Dick Smith, the Guy Who Changed the Face of Film

"Even when the characters were fantastically weird, I always tried to make them believable": Makeup pioneer Dick Smith with a photo from "The Exorcist." (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Nick Thomas
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ever since Thomas Edison Studios produced the first Frankenstein film in 1910, movie makeup artists have been shaping the faces of Hollywood monsters. As one of the grand masters of this bizarre art, Dick Smith has thrilled audiences and inspired colleagues with his innovative makeup techniques for more than half a century. Recently turned 85 and retired in Connecticut, Smith has had a career as legendary as the work he created.

"Dick is responsible for the state of the art in prosthetic makeup today," said special-effects whiz Rick Baker. Baker, who created special makeup effects for Disney's latest fantasy "Enchanted" (released Wednesday), began his career as Smith's assistant. The two worked on "The Exorcist," the horror classic in which Smith used demonic makeup to transform Linda Blair into a possessed 12-year-old, and he aged Max Von Sydow's priest character by 30 years.

" 'The Exorcist' was really a turning point for makeup special effects," Baker says. "Dick showed that makeup wasn't just about making people look scary or old, but had many applications. He figured out a way to make the welts swell up on Linda's stomach, to make her head spin around, and he created the vomit scenes."

As a kid in Larchmont, N.Y., Smith was not an avid horror film fan and showed little interest in any art except building model airplanes. That changed the day he discovered an old theatrical makeup manual in a bookstore while studying at Yale in the 1940s.

"It was one of the few makeup books available," says Smith from his home near New Haven. "To me it was magical."

The book aroused Smith's interest in exotic movie cosmetics. He found the dramatic makeup in films such as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" strangely compelling, and they fed his young, imaginative mind.

To practice, he disguised himself as various villainous characters -- complete with self-applied makeup using materials available at the time such as nose putty and mortician's wax -- and roamed the Yale campus at night terrorizing his fellow students.

"I even dressed as Frankenstein and stomped around at the local movie theater during a showing of the latest Frankenstein movie," he recalls.

After college and a spell in the Army, Smith sent photos of his makeup work to Hollywood studios, only to be rejected. His father gave him a tip.

"It was in 1945 and he said, 'Why don't you try this new thing called television?' I did, and was hired as the first staff makeup man at New York's NBC studio," says Smith. "Within three years, I had trained a full-time staff of six makeup artists."

Completely self-taught, Smith developed his own methods and experimented with new materials in the basement of his New York home. Using liquid foam latex, he fabricated remarkable special-effects makeup during the 1960s. After molding and baking the latex in pieces, Smith discovered that by gluing the overlapping segments to an actor's face he could simulate skin with amazingly realistic results.

On the West Coast, however, the Hollywood makeup pros scoffed at the more intricate methods of the rookie from New York.

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