His wrestling name was the Super Swedish Angel. Why super? No clue. But it made him different.
The one time The French Angel, Tillet, competed with Tor Johnson, Tor got billed as the Swedish Angel, which probably pissed Paul Ofaffsen off. Not the kind of guy I would want pissed at me. Why Angels? Maurice Tillet's mother said he was the sweetest child and an absolute “angel.” Karl Pojello thought that was great, and the French Angel was born. All the other Angels are copycats. I can't blame them, and The French Angel was hot stuff. Hollywood seemed like the place a wrestler could make a living. They had wrestling in America and not too many Nazis. Of course, many made it to our shores, and Tor Johnson and his wife, Greta, did the same. By 1934 they were set up in a small apartment, and Tor was looking for work.
He worked as a grip and an extra, and eventually, in 1934, Tor got cast by Warner Brothers in the Pre-Code, Registered Nurse as a mental patient. He followed that up with Eddie Cantor's 1934 hit, Kid Millions, playing an Egyptian torturer. Finally, he gets a role he is most suited for (Pre-Monster, I mean) as Toss-off the Mad Russian, a wrestler in WC Fields' 1935 classic, The Man of The Flying Trapeze. After that, he split his time, playing tough guys and wrestlers. When the movies were slow, he would drive around America as a Barn Storming professional wrestler. But it wasn't until he shaved his head that the Super Swedish Angel became Tor Johnson, the monster we all love.
Before we delve into the more Famous Monster phase of Tor's career lets, take a moment, and discuss the man. According to Tor's son Karl a former pro wrestler and a lieutenant in the San Fernando Valley Police Department, his mother hated the parts that Tor got in movies. She hated the heavy and villain roles. She felt he was sweet and gentle. Karl also said his dad was generous with his time, money, and food. He was often throwing dinner parties for his film and wrestling friends.
In the 1950s, as his wrestling years faded, his film career entered a new stage. The Monster Stage!!! Duh! Duh! Daaaaah! Always willing to talk to a fan, Tor met a young man who would seal his fate in our consciousness forever. Edward Davis Wood, Jr. WWII veteran, inept filmmaker, and cross-dresser. (Transvestite is such an ugly word and not apropos to today's use of language. His second wife, Kathy, thought he was a hoot prancing around their Hollywood bungalow in her underwear with his false teeth out.) Back to the story, they become friends, and eventually, Wood casts Tor in Bride of the Monster, Plan Nine from Outer Space, and Night of the Ghouls.
It would be at Wood's suggestion that Tor gets cast as the scientist Dr. Jaworski, who, due to an atomic accident, has turned into a monster in 1961s The Beast of Yucca Flats. (Spoiler Alert: He dies stroking a little bunny!) Sadly, this would be Tor's last feature film as a monster. Times change, and he would not get invited to be in a Beach Blanket Movie. Ah, but television awaits. He appeared in Gunsmoke, an amazing episode of You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx, What's My Line, and The Red Skelton Show. His last movie appearance was in Head, featuring the Monkees. I don't know if it's Tor or the films he attracts, but they aren't great. They have their own charm, But mostly not great works of art. (I said, mostly... keep reading)
Tor died in 1971 of congestive heart failure in the San Fernando Valley.
With that final gasp, Tor would have fallen into the deep recesses of our cultural amnesia like Chic Sale, vaudeville star, and movie comedian. He starred in 18 films; I bet you can't name one. There are millions of them we just forgot. And then there was Forrest J Ackerman and Famous Monsters of Filmland. That monstrous face of Tor's looming out of the newsprint. I get the shivers just thinking about it.
Before video and streaming, you had to catch one of Tor's movies on Chiller Theater on television or seek them out at a revival movie house. Outside of magazine appearances, I wouldn't have thought much about Tor Johnson until I met Drew Friedman in Art School. Drew exposed me to the Tor I never knew. His work, at the time, was a pretty insane stipple technique that brought Tor back to life for a new generation. One of the three cultural hallmarks of the 1980s is New Wave, Hip Hop, and Drew Friedman's Tor Johnson drawings. Drew also magically resurrected Ed Wood's work, posthumously earning him the Golden Turkey Award as the worst director of all time!
Without Drew Friedman's comics exposing Tor Johnson to the world, he would be forgotten, lost forever. Ultimately I blame Mad magazine, Famous Monsters, and a very disturbed cartoonist for keeping Tor's flame burning, and I thank God for it.
One Last thing: Tor was in many movies, some credited and some not. And some were surprising. Tor is no Bobby Barber, but he does show up in some odd places. Here are a few, The Shadow of the Thin Man, The Canterville Ghost, Abbott and Costello’s Lost in a Harem, The Road to Rio-with Hope, and Crosby! The Lemon Drop Kid, and Houdini, just to name a few.
Oh, I almost forgot! He plays a circus strong man in Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel! He doesn't sing, but maybe it got cut?
Thank you to Drew Friedman for allowing us to include examples of his wonderful artwork. Check out more of Drew Freidman's work at http://drewfriedman.blogspot.com/ and