The haunting leer of a demonically possessed girl in “The Exorcist” (1973) is one of the more terrifying examples of the work of makeup artist Dick Smith. Widely considered the 20th century’s maestro of movie makeup and affectionately called the Godfather of Makeup, Smith has influenced and inspired generations of artists. He has gladly shared his secrets with up-and-comers in the field as well as elevated the standards of the craft, both of which helped to establish makeup as a respected discipline of the cinematic arts.
Filmmakers have consistently turned to Smith for persuasive renderings of time’s effects on the human body. For artfully aging F. Murray Abraham from his forties to his eighties in “Amadeus” (1984), Smith shared the Academy Award® for Makeup with Paul LeBlanc. He earned his second Oscar® nomination for making a spry 65-year-old Jack Lemmon a persuasive octogenarian in “Dad” (1989), and created an iconic masterpiece with the jowly look of Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” (1972).
Though his fantastical creations for such films “Altered States” (1980), “Scanners” (1981) and “Starman” (1984) pack a punch, Smith steadfastly believes in making movie magic look natural. His artistry is often unnoticed – and that’s just the way he wants it. “A good makeup doesn’t look like makeup,” he has said.
After spending his early childhood in suburban Larchmont, New York, Smith was pre-med at Yale University, majoring in zoology. In his sophomore year, his life took a dramatic turn when he happened to pick up a textbook detailing makeup tricks used in Hollywood. Smith began doing makeup for the theater group at Yale and roamed the campus at night in comical monster makeup of his own design, giving the unwary a playful scare.
Smith got his professional start as the first staff makeup artist for the fledgling NBC television network, pioneering techniques using foam latex and plastic for what were initially live broadcasts. His tenure as makeup director spanned from 1945 to 1959 and he expanded from a staff of one to 25.
After 14 years, Smith moved on to movies. In short order he was sculpting the face of Anthony Quinn’s battered boxer in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962), making a dozen stunt doubles resemble the stars of “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” (1963) and helping Peter Sellers become strikingly handsome for “The World of Henry Orient” (1964). Remarkably, for almost 40 years he would create all of his effects in his basement studio in Larchmont, flying to the set with the makeups whenever shooting began.
In 1965, Smith penned the seminal Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook, which protégé Rick Baker credits as inspiration for his own illustrious career. By 1967, Smith had returned to television, working on such projects as Dan Curtis’s classic vampire series “Dark Shadows.”
Smith’s method of gluing on multiple foam latex appliances in overlapping pieces permits actors their full range of facial expressions. His technique was demonstrated to marvelous effect in “Little Big Man” (1970), which transformed Dustin Hoffman from a man in his early 30s to age 121. At that time, single-mold masks were still widely used and Smith became a Galileo of sorts, shunned within the insular community of professional makeup artists. Today, he is recognized as one of those rare artists who opened new avenues of expression for others.