Wrestlers Acting Out

(Above: Tor Johnson. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Extreme hype, bigger-than-life bombast and carefully staged athleticism have always characterized professional wrestling.

Professional wrestlers are also among the biggest hams — literally and metaphorically — to have ever taken the stage.

It’s no wonder then that many professional wrestlers have been unable to resist Hollywood’s siren song.

In a two-part series, The Savvy Screener looks at some of the great cinematic performances by wrestlers — and where you can stream them.

Today, in part one, we focus exclusively on the screen work of Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson.

Johnson (1903-1971) worked steadily as a film actor, sometimes portraying wrestlers (e.g., W.C. Field’s 1935 Man on the Flying Trapeze).

But it wasn’t until Johnson reached his early 50s that he hit pay dirt – or at least dirt.

Rediscovered by the eccentric and entrepreneurial Ed Wood, Jr. (director, screenwriter and creator of movies so bad, they’re good), Johnson’s 6’ 3” broad frame, beefy body and bald head were used repeatedly to scare, menace and delight.

Johnson appeared three times for Wood, initially playing Lobo, Bela Lugosi’s clumsy, lovesick helpmate in Bride of the Monster (1955) and then essaying Lobo once again in Wood’s lesser known, quasi sequel Night of the Ghouls, aka Revenge of the Dead (1958). Night of the Ghouls didn’t see light of day until the 1970s when Wood finally squared the post-production lab bill.

Perhaps Johnson’s most memorable role was Inspector Clay – murdered and zombified in the first 15 minutes of Wood’s infamously celebrated Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959). Johnson and the late Vampira walked together with outstretched arms. Vampira became indelibly imprinted on the minds of children in 1960s New York, who with trepidation tuned in Saturday nights to see her lead-in to WPIX’s Chiller Theater.

Johnson was also a guest contestant on You Bet Your Life.  Host Groucho Marx takes his life in his hands by busting Johnson’s chops. His first question to the mighty Tor: “Who are you? Khrushchev?”

Where to Stream Tor Johnson’s Greatest Hits

The Man on the Flying Trapeze is available only on disc.

However,  Night of the GhoulsPlan Nine from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster — all of which are in the public domain — are viewable right here:

Night of the Ghouls


Plan 9 from Outer Space


Bride of the Monster


Tomorrow, The Savvy Screener will discuss the film and TV appearances of George “The Animal” Steele, Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

About Charlie Greenberg

Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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