The 10 Best Examples of Make-up Artist Dick Smith’s Genius

[5 August 2014]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

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:

10. The Alligator People

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.

9. House of Dark Shadows

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.

8. Ghost Story

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.

7. Requiem for a Heavyweight

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.

6. The Sunshine Boys

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”.

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5. Taxi Driver

Smith’s blood soaked finalĂ©, including moments of extreme (by 1975 standards) gore, required action by director Martin Scorsese less the MPAA require an X rating. So, with some post-production timing tweaks, the splatter was toned down and a modern day classic was born. Star Robert DeNiro wanted a menacing Mowhawk for the last act, so Smith was asked to create a skull cap to deal with the dilemma of the actor simultaneously shooting 1900 in Italy as well as his next role in The Last Tycoon. He also created a grim, gritty urban feel to the overall look of the film which continues to resonate some 40 years later. 

4. Altered States

A big screen adaptation of famed film and TV writer Paddy Cheyefsky’s only novel was, arguably, a troubled production. Original director Arthur Penn resigned as did F/X whiz John Dykstra after clashing with the notoriously touchy scribe. Replacement Ken Russell stated that he touched virtually nothing in Cheyefsky’s script and yet the author remained impossible to please. Indeed, he hated this new director’s approach just as much, and tried to have him removed, as well. As for Smith, he worked extremely hard at bringing the material’s ideas to life. After all the turmoil, his efforts remain one of the high points of a film fraught with behind the scenes drama.

3. Little Big Man

Arthur Penn took on Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel about a 110-year-old member of Gen. George Custer’s scouting team who recounts his days in the Wild Wild West. Originally, star Dustin Hoffman was to play the book’s age, but Smith wanted to push the boundaries. With meticulous care, he sculpted a realistic prosthetic, as well as fake eyelids what would blink along with the actor. The result often overshadowed the film itself, with Hoffman spending hours in his trailer screaming his head off to get the right grizzled old voice for the character. Still, this is a fun revisionist Western.

2. The Godfather / The Godfather Part II

All those iconic kills. The look of Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone. Michael’s broken jaw. Smith’s work on both installments of this classic American epic helped define the post-modern era, especially the growing reliance on realistic violence. Thanks to some ingenuity on his part, Smith came up with a way to create more horrific bullet wounds and head shots, and it wasn’t easy. Brando refused to allow Smith to use his typical aging process on him, so the make-up man had to drag out all the tricks in his extensive playbook to realize the character as he grew older. Masterful work all around.

1. The Exorcist

The reason Smith’s work on this classic horror film tops the list is simple. The movie was made over 40 years ago, and yet the F/X and their impact remain virtually unchanged. Sure, a more cynical, CG appreciating youth might scoff at his efforts, but this remains one of the best, most disturbing films ever made, and Smith is part of the reason why. From turning Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil from a cute young girl into an evil demonic presence, to aging Max von Sydow from 44 to 74, there’s genius and a genuine love of craft in every single scare-inducing moment.

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