Posted by Richard Harland Smith on March 13, 2007
Here I am… writing about death again.
Some deaths stick with you even when you don’t know the person. I didn’t know Janos Prohaska, a Hungarian émigré who made a career in Hollywood buried under Latex and faux fur but I remember reading about his death when I was 12 and the tragic details made an impression on me.
Prohaska was born in Budapest on October 10, 1919. An intense and mercurial man with a devilish attention to detail, he had an early role as a circus performer in Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962) but seemed most comfortable when least recognizable. From his Santa Monica studio, the talented sculptor fashioned a menagerie of creatures great and small, of this earth and out of this world. On The Outer Limits, he was Darwin the Monkey in the classic episode “The Sixth Finger” and a Thetan raygunman in "The Architects of Fear" (pictured below). In David J. Schow’s indispensable Outer Limits Companion, director Byron Haskin is quoted as having met Prohaska the day “he came into my office, put a beer bottle on the table, and then stood on his head with his finger in the bottle, supporting himself. He could defy the law of gravity."
Apes were Prohaska’s forte and he played them in episodes of Perry Mason, Gilligan’s Island, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Land of the Giants. On Lost in Space and Bewitched he played giant birds but for Star Trek he crafted a panoply of interstellar critters, from the horned Mugato of “A Private Little War” to the rolling Horta in “A Devil in the Dark.” As Heloise the gorilla, Prohaska strangled intelligent chimp Sal Mineo in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and was still doing his simian thing as late as the short-lived hospital sitcom Temperature’s Rising in 1973. He also had a profitable sideline playing bears, due to his regular gig as the insatiable Cookie Bear on The Andy Williams Show between 1969 and 1971. (It has long been speculated that the computer term "cookie" comes from its coiner's love of The Andy Williams Show, specifically Prohaska's weekly attempts to beg a snack from the stingy host.) Ursine bits followed on Mayberry RFD, Here’s Lucy and Dusty’s Trail. Prohaska was cast as a talking bear masquerading as a man in a bear suit in the 1972 half-hour The Bear and I, opposite Soupy Sales and Joe Flynn, but the pilot went unsold.
Janos Prohaska died on March 13, 1974, when his chartered Convair CV-440 crashed in Bishop, California. Prohaska was on his way to participate in the BBC miniseries The Ascent of Man. He was 54 years old. Killed with him were his 28 year-old son, Bobby Prohaska, and 33 others.
Lovers of ersatz simians celebrate National Gorilla Suit Day on January 31st of each year. This gives you plenty of time to plan for next year. Do it up big. Do it for Janos.
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