Johnny Eck, born John Eckhardt, Jr. (27 August 1911, Baltimore, Maryland – 5 January 1991, Baltimore, Maryland) was an American freak show performer born with the appearance that he was missing the lower half of his torso. Eck is best known today for his role in Tod Browning’s 1932 cult classic film, Freaks. He was often billed as the amazing “Half-Boy” and “King of the Freaks”.
Besides being a sideshow performer and actor, Johnny Eck was also an artist, photographer, illusionist, penny arcade owner, Punch and Judy operator, and expert model-maker.
In late 1923, Eck and his brother attended a performance of stage magic at a local church by John McAslan. When McAslan asked for volunteers for his act, 12-year-old Eck bounded onto the stage on his hands to the surprise of the magician. McAslan convinced Eck to join the sideshow with him as manager; Eck agreed, but only if his brother was also employed. Robert was charged with looking after his brother by their mother. His parents signed a one-year contract, which Eck claimed the magician later changed to a ten-year contract by adding a zero. In 1924, Eck left McAslan and signed on with a carny named Captain John Sheesley.
Eck was billed as a single-o (solo sideshow act), though he traveled with Robert and used Robert’s normalcy to emphasize his own abnormal physique. His performance included sleight-of-hand and acrobatic feats including his famous one-armed handstand. Eck often performed in a tuxedo jacket while perched upon a tasseled stool. Eck performed for Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey and others.
Eck went to the Canadian Exposition in the summer of 1931. Eck was performing in Montreal when he was approached by a MGM Studios talent scout to be cast for his first feature film as the “Half-Boy” in Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks.
Eck got along quite well with Tod Browning and was often at his side while on set. Eck would later say that “Browning wanted me to stay as close to him as possible. He told me whenever I have an empty seat or chair, you are to sit alongside me while we shoot.” Although he sometimes tried to socialize, he didn’t feel comfortable mingling with his castmates, whom he described as a “happy, noisy crowd” and “childish, silly and in a world all their own.” At one point he complained that they had gone “Hollywood” because of the film, “wear[ing] sunglasses and acting funny.” When Pete Robinson had difficulty lying on a blanket in one scene, Eck made the comment that if he had legs, he would have lain on a fakir’s bed of nails. Olga Baclanova would reminisce fondly of her costar (whom she described as “handsome”), “When we finished the picture, he came and gave me a present. He had made a circus ring made from matches. He said he had made it in my honor.”
Eck claimed that Browning wished to do a follow-up picture with him and Robert where he would play a mad scientist’s creation. However, Browning’s career was irretrievably hurt by Freaks, and he no longer had the clout with studios to do many of the projects he wished to do. Eck was also disappointed by how much of his part had been trimmed from the film in the nearly thirty minutes that were cut by censors.
After Freaks, Eck was featured as a bird creature or “Gooney Bird” in three Tarzan movies: Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Tarzan Escapes (1936) and Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941). In order to create the bird costume used by Eck for the Tarzan films, footage which was filmed during the production of Freaks in 1931, a full body cast was taken of him.
In 1937, Eck and Robert were recruited by the illusionist and hypnotist, Rajah Raboid, for his “Miracles of 1937” show. In it they performed a magic feat that amazed audiences. Raboid performed the traditional sawing-a-man-in-half illusion, except with an unexpected twist. At first Robert would pretend to be a member of the audience and heckle the illusionist during his routine, resulting in Robert being called on stage to be sawed in half himself. During the illusion, Robert would then be switched with his twin brother Eck, who played the top half of his body, and a dwarf, who played the bottom half, concealed in specially-built pant legs. After being sawed in half, the legs would suddenly get up and start running away, prompting Eck to jump off the table and start chasing his legs around the stage, screaming, “Come back!” “I want my legs back!” Sometimes he even chased the legs into the audience. The subsequent reaction was amazing – people would scream and sometimes even flee the theater in terror. As Eck described it, “The men were more frightened than the women – the women couldn’t move because the men were walking across their laps, headed for the exit.” The act provided the perfect jolt by frightening people at first but then caused just as much laughter and applause. The illusion would end with stage hands plucking up Eck and setting him atop his legs and then twirling him off-stage to be replaced by his twin Robert, who would then loudly threaten to sue Raboid and storm out of the theater. Their act was so popular that they played to packed audiences up and down the East coast.
In addition to film, sideshow and stage, Eck was also pursuing other interests in this period. He and his brother were musicians, having their own twelve-piece orchestra in Baltimore. Eck conducted while Robert played the piano. Eck continued his love of drawing and painting; early on choosing such subjects as pretty girls, ships and himself. He was also a race car enthusiast and the driver of his own custom-built race car that was street-legal in Baltimore, the “Johnny Eck Special”. In 1938, Eck climbed the Washington Monument on his hands.
Promo still from the 1932 film “Freaks.”
THE GOONY BIRD PLAYED BY JOHNNY ECK