Stuart Freeborn, makeup artist for ‘Star Wars’ and other films, dies at 98

Courtesy of Lucasfilm - Stuart Freeborn, 1979.

Stuart Freeborn, a movie makeup artist behind creatures such as Yoda and Chewbacca in the “Star Wars” films, died Feb. 5 in London. He was 98.

LucasFilm, the company founded by “Star Wars” director George Lucas, confirmed the death. The cause was not disclosed.

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Mr. Freeborn’s six-decade career led him to work on many classics, including Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

Born in London in 1914, Mr. Freeborn was the son of a Lloyds of London insurance broker. He told a BBC documentary last year that he resisted pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps, because “I felt I was different.”

He began his film career in the 1930s, working for Hungarian-born director Alexander Korda and honing his makeup skills in films including “Rembrandt” (1936) with Charles Laughton as the Dutch painter, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943) and the medical thriller “Green for Danger” (1946).

After air force service during World War II, he worked on British cinema classics including director David Lean’s 1948 version of “Oliver Twist.” His transformation of Alec Guinness into Fagin — complete with a large hooked nose — was criticized by some as anti-Semitic, a matter of regret for Mr. Freeborn, who said he was partly Jewish.

Mr. Freeborn worked on some of the most popular British films of the 1950s, including the war drama “The Dam Busters” (1955) and Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957).

Mr. Freeborn later worked with Kubrick, transforming actor Peter Sellers into multiple characters for “Dr. Strangelove” before designing the apes for the “Dawn of Man” sequence in “2001,” in which primates react to a mysterious monolith.

Mr. Freeborn’s other makeup credits included “Seance on a Wet Afternoon” (1964), “Oh! What a Lovely War” (1969), “10 Rillington Place” (1971), “Young Winston” (1972), “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), “The Omen” (1976), and “Superman” (1978) and its sequels.

He will likely be best remembered for his work on “Star Wars” (1977), creating characters such as the 7-foot-tall wookie Chewbacca and the slug-like Jabba the Hutt.

LucasFilm said that Irvin Kershner, who directed “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), would “note that Freeborn quite literally put himself into Yoda, as the Jedi master’s inquisitive and mischievous elfin features had more than a passing resemblance to Freeborn himself.” (Yoda’s looks were also said to be partly inspired by Albert Einstein.)

Mr. Freeborn recalled being approached by “this young fellow” named George Lucas, who told him, “I’ve written a script for a film called ‘Star Wars.’ ”

“He was so genuine about it, I thought, well, young as he is, I believe in him. He’s got something. I’ll do what I can for him,” Mr. Freeborn told the BBC.

Nick Maley, a makeup artist who worked with Freeborn in the 1970s, called him a mentor who “ran his department like a headmaster.”

“It was my years working with him that helped me learn how to think, how to solve problems, how to not take the most obvious path,” Maley said. “Everybody will remember him for ‘Star Wars,’ but he did so much more than that. No one should overlook the groundbreaking work he did on ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ That was really the forerunner of ‘Star Wars’ and used a lot of the same technology.”

Mr. Freeborn’s wife, Kay, died in 2012. Mr. Freeborn’s three sons — Roger, Ray and Graham — also died before him.

Survivors include eight grandchildren and a number of great-grandchildren.

— From staff reports and news services