Haruo Nakajima portrayed the King of the Monsters for 18 years.
Considering that we never see the actor inside the Godzilla suit, one might assume that creature is played by whichever stuntman happens to be free when it’s time to shoot a scene. But such random work assignments won’t do when portraying the most famous of all kaiju, and for the first dozen films in which the King of the Monsters appeared, it was always actor Haruo Nakajima portraying His Royal Highness.
Following a severe case of pneumonia, Nakajima passed away this Monday at the age of 88, bringing to an end an incredible life full of contributions to cinematic history. The third son in a family of five children, Nakajima knew he wouldn’t be able to take over his father’s butcher shop, and after a brief stint as a truck driver for the occupying Allied Forces in 1947, he enrolled in an acting program at the age of 18 in 1947.
Nakajima earned a bit part in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece The Seven Samurai, but his big break came in 1954, when he was tapped to wear the 100-kilogram (220-pound) suit of the titular Godzilla in the 1954 film from distributor Toho that launched the franchise. The actor would go on to play Godzilla for the next 18 years, culminating in 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan, his final time to fill the role.
As you might expect, having “played Godzilla” on your resume opens a lot of doors when looking for other work playing kaiju, and over the course of his career Nakajima also served as the suit actor for Japanese movie monsters including Rodan, Baragon, and Mothra. He even played King Kong in the 1967 American/Japanese co-production King Kong Escapes and worked on television series Ultraman.
In 1971, after the production of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, Nakajima’s eleventh time playing Godzilla, Toho informed him that it would not be extending his exclusive contract for the part. Instead, Nakajima ended up working at a Toho-owned bowling alley, until the special effects staff for next year’s Godzilla vs. Gigan pulled enough strings to have the actor come back for his 12th, and final, time in the role.
Nakajima would only have one more on-screen credit, as a chauffeur in 1973’s Japan Sinks (also known as Tidal Wave). After that, he became the manager of a Toho-owned mahjong parlor.
Movie fans around the world are saddened by Nakajima’s passing, especially after having just seen him appear in a new interview a few months ago. He leaves behind an impressive legacy, though, and with the resurgent success of the Godzilla franchise both in Japan and the U.S., it’s a legacy that continues to grow.