A Tribute to Make-Up Master Dick Smith

By David Konow

We didn't just lose the godfather of makeup, but a great human being.

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.

Smith’s legacy today is clear. Not only did he launch a new era of make-up effects, but he also helped and mentored many up and coming artists and filmmakers. As Guillermo Del Toro told Vulture, “Without Dick Smith, I would not be making movies. When The Exorcist came out, I bought his makeup kit [Movie / T.V. Horror Make-Up] in a toy store. It came with gelatin and molds and colors, and I did my own makeup effects at a very young age.” (Baker was similarly inspired by Smith’s 1965 book, Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook.)

Years later, Del Toro and Smith finally got together, and the first time they met, Smith greeted him like they were friends for years. “Dick came to be like part of my family,” Del Toro continued. “He was a guy that changed the way I see the art of making movies.”

One of Smith’s best innovations gave actors greater mobility to act under heavy make-up. Planet of the Apes was done with full head masks that looked great, but they didn’t flex well, and it was especially hard for the actors to speak underneath them.

In Little Big Man and The Godfather, Smith created make-up in individual latex pieces that you could apply like a jigsaw puzzle that gave actors like Brando and Hoffman more flexibility when performing. In addition, Smith created the modern formula for movie blood, which is clear Kayro syrup, red and yellow food coloring, and FotoFlo. (When working on The Godfather, Smith would cut his thumb, and compare the stage blood he was mixing to his own blood to make sure it looked realistic enough.)

“Dick Smith invented all the techniques that every make-up artist uses today,” says Tom Savini. “They might improve on it, they might make it better, but it all begins with his techniques.”

Along with The Godfather, Smith’s best-known make-up work will probably always be The Exorcist. It was a very hard shoot, and in the documentary Fear of God, Smith acknowledged that Friedkin was a tough director, but that he pushed him to create some of the best work of his career. The Exorcist was also the first time Smith got a full screen credit on a film that he didn’t have to share with any other crew members.

In fact, Smith accomplished all the make-up effects on The Exorcist with just one assistant, Baker himself, in the basement of his Larchmont home. As Smith recalled, “I had a basement with a couple of rooms, a single car garage, which I took over, and sometimes I borrowed one of my neighbor’s basements when I needed to the room. The number of make-up artists who did character make-up appliances was very limited. I needed an assistant and through correspondence I knew Rick Baker, who was then about twenty years old, and he lived at my house and helped me. He was the best one I could think of, there was no one around me I could use, and I could already see he was extraordinarily talented.”

Where Planet of the Apes inspired many to go into make-up, Dick Smith’s innovations on The Exorcist revolutionized the business. After The Exorcist’s incredible box-office success, “It grew so fantastic, you had these shops spring up like Rick’s and Stan Winston’s,” Smith continues. “Here I did The Exorcist with one assistant in my little basement, and wham, twenty years later Rick Baker has a factory sized shop, and when they opened it up they joked that he should get a golf cart so he could get down to the other end of the hall quicker! That was truly a revolution.”

Smith first broke into the business working for NBC from 1945 to 1959. As recalled in Time, one of the best compliments he received was from Laurence Olivier, who looked in the mirror after an extensive make-up job and said, “Dick, it does the acting for me.” Smith’s movie debut was Requiem for a Heavyweight in 1962, where he turned Anthony Quinn into a battered, burned out boxer.

When Smith started in the business, what few make-up men that were around were very secretive and wouldn’t divulge their formulas to anyone, especially a young upstart. Smith reversed this, and shared his techniques and innovations with anyone who wanted to learn them.

“I’ve always had by my nature, a desire to help people,” Smith told me. “I once considered being a missionary but felt I couldn’t hack it! But I consoled myself by saying, ‘Okay, I’m not noble enough to give up my life and devote it to helping poor people, but I can be a good friend to people.’ I just started the practice of saying, ‘Hell, I’m always going to find something better.’ I was proud enough of my accomplishments that I felt I didn’t have to hide these things I discovered. And my extended family is make-up artists all over the world. I get back more than I give.”

"My extended family is make-up artists all over the world. I get back more than I give."

In the make-up world, helping new people into the biz is a tradition that still continues to this day. “Because I wanted to be Dick Smith when I grew up, I wanted to do the same thing,” says Baker. “Because he gave me so much, I wanted to give back.” When special make-up effects artist Eddie Yang wanted to get into the business as a teenager, he was immediately welcomed without resistance. “If you show the dedication, people are more than willing to help,” he says. “I still see people come in today that are fresh and new, and everybody’s willing to show them whatever they want to know.”

“He wanted to spread the gospel, the knowledge, amongst colleagues and amongst anyone who was interested in learning,” Del Toro said. “Dick had a way of welcoming anyone new without prejudice or snobbery. He was willing to talk to anyone who wanted to know more about his craft. He changed not only my life, but the lives of hundreds of artists.” Baker joked that Smith handed out flyers on the streets of New York with instructions on how to recreate the effects for The Godfather and The Exorcist.

In the early eighties, Smith was having resurgence because of his work in Altered States and David Cronenberg’s Scanners. This was the dawn of what’s now called the golden age of make-up effects, where Rick Baker, Rob Bottin and Tom Savini were becoming stars in their own right from their work on American Werewolf, The Thing, and Dawn of the Dead. The film geek magazines like Cinefantastique and Fangoria were doing in depth pieces on make-up men, and once again the world was reminded of Smith’s incredible artistry.

One of Smith’s last great hurrahs was creating F. Murray Abrahams’s make-up for Solieri in Amadeus, which won Smith his first Academy Award. The mentor side of Smith was still strong, and he gave Stan Winston his big break-through movie in effects, recommending him for The Terminator. James Cameron wanted Smith for the film, but Smith begged off and insisted Winston was the man for the job. Indeed he was, and it launched a creative partnership that lasted until Winston passed away in 2008.

There’s no doubt that Dick Smith’s incredible make-up effects will be remembered for a long time to come. But even more than his make-up skills, there’s a long legacy of people who were touched by his generosity and kindness, and who will remember the man even more as a mentor and a mensch. This is what makes Smith’s passing especially sad. Not only did the world lose a great make-up artist, but a wonderful human being as well.