Late last year, I got in touch with make-up legend Dan Striepeke to talk about his work on the original Planet of the Apes, as well as his tenure as Fox make-up department head. In light of Dan’s recent passing, Make-Up Artist magazine is presenting that interview in its original uncensored form, which I think would have amused him a great deal.
Joe Nazzaro: So, let’s talk about your time on Planet of the Apes.
Dan Striepeke: It was an interesting experiment and I lost my hair. I was never so busy in my entire life!
JN: John Chambers once insisted he wanted young artists who would do things his way. But you had already been in the business for some time.
Striepeke: John and I started together on The Pinky Lee Show at NBC in 1955, so that’s a long time ago. John and I were very close friends, both personally and professionally and we worked well together. I think it was through his influence … I was finishing up the last episode of Mission: Impossible, and I had done that whole series by myself that year and I had also done all the lab work on it, so I was really exhausted, when I got a call from Ben Nye one night. I had just got home, and my wife and I were sitting there having a drink, when Ben Nye called me. Ben was department head at Fox at that time. John was already on the project. So, Ben called me and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I just finished nine months on Mission: Impossible and I’m exhausted!” He said, “How would you like to be responsible for maybe 18 to 19 shows?” I asked what he is talking about and he said, “I want to put your name into, and replace me, because I’m retiring!” I said, “Well, let me talk it over with my wife,” so we talked it over and I called him back the next morning and said, “Sure, put my name in.” I’m sure John had some influence in it too, but I got the job, over a lot of people who were favorites and the industry was shocked. I started coordinating with John of course, while I was trying to run the make-up department with a lot of TV shows and big features coming down the pike, as well as Planet of the Apes. He and I always worked well together, and we did after Planet of the Apes too. We were close friends and he took care of my oldest child while my second child was being born, so it was familial as well and I loved him and Joan very dearly. So anyway, I took the job and ran into this maelstrom of budgetary problems and all the other problems that were going on about making the picture. I got hold of a guy named Saul Candy, who I’d run into earlier on Mission: Impossible and he was a hair vendor, and I started buying hair through him. I was buying it by the busload for Apes, so we solved that problem.
"... it was a make-up artist’s dream. It was a lot of work, but that’s what it’s all about. You put on lipstick, eyelashes or eye shadow, but how often do you get to do this kind of work, on that scale?" - Dan Striepeke
JN: Had Ben Nye already done a lot of the legwork for you at the time?
Striepeke: Not really, it was John who was doing the legwork and developing the concept. This was so outrageously new; this was breaking all the barriers and developing new territory, so it was something that had never been done before, but John also had great dental experience, so he knew that the bite on the face of the apes was going to be a big problem.
JN: So, you came in when things were already up and running.
Striepeke: Absolutely, but all the odds were against it. The studio greenlit it, but they were not in love with it. They thought, “Well … OK …” but Arthur Jacobs was a major producer on the lot and then [director] Franklin Shaffner came in and he was the singular catalyst that made that picture happen.
JN: John Chambers was a very outspoken guy, so if you let him talk to all the studio people, he probably would have pissed off a lot of people …
Striepeke: I was a good buffer on that! Let me give you an example. I came on the lot and I know there were five other men who were in contention for that job as department head, and some of them had some real inside stuff. One guy was the odds-on favorite to succeed Ben Nye, so anyway, when it didn’t happen, it pissed a lot of people off about how this guy got this major studio job and this humongous project. Anyway, the second week I was on the lot, I go to a budget meeting—every Friday morning, there was a budget meeting about how much has been spent, how much has been allocated and how much they’ve got left. After that, we would have a production meeting with call sheets and what the day’s work was going to be for the next day. Anyway, it came to my turn and Doc Merman, who was the man who ran it, he was a real old-timer; he had taken the fall on Cleopatra, and he had done a lot of B-pictures, so he knew how to stretch a buck and that was his job. Anyway, he and I hit it off very well, and anyway, it came around the table and finally came to me and he said, “Well, whippersnapper, what’s your situation?” I was looking at my spreadsheet that I had worked on beforehand and I said, “Well, I need $27,860 to operate next week; otherwise we are shut down.” He said, “Jesus Christ, what the fuck? We’ve heard a lot about you, but we didn’t know you’re this goddamn expensive!” I said, “Take it or leave it; that’s the reality. Either we put that money in there or I lay everybody off!” Anyway, I got the money, and continued to get the money. They had no idea we were going to run out a budget of about $289,000.
JN: I’m assuming the studio didn’t want to throw a lot of money at Apes.
Striepeke: The one catalyst that kept it all going was Dick Zanuck, who had great faith in the picture. He felt it would be a groundbreaker and trendsetter, and he had great faith in it. He was president of the company of course, so he was in charge of the whole operation.
JN: Who was doing a lot of the hiring for the film?
Striepeke: I came out of the service in 1955, and I’d worked in Hollywood and live television prior to that, but I couldn’t get my job back. They had hired someone else during the four years I was gone, so I went to the government of veteran re-employment rights, so I got my television card with the union. In so doing, I met a lot of young fellows and in the spring of 1955 Cecil B. DeMille came back to Hollywood with The Ten Commandments, and they needed huge sets with all these extras with biblical beards and character make-up and the union had shrunk so much during those bad years before the advent of television that they just didn’t have the manpower, so they started hiring young guys. I was one of them, but I also met all these young men like Tommy Miller, Eddie Butterworth; lots of people, and all of them eventually wound up on Planet of the Apes of course.
JN: Were there enough people available who could do prosthetics?
