Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 1, 2014
My early education in cinema involved the worship of a fair number of Hollywood makeup men: “Man of 1,000 Faces” Lon Chaney, Universal monster maker Jack P. Pierce, PLANET OF THE APES monkey mover John Chambers, the whole Westmore dynasty, Morlock manufacturer Bill Tuttle… and Dick Smith. Dick Smith was easy to follow, and remember – he had the same name as my Dad. In the wake of Smith’s passing this week at the lovely age of 91, eulogists may find themselves trying to rank order among the roster of old school FX makeup men I’ve just laid before you but that’s not my aim. I’m not interested in anybody’s notion of the best, I just want to mourn and remember an artist whose work had a profound effect on my life.
My introduction to Dick Smith came with the two-fer of LITTLE BIG MAN and HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS, which were both released in 1970; not sure which I saw first. Smith made up Dustin Hoffman and Jonathan Frid to be old men — one a doddering survivor of Little Big Horn and the other a ravening, near 200-year-old vampire. (That’s Frid, pictured on the right, in the process of becoming Old Barnabas Collins.) Smith got good press in the only magazine I was reading in those days, Famous Monsters of Filmland, and it was in those pages that I found out about his earlier work, creating ghoulish makeups for episodes of CBS’s macabre anthology series WAY OUT and for a 1961 TV adaptation of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and making Jack Palance look even weirder for a fresh take on THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1968). So Smith was a pretty cool guy, in my 9 year-old estimation, but then he did something even cooler… he published his secrets!
This special edition of Famous Monsters was a seminal text for a lot of MonsterKids my age. Even if it didn’t propel you towards a career in effects makeup, it was a life-changer, showing you techniques and tricks, opening up the magician’s lair without sacrificing a dot of the magic. But that was part of the genius of Dick Smith, his generosity, his seeming lack of ego. While some makeup men scrambled to brand their name onto the work of others, Smith seemed content to share his secrets, making him a Merlin of sorts to a generation of coltish but enthusiastic Warts. You might think I scrambled to copy these creations in my own bathroom, tried to turn myself into a succession of monsters and weird-os but no… Smith’s work had quite the opposite effect on me. Even while seeing the process laid bare in a succession of how-to photographs, the work disturbed me to my very core (you know, the core that hums the theme to MANNIX all day). It was at this point in my life that I developed a morbid fear of transformation, of corruption, of the erasure of personality and individuality by evil or something like it.
How fitting then — how horribly appropriate — that Smith’s next assignment (to my knowledge) was THE EXORCIST (1973), which took the accursed dynamic vampire transformation from HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS to a disturbing extreme. I have long felt a personal connection to this film that goes deeper than scare tactics or in-your-face iconoclasm. My sister Cheri suffered from asthma and eczema, meaning her breath was raspy and labored like the possessed Regan McNeill’s and her skin would crack; a fear of the world drove her inward and she rarely strayed from our home. When you live with someone who is chronically ill the atmosphere in your house is heavy and you feel an unaccountable shame, an atmosphere that is very well communicated by THE EXORCIST. At age 12, Regan represented a sister who was slipping away from me; now, 40 years later, she represents the child I spend an inordinate amount of each day fearful of losing. And a lot of that effect is to the credit of director William Friedkin, actress Linda Blair, and a score of other people. But a lot is due to Dick Smith, too, whose contributions tend to be overlooked because everyone else’s work steals focus.
Dick Smith dreamed up, on demand, more than his fair share of monsters (among the most memorable, for GHOST STORY) but his best work, his most enduring work, I think, allows you to see the humanity enveloped in the monstrosity and to appreciate what has been lost. He was also a dab hand at old men, aging youthful middle aged actors such as Marlon Brando (THE GODFATHER), Max von Sydow (THE EXORCIST), David Bowie (THE HUNGER) and F. Murray Abraham ( for AMADEUS) to the point of death, humanizing larger-than-life (and somethings larger-than-unlife) characters, laying bare the pathos of impermanence. By the time he created this simple but affecting makeup design for THE SENTINEL (1977), he was already in his mid-50s, so I guess he was simply drawing from life.
Dick Smith inspired a new generation of makeup men, among them such titans as Rick Baker, Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero (to name just a few) and even future filmmakers such as J. J. Abrams, who once stalked Smith in an airport terminal before screwing up the courage to introduce himself. Those guys are all great at what they do but I can’t reach the same apex of excitement about their creations as I do about Smith’s, even his old man stuff, which seemed like a nut he was chewing on through most of his career, as if trying to work out the physical reflection of mortality and mourning. It strikes me that Dick Smith’s true legacy is his devotion to the fragility of humanity and the tragedy of its consumption by fear or evil or simply by imminent death. For me, his work is less about flights of boundless fancy than an empathetic understanding of the reality of loss. He’s got me feeling that today.
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