It’s not easy to make a world full of apes. In recent years, it hasn’t been cheap either. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes series reboot cost close to a hundred million, and this year's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes cost a reported $170 million. So it’s remarkable to realize that the original Planet of the Apes, released in 1968, cost only $5.8 million, which even in those days wasn’t that expensive. With the franchise successfully reinventing itself in modern day, the original still holds up well after all this time, a genre classic that meant so much to fans growing up, and a film that helped create a generation of make-up talent. “Planet of the Apes is one of the most important make-up movies ever,” says Rick Baker, the make-up FX master of An American Werewolf in London and Men in Black fame. “It inspired a whole generation of kids to become make-up artists.”
A great movie has to have a great team behind it, especially if you want audiences to take a film with talking monkeys seriously. Richard Zanuck, who was then the head of 20th Century Fox, was captivated with the screenplay for Apes, but he knew it was crucial that audiences found it believable, or the movie would be a laughing stock, so he brought in director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon), and cinematographer Leon Shamroy (The King and I).
Charlton Heston had a good working relationship with Schaffner, and was eager to come aboard the Ape train, but before the project landed at Fox, it was turned down everywhere. Linda Harrison, who played Nova in the film, recalled, “Nobody wanted it, but Dick Zanuck really believed in it.” In the AMC documentary on the Apes series, Heston recalled the reaction was, “Spaceships? Talking monkeys? You’re out of your mind, that’s Saturday morning serials, get out of here.”
Enter make-up artist John Chambers, who was recently celebrated in Argo. As recalled in the book Planet of the Apes Revisited, Chambers built his make-up talent during his time in the Army, creating prosthetics for wounded soldiers that replaced noses, arms, legs, chins and more. He went into television in the early fifties, then branched into movies in the sixties. Whether Fox would give the green light to Apes depended on a screen test with Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Linda Harrison, and James Brolin. The make-ups Chambers created for the test were still crude, but it gave the studio a fair idea of how the movie, and the make-up, would turn out, and they finally gave it the go ahead.
Until the unprecedented success of Star Wars, the major studios didn’t take science fiction seriously, but that wasn’t the main reason the budget for Planet of the Apes was low. As Harrison recalls, “They had to go under the radar. The board of directors at Fox wouldn’t greenlight the movie if it was over six million, so they had to come in under six million so they wouldn’t have to deal with the board.” Production designer William Creber was up for the challenge. “I had done a lot of Irwin Allen’s TV shows,” he says. “It was fun, it was challenging, and we had to do it for a price.”