Dick Smith, Oscar-winning master of movie makeup, dies at 92

Posted Aug. 01, 2014, at 3:35 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 01, 2014, at 6:38 p.m.

LOS ANGELES — As the grandmaster of special-effects makeup, Dick Smith broke ground in the movies in the early 1970s when he transformed Dustin Hoffman into a 120-year-old for “Little Big Man” and an adolescent Linda Blair into a diabolical demon in “The Exorcist.”

When he received an Academy Award in 1985 for aging F. Murray Abraham into an elderly composer in the film “Amadeus,” many industry observers wondered: What took so long?

Noted Hollywood makeup artist Rick Baker saluted his mentor as “the greatest makeup artist who ever lived” when Smith received an honorary Oscar in 2011 in recognition of his pioneering role in the industry.

Smith, whose career began in the early days of television and spanned six decades, died Wednesday night in Los Angeles of complications from a broken hip, said his son David. He was 92.

“Collectively, our hearts are broken,” Susan Cabral-Ebert, president of the Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild, said Thursday. “To every special-effects makeup artist he was their mentor, an iconic person they most looked up to. He was so generous in spirit that he would share every secret he knew with every makeup artist, whether they were in a village in India, or if they were one of the biggest makeup artists in the world.”

On “Little Big Man,” Smith made a historic and creative leap when he did away with one-piece masks in favor of overlapping prosthetic devices to drastically age Hoffman, then in his early 30s. Smith glued on each piece individually — such as a nose, chin and neck — in a painstaking process with an immense payoff: Actors could still control their facial muscles and retained their full range of expression.

The breakthrough became the industry standard that is still used today.

Smith’s cutting-edge work on “The Exorcist” was a turning point for makeup special effects because he “showed that makeup wasn’t just about making people look scary or old, but had many applications,” Baker, who began his career as Smith’s assistant on the film, told The Washington Post in 2007. Baker’s seven Oscars for makeup include the first one awarded, in 1982, for “An American Werewolf in London.”

In one of the most famous scenes in “The Exorcist,” Blair’s head appears to spin because of a mechanical dummy constructed by Smith. He made welts seem to swell up on her stomach and was responsible for another hallmark of the movie when he created some of the most famous regurgitation scenes of all time.

Self-taught as a makeup artist, Smith stumbled upon his life’s calling while a pre-med student at Yale when he pulled a “magical book” about stage makeup out of a bookstore’s half-price bin. He was soon roaming the campus at night in monster makeup of his own design.

When he graduated from Yale in 1943, it would have been unthinkable for him to pursue a career in makeup, Smith often said, but he reconsidered his future while serving in the Army during World War II.

The seriousness of war made him question “what I really wanted to do, not what was expected of me, which is the way I was brought up,” Smith said in a 2008 interview with the Archive of American Television.

Richard Emerson Smith was born June 26, 1922, in Larchmont, New York, to a book-publishing executive and his wife. By the time Smith was 12, his parents’ marriage was over.

On his father’s advice he tried to break into “this new medium called television,” Smith later said. He joined NBC in 1945 in a new staff position, makeup director, and perfected his craft during live broadcasts.

Working with foam latex and plastic, Smith developed pioneering makeup techniques and emerged as a specialist in prosthetic face, body and old-age makeup.

After Smith transformed Laurence Olivier into a leprosy victim for the 1959 TV movie “The Moon and Sixpence,” the legendary actor looked into the mirror and said, “Dick, it does the acting for me,” Smith recalled in 2007 in the Post.

He received an Emmy Award for aging Hal Holbrook as he portrayed the title character in the 1967 television movie “Mark Twain Tonight!”

By the early 1960s, Smith had moved into film as an independent contractor who often had to figure out his own way of doing things because the era’s makeup artists were “a pretty secretive bunch,” Baker told the Los Angeles Times in 2009.

An admitted perfectionist, Smith pushed the craft of special-effects makeup forward from his headquarters — a small workshop in the basement of his home in Larchmont, where he lived most of his life.

He helped devise the dental device that gave Marlon Brando jowls in “The Godfather” (1972), created the bald cap that was the base of Robert De Niro’s mohawk in “Taxi Driver” (1976) and received a second Academy Award nomination for a makeup design that turned a nimble Jack Lemmon, then in his early 60s, into a believable octogenarian in “Dad” (1989).

In 1965, Smith published the “Do It Yourself Monster Makeup Handbook,” which led high-school-age fans to seek him out. In the mid-1980s, Smith spent two years writing “Advanced Professional Makeup Course,” a textbook aimed at the professional that was later expanded into an online course.

When writer-director J.J. Abrams spoke in 2011 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ceremony honoring Smith, he said that the makeup artist “was the Beatles” to a young Abrams. The filmmaker recalled writing Smith a fan letter and receiving an “old but clean” tongue from “The Exorcist” in return.

“Even when the characters were fantastically weird, I always tried to make them believable,” Smith said in the 2007 interview. “Actors have to feel like they are the person they are portraying. I think my work has helped many to achieve that.”

Smith is survived by his sons David and Douglas.

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