He went to Yale, where he was planning on being a dentist. However, once he read a book on make-up techniques, he began experimenting on members of the drama club. After World War II, he sent out pictures of his self-taught applications and looks, but there were no takers in the close-knit world of Hollywood.
His father suggested he try the fledgling medium of television, and before long, a young 20 something Dick Smith was working at WNBC in New York. For a 1959 production of The Moon and the Sixpence, he had to turn Laurence Olivier into a leper. After taking one look at what Smith had done, the legendary thespian said that he was more than satisfied as the grotesque latex appliances would do “the acting for him”. It was something Smith never forgot over the course of his long, legendary life (he died on 30 July, 2014).
In 1965 he published a how-to book that would become the bible for a bunch of wannabe make-up artists. Names like Rob Bottin, Tom Savini, Chris Walas, and Rick Baker all cited him as influential in their future career choice. In 1967 he stepped in to help Jonathan Frid play a 175-year-old vampire for Dark Shadows (he would improve the effect for the film at number nine on the list).
It was 1970’s Little Big Man, with Smith again taking a young actor (Dustin Hoffman) and turning him into a 121-year-old man that cemented his status. From then on, Smith was a known name, working in many of the high profile Me Decade movies, such as Midnight Cowboy. Throughout the years, he has served on many high profile productions, and yet, through it all, Smith only received two Oscar nominations (for Amadeus and Dad) and only one win (for the former).
So, in celebration of his life and influence on movie make-up, here are ten examples of Smith’s brilliance, from the earliest examples of his work in B-movie schlock to the horror classic which cemented his reputation, beginning with:
Smith is perhaps best known for a technique by which an actor or actresses’ skin could be made to appear wrinkled, desiccated, or otherwise grotesque. Using this stippling effect, he revolutionized the old age/monster look. Nowhere was this more evident than in a low rent B picture about a missing man turned into a giant walking lizard. Made as a possible double feature for The Fly, Alligator People also featured grade-Z icons Lon Chaney and Beverly Garland, as well as Richard Crane who became the subject of Smith’s own experiments. The film is awful. The F/X work is cutting edge.
Back during its run on ABC, Smith stepped in to help realize a vision in creator Dan Curtis’ head. He wanted his iconic neckbiter, Barnabas Collins, to suffer the after effects of a failed transformation serum, returning the vampire back to his actual age. Smith did such a good job that he was brought back for this big screen adaptation of the storyline. He even had a new and improved make-up approach for the project, as well as a sickening neck wound which made Curtis balk. Smith’s work on the series would influence several future endeavors, including number three on our list.
One of Smith’s last major genre efforts was this disappointing adaptation of Peter Straub’s beloved book. Charged with bringing the narrative’s central nasty to life (a ghoul bent on getting revenge on the men who wronged her decades before), his work here is extraordinary. Sadly, it was created around the time the MPAA was cracking down on violence and violent imagery in film. Some of Smith’s best stuff was left on the cutting room floor, becoming part of his movie biz mythos in the process. The last act transformations, edited down or not, are still amazing.
Along with fellow scribe Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling helped redefine TV drama. From The Twilight Zone to such stand-alones as Patterns and this tale of a washed up prize fighter, his words would bring a level of increased intelligence to the oft-described “idiot box”. When the move was made to motion pictures, director Ralph Nelson wanted a more convincing, realistic style make-up for Anthony Quinn’s punch drunk and beaten down Louis ‘Mountain’ Rivera. Smith obliged, using prosthetics and other secret tricks in his magic paint box to turn the handsome Hollywood leading man into a broken, battered buffoon.
This may seem like an odd entry for this list, especially when you consider so much of Smith’s work was in the genre category. At the time of this adaptation of Neil Simon’s hit play, however, the casting was causing concern. George Burns was 79 when the movie was made. His co-star, Walter Matthau, was only 55. Yet they had to play contemporaries. So Smith stepped in and did his usually effective old age technique on the younger man and VOILA! instant crotchety old coot. In fact, Matthau is often more convincing as an aging angry, ex-vaudevillian than his onscreen “partner”.