by Don Stradley
Eddie Carmel puts the squeeze on Herb Evers in The Brain That Wouldn't Die.
Eddie Carmel died in July of 1972. He was buried in Paramus, New Jersey, needing a specially constructed coffin and a grave large enough for two people. Though obituaries listed him as “more than nine feet tall,” this was probably a great exaggeration. He was obviously enormous, probably breaking the eight-foot mark, having once worked for The Ringling Brothers circus as “The World’s Tallest Man.” He’d died of heart failure, a common enough occurrence for men of his size.
The obits portrayed Eddie as a Bronx character, a kindhearted Jewish giant who lived a secluded life with his parents in Co-op City. There were mentions of his glandular condition, his acromegaly, and how he was sometimes taunted by “the less understanding.” There were also mentions of his work in show business, the high cost of his specially tailored clothes, and his short-lived attempt at standup comedy. Yet there was no mention of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, the 1962 film where Eddie played a nightmarish character with a misshapen head. The movie might’ve merited a mention as it was already a staple of late night television. People who loved the movie certainly loved that monster.
Then again, Eddie and his parents may have downplayed his association with The Brain. To be known as a deranged monster who bit a man’s throat out may have been unpleasant for such a kindly soul as Eddie Carmel.
The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, streaming on The Film Detective this month, was originally shot in the fall of 1959, right smack in the heyday of movies about disembodied brains (Ie. Donovan’s Brain (1953), The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963), and, for that matter, the famous Star Trek episode from 1968 called “Spock’s Brain.”) It may not be the best of the lot, but it is possibly the sleaziest and the creepiest.
Director Joseph Green spoke at length about the movie in a 1990 issue of FilmFax, recalling that producer Rex Carlton had planned to call it, I was a Teenage Brain Surgeon. Green claimed to have written the screenplay in three days, and that it was filmed in the basement of a Manhattan hotel on West 57th Street.
The story was a howler from the opening moments when a surgeon’s fiancé is decapitated in a car crash. While keeping the woman’s head alive in his lab, the nutty professor prowls the city’s red light district hoping to find the perfect body on which he might graft his fiancé’s noggin. Then there is the fiery climax, where the surgeon’s headquarters go up in flames, the female head hissing and laughing at the chaos.
Carlton convinced some Broadway benefactors to kick in $62,000 to finance the project and then set about auditioning actors. Virginia Leith, who had acted in some successful movies (A Kiss Before Dying, Violent Saturday) was cast as Jan, who would spend most of the film from the neck up in a pan of special fluids. Lucky for Carlton, Twentieth Century Fox had not renewed Leith's contract and she was taking any job she could get. Ultimately, the sight of her head in the lab was one of the great images in the history of horror and sci -fi movies, and Leith’s performance, all rolling eyes and demented smiles, was properly sinister.
The movie’s ace in the hole would be Eddie. After dabbling in carnival work and an unsuccessful stint in professional wrestling, he was hoping to break into movies and television. (He’d also worked for a time selling mutual funds at an insurance office on 42nd Street.) For Green, Eddie would play the surgeon’s first failed experiment, a creature so grotesque that he had to be locked away in a dungeon. With his head covered in what looked like Papier-mâché, Eddie made a startling pinheaded monster. He steals the show, even from Leith.
Of course, mad scientists and monsters were already well-worn tropes by 1959. What made The Brain That Wouldn’t Die unique was the unexpected violence near the end, most of it from Eddie as he terrorizes the lab and leaves a trail of blood behind him. The bloody scenes resulted in American-International lopping 10 minutes from the movie when it was finally released in 1962. The missing scenes would be reinserted by the 1970s, which partly helped the movie attain its cult status. Also unusual was the movie’s sleaze factor. The surgeon (Herb Evers) seems to leer at every woman he meets, always in search of the perfect body for his fiancé’s head.
Millionaire recluse Howard Hughes allegedly cited the movie as a favorite, as did film director Tim Burton. Yet in the hundreds of “film guides” published over the years, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is usually dismissed as poorly produced and derivative. Those who saw it as children, however, were certainly transfixed, particularly by Eddie. The sight of his massive hand alone, shooting through a door to grab the scientist by the throat, was unforgettable, a hand so large that viewers, particularly kids, knew they were seeing something highly unusual. That was no prop hand; as New York Times journalist Gay Talese once said of Eddie’s hands, his knuckles were “like golf balls.”
Eddie loved publicity . He often wore a cowboy hat which added to his height (He was sometimes billed as the world’s tallest “cowboy,” though it is unlikely that he ever spent a minute on a ranch.) To accentuate his mammoth proportions, he was usually photographed next to short people or children. He recorded a couple of novelty songs, and had hopes of someday hosting a children’s TV show as a friendly giant. “I’m not just a spectacle,” he boasted. “I’m an entertainer now.”
Yet some of the big man’s publicity seemed staged, including an obviously fake marriage ceremony involving an “exotic dancer” from Los Angeles. Eddie also claimed to have appeared in more than 100 films, but in reality his first movie job was in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. There was talk that Eddie had appeared in television shows and had used his deep voice for radio work, but one wonders how much of this was true, and how much of it was a tall man telling tall tales.
Eddie had hoped to show the world that a giant could be gregarious and fun-loving. He enjoyed word play, and could make up simple poems on the spot. Yet Eddie’s attempt to be a stand-up comic failed, and he complained that movie producers only offered him roles where he grunted. His showbiz dreams dashed, he’d stand around a subway entrance in the Bronx telling jokes to passersby. That is, until walking became too difficult for him.
There were also semi-regular articles about the great fortune Eddie had made through his circus work, and how he had overcome his early shyness to become a celebrity. Yet there was no fortune for Eddie, and if he overcame his shyness, it was only temporarily; he ended up a near shut-in, worn out by the teasing from neighborhood kids.
Photographer Diane Arbus, known for her studies of eccentric characters and carnival people, shot many photos of Eddie over the years. Though she described Eddie as being rather course and greedy, Arbus also claimed he was one of her favorite subjects. In 1970 she shot a memorable tableau of Eddie with his parents in their home. By then Eddie’s condition was crippling him; he was horribly stooped and needed the support of a cane. In the photo he looks tired, unshaven, dramatically out of place in his parents’ condominium, his head nearly crashing through the ceiling.
The photograph, titled “A Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, New York, 1970, “ became one of Arbus’ most celebrated works. Prints fetch as much as $60,000 at art auctions. Eddie would’ve wanted a piece of the action, and he would’ve loved knowing the photograph is part of the most prestigious collections in the world, including those at Princeton University and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Unfortunately, Eddie never knew how the photo was revered. He died two years after it was taken at age 36.
The funeral service was to be private, though Eddie’s mother made a last minute choice to hold the service at a well-known Bronx chapel.
“Eddie,” she said, “was the kind of guy who would like a full house.”
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Don Stradley is an award winning journalist. His next book, Boston Tabloid: The Killing of Robin Benedict, will be available Nov. 1 on Amazon.