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He was once billed as the ugliest man in the movies -- a real-life "monster" who didn't need makeup. He lurched through B-grade thrillers in the 1940s, but also appeared in some A pictures. He was shamelessly exploited by Hollywood and died an early death.

His name was Rondo Hatton -- "The Creeper". His disfigurement was the result of a pituitary condition called acromegaly, and it grew worse over time. Hatton was not the first Hollywood actor to be exploited this way, nor would he be the last. (Actor Richard Kiel, who played "Jaws" in several James Bond movies, also suffers from the affliction). But Hatton was probably the most famous of them all.

Rondo Hatton was born Davis Elkins in Hagerstown, Maryland, on April 22, 1894. He grew up a handsome, athletic young man who served in the trenches during World War I. During his tour of France, it was said (by later studio publicity releases) that he was exposed to poison gas which triggered his acromegaly. It is highly doubtful if this was the case but about the time of his discharge, and unknown to him, a small benign tumor began growing in his pituitary gland causing abnormal amounts of hormones to course through his body. It took several years, though, before he knew that something had gone terribly wrong with his body.

Hatton became a newspaper reporter on his return from the service and over the next decade his features gradually began to change. Acromegaly results in the extra growth of hands, feet nose, chin and lips -- all become elongated. The lower jaw becomes larger. Hands and feet grow gigantic and spade-like. All these things happened to Hatton. And his heart began to grow out of proportion with the rest of his body.

By 1930, Hatton was beginning to take on the form that was to make him so recognizable in the 1940s. At the time, he was working as a reporter in Florida. A movie, “Hell Harbor”, was being made nearby and Hatton was assigned to write a story about the filming. Director Henry King was so taken by Hatton's startling appearance that he cast the journalist in the role of a dockside saloon owner.

Hatton worked as a reporter for a few more years. But he was no fool. He quickly recognized that his brutish looks could be used to advantage in films. (They were, however, proving to be a disadvantage in his current occupation.) In 1936, Hatton pulled up stakes and moved to Hollywood where immediately contacted his old friend Henry King. King responded by casting him in “In Old Chicago” (1938) with Tyrone Power and Don Ameche. More roles followed, mostly as a bit player of grotesque characters. He was cast as the first contender for the king of fools contest in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939), a leper in “The Moon And Sixpence” (1942), and the character Gabe Hart in “The Ox-Bow Incident” (1943).

Rondo Hatton's short-lived horror career started when he went to work for Universal Pictures. His initial outing, in the Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Pearl of Death” (1944), gave him the nickname "The Creeper". Only three of his Universal pictures, though, can rightly be called horror films -- “The Spider Woman Strikes Back”, “House of Horrors”, and “The Brute Man”, all made in 1946. But these three films gave Hatton everlasting fame as the Monster Man.

Universal went all out promoting Hatton. They started the myth that Hatton's appearance was the result of gassing during World War II. They accentuated his distorted features with odd lighting angles. Seldom would one see a picture of Hatton as he normally appeared. Movie goers thought that Hatton was a brute in real life, but this was far from the truth. He was, in fact, a gentle man, but one who knew a good thing when he saw it.

His final picture, “The Brute Man”, gave Hatton the leading role. Unfortunately, he never lived to see his crowning achievement. His enlarged heart finally gave way and he died two months before its release. He was promptly forgotten.

With the passing of the years Rondo Hatton was rediscovered and has become a cult favorite. Today, his three Universal horror films enjoy wide release on video tape. And he is remembered in other ways.

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. “The Rocketeer” (1990) brought Hatton back to life for a few fleeting moments. With the help of makeup artist Rick Baker, Dave Stevens portrayed a Rondo Hatton look-alike as an evil thug in the film.

It was a fitting tribute. It's a shame that Hatton didn't live to see it.