Terry Tracy, 77; surfer was model for the Big Kahuna

Terry Tracy, who got into surfing at age 15, never lost his passion for the sport or the carefree lifestyle it fostered.
Terry Tracy, who got into surfing at age 15, never lost his passion for the sport or the carefree lifestyle it fostered.

NEW YORK — Terry Tracy, who as an easygoing, fun-loving surfer inspired the ‘‘Gidget’’ movies and television series and helped make surfing an international sport — while becoming the embodiment of the cool alternative lifestyle of sunglass-wearing beach bums — died Wednesday at his home in San Clemente, Calif. He was 77.

The cause was complications of diabetes, said his wife, Phyllis.

Uninterested in the 9-to-5 routine, Mr. Tracy quit his job at his family’s savings and loan in the mid-1950s and built himself a shack on Malibu Beach. He used discarded lumber for the frame and palm fronds for the walls and furnished it with a couch without legs. For two summers the shack became the hub for a small tribe of young men who loved surfing — and beach parties — as much as he did. They called themselves the ‘‘pit crew.’’


As a surfer, Mr. Tracy rode an old-fashioned wooden longboard and developed a move called the Royal Hawaiian, in which he would wait for a wave to come in and cut across less-experienced surfers with his arms spread wide to show who was king.

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Steve Pezman, publisher of The Surfer’s Journal, said of Mr. Tracy: ‘‘His surfing was competent, but it wasn’t his surfing that made him distinctive. It was his personality.’’

One day a 15-year-old girl just over 5 feet tall named Katherine Kohner wandered up to Mr. Tracy while he was living on the beach. Soon he gave her the nickname Gidget, a hybrid of girl and midget.

Kohner began hanging out with Mr. Tracy and the beach crew and told her father, screenwriter Frederick Kohner, all about them. Her stories inspired him to write a novel, ‘‘Gidget: The Little Girl With Big Ideas’’ (1957). It was a sensation and led to more books, a photo spread in Life magazine, a 1959 movie starring Sandra Dee, and a television series in the mid-1960s with Sally Field in the title role. In the movie, a character called the Big Kahuna, played by Cliff Robertson, was based on Mr. Tracy. (Phyllis Tracy said her husband ‘‘hated’’ Robertson’s performance because ‘‘he thought he got the California lifestyle wrong.”)

Mr. Tracy came to represent an idealized time when the beach and its denizens were untamed. He amplified that persona over the years by writing about the wild beach parties of his era. In an interview, Kohner, now Katherine Zuckerman, said Mr. Tracy ‘‘personified the Big Kahuna’s mellow style and his love of the ocean.’’


Terry Michael Tracy was born in Los Angeles to Charlotte and Joseph Tracy. His father was an alcoholic, Phyllis Tracy said, and Terry’s parents divorced when he was 4. He was raised by an aunt in his grandparents’ home.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Mr. Tracy got into surfing at age 15, before it was widely popular. He attended Santa Monica City College but never got a degree. Though his beach-bum image stayed with him, he lived on the beach in Malibu for only two summers, until the authorities tore his shack down. He met Phyllis French when he was surfing on Hermosa Beach and living back at his grandparents’ home. They were married in 1957 and had seven children.

Mr. Tracy was paid to surf as an extra in the original ‘‘Gidget’’ movie, and he earned an income for a while working in surf shops and appearing in surf-related commercials — including, in later years, one for Nike. But, unable to make a career in the surfing industry, he turned to driving a truck delivering food to restaurants. Zuckerman now works for the beach restaurant Duke’s Malibu, where her job is to greet guests and reminisce about the old days (she calls herself ‘‘the ambassador of aloha”).

In addition to his wife, Mr. Tracy leaves his daughters Pamela Guinn, Jocelyn Graham, and Jennifer; sons Patrick, Michael, Jonathan, and Moe; eight grandchildren; and a sister, Georgianna Hughes. Mr. Tracy taught all of his children to surf.

He also continued to surf on weekends, until the late 1980s, when doctors told him to stop, in part because of his diabetes, which made it painful for him to walk on the sand. Still, he never lost his passion for the sport or the carefree lifestyle it fostered, now the basis of a billion-dollar industry.


‘‘He unintentionally launched a new era, where the sport became commercial,’’ Pezman said. ‘‘In later years he became a spokesman for a simpler time past, and now he is gone, too.’’