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Makeup Master Dick Smith

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Dick Smith will be honored at this month’s International Makeup Artist Trade Show, June 25–26 at the Pasadena Convention Center, on the occasion of his 83rd birthday and 60th year in the business. Keynote speakers at the event are creature effects wizard Dave Elsey, celebrity makeup artist Scott Barnes and this year’s Oscar-winner for makeup, Bill Corso.“Dick Smith is god,” once said Rick Baker, six-time Academy Award-winner for makeup.In the 100-year history of cinema, not many groundbreaking craftspeople have managed to both create unforgettable work and influence an entire industry in the process. Foremost among them is Dick Smith, a true master of makeup who has been associated with the profession for the past 60 years.Smith got his first makeup job in 1945 at NBC in the fledgling television medium, giving up dentistry studies at Yale for the allure of the small screen. “I was the first staff makeup artist in the television industry, so I saw it from the very beginning,” says Smith. Within five years his department of one had expanded into a staff of 20 makeup artists working full time. Smith was supervising shows in studios and theaters all over New York. “I did every kind of makeup during my TV years,” he notes, “and about 1954–55 I taught myself how to run foam latex and started doing better work.”He remained at NBC for 14 years before venturing into films in the late 1950s, though he still returned to TV, receiving an Emmy for his work on Hal Holbrook on Mark Twain Tonight in 1967.By the late 1960s Smith was already a legend to young readers of his Monster Makeup Handbook, published through Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine in 1965. Among its enthusiastic readers were future makeup artists Craig Reardon (E. T., Poltergeist, Twilight Zone), Kevin Haney (Dick Tracy, The Addams Family, Driving Miss Daisy) and Rick Baker, who had begun an active correspondence with Smith. However, it was a revisionist western shot in 1969 that brought Smith to the forefront in the Hollywood makeup community.Smith came into Little Big Man through an association with Dustin Hoffman who he’d worked with on Midnight Cowboy. The later film gave him the chance to create a memorable old-age makeup for Hoffman’s character, who was supposed to be 121 years old. The key to creating the makeup was Smith’s innovation of developing individual appliances for different sections of Hoffman’s face so that the makeup would appear to move naturally.After the success of his work in Little Big Man, Smith was summoned to create believable blood effects and an old-age makeup for Marlon Brando in The Godfather. “Francis [Ford Coppola] was very determined that the whole film look very realistic,” says Smith. With blood essentially made from Karo syrup and food color, Smith actuated the bullet hits that occur in the shooting of Sterling Hayden’s police captain character. First, he created a foam latex rubber forehead that would be placed over the actor’s own forehead. “Before putting that on,” says Smith, “we applied a thin disc of metal about the size of a silver dollar in the target area on his forehead. Then, we glued a proper-sized squib—a weak explosive charge—on top of the center of the metal, ran little wires through the actor’s hair, connected them up to the detonator that the special effects guy would work, and then put that rubber forehead on. I had to pre-cut the bullethole so that the tiny piece of foam would blow out cleanly by the squib. Before the explosive was fired, a hypodermic needle injected my blood formula under the forehead appliance in a space around the squib where it was not glued down. Then the squib blew the bullet hole in the forehead on cue, sending the blood pouring out of it.”If The Godfather was the first true use of special makeup effects, The Exorcist took those innovations a step further. With its tale of the demonic possession of a 12 year-old girl played by Linda Blair, the film showed viewers the extent to which makeup could affect the power of a film. Blair’s facial makeup, the rotating dummy head, the letters rising on the skin, and the bulging neck effect were all groundbreaking. Another of Smith’s certain triumphs on the film was an old-age makeup created for Max Von Sydow. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Smith’s craftsmanship was that many viewers failed to recognize the then-44-year-old Von Sydow in the delicate age makeup.Several projects in the 1970s provided Smith with an opportunity to solve new makeup problems. For Taxi Driver, among many bloody effects for the climax of the film, Smith created a nearly invisible bald cap for Robert DeNiro. He also worked on the ambitious Altered States in 1979, for which he created makeups, effects, puppets, and full-body suits. His gradually aging makeup stages on David Bowie in 1983’s The Hunger are nothing short of stunning.Certainly, a landmark in Smith’s career is his Academy Award-winning makeup in 1984’s Amadeus. “Even though there are no effects in it, the old Salieri makeup works 100 percent of the time and lends so much to that movie,” says Smith’s protégé, Kevin Haney. “It enhances the film in every way.”After Amadeus Smith’s film and TV work slowed down some as he reached retirement age. But Smith, 83 this month, is far from completely retired, with his ongoing makeup course and continuing involvement as a consultant to the dozens of makeup artists and students who have been under his tutelage. Reflecting on his long career Smith says simply, “I still don’t believe it!“When I began I had no confidence and hardly any hope that I had the talent to become a makeup artist, to say little of becoming a successful one. To actually achieve, in my lifetime, the title of ‘legendary’ is unbelievable. I am thrilled by having accomplished so much. It is an eternal joy.”Would Smith ever return to active duty as a makeup artist? “If I could get something comparable to Amadeus, yes, I would do it,” he says, “but that will never occur again. Of course, you never know, but I’m not looking for that to happen.”Rick Baker summed up Smith’s impact when he concluded, “There’s never going to be another Dick Smith. I don’t deny that I’m pretty good at what I do, but it’s because of Dick Smith. He set the standard for makeup today.”

Written by Scott Essman

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