TIME movies

Remembering Dick Smith, the Godfather of Movie Makeup

Through his dark art, Marlon Brando became a puffy Mafia Don, and Linda Blair a vomiting demon. Yet Smith was the gentlest, most generous of makeup artists

On Thursday’s The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert gave a reluctant Wag of the Finger to Satan — for reportedly sending mobile-phone messages to the priest who had tried to exorcise a Polish girl. The host condemned the Devil “for literally phoning it in. … Is possessing someone face-t0-face just too much effort for today’s millennial demons? … In my day, this is what possession was.” Cut to the moment from The Exorcist in which the evil spirit possessing little Regan (Linda Blair) spewed a stream of vomit at a priest (Jason Miller). “What are you gonna do,” Colbert asked Beelzebub, “send an emoji for projectile vomits?”

The Colbert segment served as an apt, if unaccredited, tribute to makeup artist Dick Smith, who not only designed the demon’s hideous visage but also found ways (tubes) to propel the vomit (pea soup) out of the mouth of the child (actually Blair’s stunt double, Eileen Dietz). Like so many Smith effects, the ones from The Exorcist fulfilled the requirements of movie art through subtle mechanics: horrifyingly persuasive and dramatically correct. More than 40 years after the film was released, and well into the age of CGI wizardry for horror and fantasy effects, Smith’s handcrafted work retains its power to shock and delight.

(FIND: The Exorcist on the all-TIME Top 25 Horror Movies list)

Smith’s death, Wednesday night at 92 in Los Angeles, was announced by his protégé, seven-time Oscar winner Rick Baker.

“The master is gone,” Baker posted. “My friend and mentor Dick Smith is no longer with us. The world will not be the same.”

He meant the movie world, a significant part of which Smith had brought to life — and near-death. Though Hollywood stars spend fortunes on looking artificially young, Smith’s specialty was aging them into their centennial years: Dustin Hoffman into a 121-year-old in Little Big Man; F. Murray Abraham as the old Salieri in Amadeus; Jack Lemmon in Dad; David Bowie, six stages, from a 30-year-old man to a 150-year-old vampire in The Hunger. His makeover of Marlon Brando’s face into don Corleone’s, with a receding hairline and cotton balls in his cheeks, earned Smith the nickname “the Godfather of Makeup.”

Makeup artist, that is. J.J. Abrams, the movie and TV producer who admired Smith from his teens, said that Smith “created iconic images using human faces as his canvas” — a painter using layers of foam latex to achieve the most startling and realistic effects. One might say a painter and a surgeon. Born in Larchmont, N.Y., in 1922, Smith took pre-med at Yale, with the plan of becoming a dentist, until a book about theatrical makeup changed his career. For the rest of his life he would operate on false teeth and false faces.

He joined the NBC television network in its infancy, in 1945, and stayed through the 1950s, devising makeup that would look natural or, if needed, dreadful under the harsh lights. In 1959, for a TV movie of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, he altered the dashing Laurence Olivier into a victim of leprosy.

“When I finished the makeup,” Smith recalled, “he looked in the mirror and said, ‘Dick, it does the acting for me.’”

In 1967 Smith won an Emmy for turning the 44-year-old Hal Holbrook into the ancient Samuel Clemens in Mark Twain Tonight. He also worked on Broadway, finding a dozen disguises for Fritz Weaver as Sherlock Holmes in the 1965 musical Baker Street, and hiding Robert Duvall under various wigs as the menacing Harry Groat Jr. in the 1966 Wait Until Dark.

(READ: Why Laurence Olivier was the actor of the century)

But film was Smith’s medium: its extreme closeups demanded the most scrupulous artistry. In his first feature film, the 1962 Requiem for a Heavyweight, he showed the punishment on the face of the has-been boxer Anthony Quinn; bloody and bloated, it was its own sonnet of pulp poetry. Smith sculpted Robert De Niro’s mad Mohawk look in Taxi Driver, as well as the makeup effects for the torture-cage sequence in The Deer Hunter. For The Godfather he created the horse’s head in the movie executive’s bed and the bullet holes punctuating Sonny Corleone’s tollbooth demise. The exploding head in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, the crawling tumors under William Hurt’s skin in Altered States, the crumbling ghoul confronting Fred Astaire in Ghost Story: all Smith’s.

(READ: A tribute to Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis)

Unlike some horror-movie makeup artists, protective of their secrets, Smith generously shared his knowledge with anyone who asked. That’s how Baker, then a teenager, met the master. Abrams, at 15, wrote Smith a fan letter and promptly received a box with the note: “Here’s an old but clean tongue from The Exorcist.” At a Smith testimonial, Abrams recalled that, soon after getting the tongue package, he was in a New York City airport and thought he spotted his hero at the baggage carousel.

“How could I be sure? A-ha. I remembered that Mr. Smith had four fingers on his left hand. It was like a Ludlum novel. I slowly walked around the carousel, trying to get a glimpse of his left hand. And there, I saw it. I was never happier to see a missing digit in my life.”

In the audience, Smith smiled and held up his left hand. Only four fingers. No special makeup required; nature accomplished that special effect.

Budding practitioners could also learn from the 1965 tell-all volume, Dick Smith’s Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-Up Handbook, with its “instructions for transforming your face into 15 monsters using makeup and other materials.” Among the eminences who learned from him, first- or second-hand, were Stan Winston (who with Rick Baker won an Emmy for Cicely Tyson’s old-age makeup in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman), Mike Westmore (Mask) and John Caglione Jr. (Dick Tracy). To Smith, these were not competitors; they were fellow students of an evolving art.

(READ: Stan Winston, the monster-maker of Alien)

Smith won just one Academy Award, for Amadeus, but is the only makeup artist to have earned an honorary Oscar, in 2011, when he was 89. When he stood up to say a few words, he confessed that his memory was starting to fail him — and that, as he watched filmed snippets of his accomplishments, “I kept thinking, ‘Gosh, that fellow had a great career!'”

He did indeed — as an artist, a shockmeister and a teacher. The glory of this most decent man will live on through their genius as well as his own. And here is the sweetest, most poignant sentence for any Dick Smith remembrance: He is survived by Jocelyn deRosa, his wife of 70 years.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser