Like many, I was shocked and saddened when Dick Smith passed away last week, at the age of 92. Smith was the groundbreaking make-up artist who transformed Marlon Brando into an aging don in The Godfather, and who turned sweet little Linda Blair into a monster in The Exorcist. His credits also include Dark Shadows, Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Taxi Driver, Altered States, Amadeus, and many more. You may not have known his name, but you have definitely seen his work.
The news was broken by Rick Baker, via Twitter: “The master is no longer with us, but his work will live on. There will never be another like Dick. He and his work changed the industry.” William Friedkin also tweeted that “Without Dick Smith neither The Exorcist nor modern makeup would be the same.”
Although he was in his nineties, it was still hard to imagine the man being gone because he had a tremendous life force. Even late in life, he was a generous and happy spirit, and when he won an honorary Academy Award in 2011, he was genuinely grateful and visibly moved.
Rick Baker, who Smith mentored when he was young, was there to present the award, and J.J. Abrams also recalled writing a fan letter to Smith when he was young. He didn’t think he’d hear back, but then one day he saw a package in the mail with Dick Smith’s return address on it, and his heart pounded. Inside was a prosthetic tongue from The Exorcist as a gift, and Abrams’s mother was concerned: “Who is this man named Dick sending you tongues?”
Smith laughed at the memory, and when it came time for Baker to give Smith the Oscar, he was moved to tears that he was the one handing the award to the man who helped launch his career. Baker said he was “proud and honored” to present the award to “my idol, my mentor, my friend for over forty-three years, the greatest make-up artist alive.” Baker added that Smith “took make-up to a whole new level. His work inspired a whole generation of up and coming make-up artists, myself included.”
Smith was clearly humbled by Baker’s words, and in a brief speech he said, “This has been an incredible joy, one of the greatest I’ve ever had in my whole life. I have loved being a make-up artist so much, but this kind of puts the crown, the cap, on all of that. To have so much kindness given to me all at once, is just too much. I am so grateful, thank you so much.” When Rick Baker got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2012, Smith was proudly by his side, and both events were indeed fitting caps to an incredible career of make-up innovation.