Dick Smith, considered Hollywood’s pre-eminent master of film makeup who made a young Dustin Hoffman look like a 121-year-old man and who made Linda Blair’s head spin in “The Exorcist,” died July 30 in Los Angeles. He was 92.
He had complications from a broken hip, his son David Smith told the Los Angeles Times.
Dick Smith, who was entirely self-taught, devised many of the innovations that redefined movie makeup artistry, including new ways to create age-lined faces and to depict blood spurting from bullet wounds. Even his formula for fake blood, using corn syrup and food coloring, has become the Hollywood standard.
He shared an Academy Award for best makeup in 1985 with Paul LeBlanc for “Amadeus.” In that film, Smith did what he considered his finest work, creating the skin and hair that transformed actor F. Murray Abraham into the aging composer Antonio Salieri, the embittered rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
“Dick Smith is the best makeup man in the world,” Abraham said at the time. “Once I looked into a mirror, at my face, I felt like it was completely convincing.”
Smith spent weeks and months perfecting his work, using photographs, sculptures, molded rubber and countless other methods to create the kind of magic that makes movies special.
Among his many accomplishments, he made Marlon Brando over into an aging Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972); he reshaped William Hurt’s body into an amorphous blob in “Altered States” (1980). And he horrified moviegoers with stomach-churning special effects in “The Exorcist” (1973), in which a girl is possessed by the devil.
Besides creating the bulging eyes, facial scars and rotting teeth for Blair in “The Exorcist” – standard fare for a Hollywood makeup artist – Smith designed a life-size doll with a rotating head for one of the film’s most memorable moments. Under the latex skin on Blair’s face, he concealed pouches that spewed green slime in the film’s projectile-vomiting scene.
“ ‘The Exorcist’ was really a turning point for makeup special effects,” Rick Baker, a seven-time Oscar winner who learned the craft from Smith, told The Washington Post in 2007. “Dick showed that makeup wasn’t just about making people look scary or old, but had many applications.”
After winning an Emmy Award for his work on Hal Halbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight!” in 1967, Smith made a stunning advance three years later when he worked with Dustin Hoffman on “Little Big Man.” In the film, Hoffman plays a 121-year-old man who has witnessed virtually every significant event on the Western frontier, including the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Smith visited retirement homes and took close-up photographs of the residents for inspiration. Instead of designing a one-piece rubber mask to cover Hoffman’s head, he built a series of small, interconnecting pieces to be glued on the actor’s skin.
The nose was separate from the chin, the ears were distinct pieces from the forehead and eyelids. Each element is called an “appliance” because it is applied to the skin. It was something entirely new in film makeup.
It took five hours each day for Smith to put on Hoffman’s face, but the result was that the actor’s expressions were clearly visible under the makeup.
“Dick is responsible for the state of the art in prosthetic makeup today,” Baker told The Washington Post. “While everyone else was making masks from a single mold, Dick made these multiple pieces and layered them on the face. Today, that’s the way everyone does it.”
In “The Godfather,” Smith put a simple dental device in Brando’s mouth to make him appear older and more jowly. But he also developed a new way to depict a gun wound.
For the scene in which Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) retrieves a pistol hidden in a restroom, Smith attached a foam-rubber forehead to actor Sterling Hayden. He ran wires through Hayden’s hair and injected fake blood with a needle under the layer of foam-rubber.
When Pacino shot Hayden, a small charge was detonated, causing the “blood” to burst through the rubber skin. Before then, most gunshots were represented by a small wax pellet hitting the skin and spilling fake blood.
Smith worked on hundreds of films and television shows, and almost every one offered new technical challenges. He was so adept at reproducing gore that Martin Scorsese had to lighten the color of the blood in the climactic shootout in “Taxi Driver.”
But for Smith, the greater goal was always to define a character and enhance the dramatic experience.
“This is one of the magical, wonderful things about makeup,” he said in an interview with the Archive of American Television. “When your face is changed, you feel like you’re that character. It gives you a different personality, different reactions to things. It’s a wonderful boon for actors to be in the face of the character that they want to play.”
Richard Emerson Smith was born June 26, 1922, in Larchmont, New York. He went to Yale University with the aim of becoming a dentist, but as an undergraduate he bought a secondhand copy of a book on theatrical makeup.
As a lark, he began to make himself up as characters from horror films – Quasimodo, the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera – and knock on his friends’ doors. He once went to a Frankenstein movie in the guise of Frankenstein’s monster.
“One time,” he said, “the police actually chased me.”
Smith graduated from Yale in 1943 and served in an Army artillery unit during World War II. In 1945, he became the first makeup artist hired by NBC television. Other makeup artists refused to share their secrets, so he had to learn the craft on his own.
He later became one of the top mentors of other makeup artists in Hollywood and throughout the world.
In a 1957 TV production, Smith aged actress Claire Bloom from 22 to 80 years old in a one-hour show about Queen Victoria.
His first movie work came in 1962, with “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” in which he made Anthony Quinn into a boxer with a battered face.
Over the years, his other credits included “The Stepford Wives,” “The Sunshine Boys,” “The Deer Hunter” and “The Hunger,” in which he remade David Bowie into a 150-year-old man.
In 1961, Smith was injured on one job, causing him to lose the ring finger on his left hand. He had a surgeon remove bones in his hand, making it look more natural.
He received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2011.
His wife of 54 years, Jocelyn “Lyn” De Rosa Smith, died in 2003. Survivors include two sons.
The inventiveness of his craft never failed to excite Smith, and he wrote two books about the art of makeup.
“Once you start getting the paint and the coloring on, it all blends in,” he told Back Stage West magazine in 2004. “You can’t tell where the artificial stuff ends and the real skin begins. Then there’s this moment – I call it the Dr. Frankenstein moment, because I find it the most fascinating and most exhilarating thrill for me as the artist, because I have created life.”