Wednesday, 24 July 2019

The Great Prohaska

The most over-the-top actor on Gilligan’s Island was one whose face you never saw.

He appeared in several episodes, jumping around, grunting and gesticulating wildly, or giving a stop-and-sweep-the-head stare take.

He was a gorilla. Okay, he was a guy dressed in a gorilla suit. His name was Janos Prohaska. He always struck me as hammy but his appearances were always funny.

Prohaska showed up when the script called for a large comic relief animal. He used to play a bear as well; I remember he was on an episode of The Lucy Show. He appeared on other shows I simply can’t recall about 50 or so years after the fact.

Either he had a good agent or made good copy because TV Guide profiled him years and years ago. On a whim, I hunted in some old newspapers and discovered a few articles on him. I’m going to reprint the earliest one I spotted, from the Atlanta Constitution of November 1, 1959. This was pre-Gilligan and it seems Prohaska was on dramatic shows at the time. He seems wistful that he never got a crack at TV stardom. Considering TV was on the cusp of airing shows starring a housewife witch, a reincarnated car-mother, an astronaut-loving genie, and a crash-landed Martian, maybe he could have carried a full half-hour.
They Make a Monkey Of Janos; He Likes It
A Hungarian-born actor named Janos Prohaska has an unpleasant effect on women: They usually faint when he takes his head off.
This bothers him little because, you see, it isn’t his head.
The cur[l]y-haired, 40-year-old apes monkeys. He’s been doing it from the inside of his two-piece costume for 20 years—for money.
Prohaska turns up tonight as a pickpocketing chimpanzee who works with a conman (Vincent Price) on “Riverboat.”
There isn’t a fortune to me made in such a disguise, Prohaska confided to me over a recent breakfast in Hollywood. But, he said, the “Riverboat” role did pay him $1,500.
“I am thinking that somebody could make a serial of a chimpanzee,” he said hopefully, his eyes brightening. “Like Rin Tin Tim or Lassie. You could have so much fun with it. I like to make chimp—to make fun—to make people laugh.
“Chimps like to be cheeky, to do things you don’t want ‘em to do. They think like seven-year-olds.
* * *
When Prohaska was a seven-year-old, he was amusing his friends with handstands (“I was always a gymnast”) and at 12 he started his first show. “I went to work in a side-show with a schoolmate. The announcer said we came from the Palladium. I didn’t even know where that was.” (But he later appeared in the London Auditorium).
“We then worked in theatres and night clubs. Then, in 1939, I first did my chimp act with a costume I made from goatskin.
“But the costume was no good. I couldn’t move in it. It was too stiff. But the kids liked it.”
In 1942, his partner died; in 1943, Prohaska was pacted to appear in Spain—but he only got as far as Austria. “They wouldn’t let us out of the country,” Prohaska recalled. He escaped the draft and, in 1946, wound up working for the U.S. Army’s Special Services unit—appearing for 2½ years in various centers. In the meantime, Prohaska had married (he is now separated: his wife, one-time target in a knife-throwing act, now lives in Australia, raising their 13-year-old son).
After bouncing around for years, Janos, who said he appeared on TV in Berlin in 1941, made his U.S. TV debut on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956. Since then, he’s appeared on some Westerns.
* * *
Apart from funding suitable job offers, Prohaska’s other difficulty is in making his own chimpanzee outfit.
“First I make costume of nylon but was no good,” he said. “Too stiff, too heavy, too fire-danger. Now,” said the five-foot-four muscle-man, “I have one costume. It cost me $300 and six months to make. I make with rubber, jersey, leather and yak hair. I sew with needle—even the to[u]pee I wear on my head. The feet and hands are from latex.”
When Prohaska appeared for the “Riverboat” role with his costume, the outfit weighed a lot. “But they chop off almost half the hair. Now, it weighs seven pounds,” he said.
Prohaska maintains that he has no competition for his act.
“Oh, there are a few doing gorillas here but so far I’m the only one making the chimpanzee. Others are too stiff—like robots.”
* * *
When Prohaska turned up on the “Riverboat” set, he came face to face with a real chimpanzee.
“He has armed like dot”—Prohaska demonstrated the wingspan—“and shoulders like dot”—Prohaska became bug-eyed—“and we started playing footsies. At first he do not know I am not real chimp.
“Then,” smiled the actor, “he smell my skin. Then he know, he know. . .”
Science fiction fans will know Prohaska for his work on a number of TV series.

He died in a plane crash during a filming expedition for the series The Primal Man on March 13, 1974 near Bishop, California.


  1. He also appeared in 3 Outer Limits episodes (Architects of Fear, Sixth Finger, Probe) and 3 Star Trek episodes (Devil in Dark, Private Little War, Savage Curtain). He played "Mikie" in Probe (OL) which looks a lot like "Horla" in Devil in Dark (ST). I personally think Star Trek was nothing more than "Wagon Train with Outer Limits monsters".

  2. Per Wiki:

    "During the late 1980s revamp of the DC Comics character Blackhawk by Howard Chaykin, the leader of the eponymous group of World War II fighters was revealed to be named Janos Prohaska, in tribute to the actor."

    1. I recall the Chaykin reboot of Blackhawk. I found it odd that team leader Blackhawk, who was supposed to be Polish, would have a Hungarian name (the Polish equivalent would be "Janusz").

  3. Bob Burns, in his book "It Came From Bob's Basement," recalled when he started out in Hollywood as a gorilla impersonator, he hoped to get some advice or help from Prohaska - who considered Burns a competitor and treated him unkindly. (Bob was "Tracy" in the "Ghost Busters" series.)

    1. A fanfic (or something) should pair THOSE Ghostbusters with the "REAL" Ghostbusters (from the 1984 movie). LOL! XD!

  4. Andy Williams' Cookie Bear!

  5. He also showed up with Bob Denver again on " Dusty's Trail ",or as I called it, " Gilligan's Island meets F-Troop ". He was various animals, bears, gorillas, etc. I remember seeing his name on the closing credits.

  6. On "the Beverly Hillbillies", Granny wanted a gorilla as help around the house. She got a man in a gorilla suit (courtesy of Mr. Drysdale). She beat(?) the "gorilla", and fed him possum stew which the "gorilla" rejected strongly, and pigged out(?) on REAL gorilla food (leaves, etc.(?)) instead. I wonder: what if Granny got a REAL gorilla? LOL!

    1. That "gorilla" was George Barrows, known for playing the title role in the infamous "Robot Monster."

  7. We shared a 1969 TV Guide piece on Prohaska a while back. See attached URL.