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Dick Smith, the Guy Who Changed the Face of Film

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.

"Dick's work was so much better than theirs," says Baker, who won the first Best Makeup Oscar in 1982. "While everyone else was making masks from a single mold, Dick made these multiple pieces and layered them on the face. Today, that's the way everyone does it.

"It was his passion and love for the craft that made him the best. And unlike others in the early days, Dick was eager to share his methods and formulas with anyone who asked."

Specializing in prosthetic face, body and old-age makeups, Smith worked in television until the mid-1960s. Over that period, he transformed Claire Bloom into Queen Victoria, Anthony Quinn into Kublai Khan, Hal Holbrook into Mark Twain and Jack Palance from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. Performances by Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Jimmy Durante, Audrey Hepburn, Peter Ustinov and Dennis Quaid benefited from Smith's convincing cosmetics. (Many can be seen on Smith's Web site, http://www.dicksmithmake-up.com).

For the 1959 TV production "The Moon and Sixpence," Smith was required to transform Olivier into a leprosy victim. "When I finished the makeup, he looked in the mirror and said, 'Dick, it does the acting for me.' I've never forgotten his words."

As innovative as Smith's work was on television, it was film where his talents really bloomed. Smith's successes turned Dustin Hoffman into a 121-year-old man in "Little Big Man," aged Marlon Brando by 20 years as he portrayed a ruthless Don Corleone in "The Godfather," gave Robert De Niro a Mohawk in "Taxi Driver," turned singer David Bowie into a vampire in "The Hunger," and transformed Jeff Bridges in "Starman."

"That was the scene where I turned from an alien into a person," recalls Bridges by phone from Los Angeles. "To pull it off, they called in the top three makeup guys at the time -- Dick Smith, Stan Winston and Rick Baker. Dick handled the final stage of the transition. It was a thrill for me to work with these masters."

For Bridges's final passage from adolescence to adulthood, Smith took a life mask of the actor and spent six months creating more than a 100 full-size plastic heads that were filmed one frame at a time, each representing a step in the aging transition. But Smith was disappointed with the result, which appeared in the film for a mere two seconds.

"The director chopped it so much, I didn't even recognize it as my work when I first saw it screened," Smith laments.

"Starman" may not have been a success by Smith's standards but the following year, his creative genius was recognized with the Best Makeup Academy Award in 1985 for his aging of F. Murray Abraham in "Amadeus."

That year Rick Baker was also nominated for the Best Makeup Oscar, losing to his mentor.

"I didn't feel like I lost that year, I was just so happy that he won," Baker says. "In fact, I was embarrassed [in 1982] when I received an Oscar before Dick -- he was the master!"

"I guess I taught him well," says Smith. "I have one Oscar, and Rick now has six!"

Though he has many favorites, Smith still considers his work on "The Exorcist" his best. The makeup was so realistic and terrifying that audience members reportedly fled theaters during the film's 1973 release.

"I remember asking Linda Blair how she felt after doing some of those disturbing scenes," Smith recalls. "She told me, 'Oh, that wasn't me, it was Regan [the character] acting.' " Blair's comment, Smith says, confirms that makeup not only contributes to a character's on-screen credibility with an audience, but can also provide a jolt of confidence for the performer.

"Even when the characters were fantastically weird, I always tried to make them believable," Smith says. "Actors have to feel like they are the person they are portraying. I think my work has helped many to achieve that."

Despite the innovations of special-effects computer graphics (CG) over the past two decades, California-based makeup and special-effects artist Andrew Clement sees little danger of prosthetic makeup becoming obsolete.

"It enhances the performance of the wearer. I've heard actors say that makeup helps them understand a role and discover nuances in the character," says Clement, from his Los Angeles office at Creative Character Engineering. "I've seen a growing trend to enhance prosthetics with CG, but I couldn't imagine Eddie Murphy doing any of the recent characters that he has become famous for in CG. We still need people like Dick Smith."

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