Striepeke: It was not only big; it had never been done before, projecting that face onto another visage that far away from the face. Most appliances were very thin, so this was a quantum leap in the art form. Through association and having worked with so many of these people on so many different projects, like Ed Butterworth for instance or Joe DiBella, God rest his soul, Tommy Miller … You could go on and on, and the people I had trained and had a wonderful relationship with most of them. And then we held classes for nonunion members. I got an OK from the union to hire 10 men at journeyman wages and train them for 12 days, so we had an intense 12-day training course for those men. They had to do exactly as John wanted it done, and they learned. I’ll give you an example. I went over to Stage 21 one afternoon after lunch and everybody was sitting around waiting to get a lighting done. I saw this gorilla and his chin was hanging down. I went up and looked at it and inside the mask it was all full of green peas, so it was nasty. So I said, “Who is responsible for this man?” and nobody answered, so I went over and grabbed the make-up artist and said, “Fix the goddamn thing!” He said, “Well, I’ve got my own …” and I said, “I don’t give a shit who you’ve got; I want you to fix this. I don’t want him walking around like that!” so we had to do a lot of that kind of stuff.
JN: Was there a lot of attrition, or did you manage to keep most of your people?
Striepeke: I was able to keep most of them all the way through, plus I had a lot of other television shows I could charge them off to if I didn’t have something for them to do. But we also have a lot of prep going on all the time. We had to continually rework the background masks and the hair would go to hell, and hair preparation. We had to hackle the hair and run it through crimpers and then blend the hair. And there was fingernail polish that had to be mixed—I’m going to lose the rest of my hair thinking about it, and I don’t have much left!
"This was so outrageously new; this was breaking all the barriers and developing new territory, so it was something that had never been done before ... " - Striepeke
JN: Did you ever roll up your sleeves and do any application?
Striepeke: I did some ape make-ups, yes. I would say, “Bring a guy to my office and put him in my chair,” and I would do the make-up, plus I wanted to feel like I was part of it all. John knew my talent, so he didn’t worry about it. I couldn’t tie myself down to do somebody as a character every day, because I had Patton coming down the pike and Hello, Dolly! as well as 12 television shows with Irwin Allen and all the crap we had to make for him, like with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and all that stuff. So I was a busy guy.
JN: You also had the next Apes film coming up right away, which went into production pretty fast.
Striepeke: Yeah, it did. But it was a make-up artist’s dream. It was a lot of work, but that’s what it’s all about. You put on lipstick, eyelashes or eye shadow, but how often do you get to do this kind of work, on that scale? For instance, in the cornfield, when the gorillas are rounding up the humans, I had 47 make-up artists working on that sequence—47! I had to rent two 50-foot construction trailers, and we took them down to the mill at Fox and they cleaned and they turned them into make-up and hairdressing departments so they could go out to the ranch where we took the troops through, and when we moved back onto the lot, they brought them back because there was no place for them to work otherwise. I’ll give you another anecdote. I don’t think I was on the job more than two weeks and John had finished the sculpture on the female astronaut who died and got dehydrated. I had the head on a stand in my office, and this funny looking guy came in with his hair combed forward. He had seven guys walking behind him, so every time he turned, he broke seven noses (because they were all up his ass). And I was making up Victor Jory for a sequence in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Anyway, John had done some slip molds, because we just didn’t have time with all the apes we were doing, and we were doing this television crap as well. Anyway, I was making Victor up and this guy comes in with the seven guys behind them, and he says, “No, no godammit, I want him to look like her, like that!” and he points to that head of the shrunken astronaut from Apes. I threw my brush down and I said, “I don’t know who the fuck you are, but get the fuck out of my office or am going to kill you!” and I would have, I was that fucking mad. Well, he turned and broke seven noses, and all of a sudden, he leaves and within 15 minutes, the switchboard lit up. Stan Huff was on the phone and Doc Merman and Dick Zanuck’s office was on the phone, “What have you done? This is the biggest producer on the lot, Irwin Allen!” who was producing all these crappy shows. I said, “I don’t give a shit if he’s God; when I’m doing a make-up, nobody bothers me! If you don’t like it after I’ve done it, I’ll take the lumps!”
JN: So, did you have to take any as a result of that encounter?
The next morning, my assistant Dick Hamilton would normally go down to another theater and watch the dailies on television, but I said, “I’m going to come with you this morning.” So we go down by this theater near Stage 14 and nobody was there, and all of a sudden, Irwin Allen comes in with his seven stumble bums and nobody says a word. The curtain comes up, the lights go down, up come the images and behind me I hear applause. It’s a close shot of Victor Jory holding on to two electrodes, so I got up and said, “Thank you very much, gentlemen!” (I almost said, “Fuck you!” but I didn’t) and Dick Hamilton and I walked back to the department. Irwin Allen never bothered me after that, but he drove Ben Nye right into the ground, because Ben had to acquiesce to him and he had to take all of the work on all these TV shows and had to go to Irwin Allen’s office which was on the northwest corner of the lot, as far away as you can go, to show him the work. I said, “To hell with that, I’ve got too much work to do! He has to come to me!” so that’s the way it was.
JN: But if Irwin Allen was the studio’s golden boy and Apes was suddenly getting all this attention, he probably wasn’t too happy about that.
Striepeke: No, he was a prick, and remained one to the very end! I was there when he did The Poseidon Adventure, which was the last picture I did at Fox. I was making up Stella Stevens and Arthur O’Connell, and Irwin made sure I didn’t get credit on the picture. A small victory for him, but it didn’t mean crap to me.
JN: Well, it’s been great hearing some of those wonderful Planet of the Apes stories.
Striepeke: My time has come and gone as far as the make-up world is concerned but I had a glorious career! Oh, I’ve got another story for you, if you’ve got a minute. We started the picture in Paige, Arizona up at Lake Powell, but I wasn’t there, because I was in the make-up department back at Fox, so I sent three make-up artists up there and two hairstylists for the first part of that sequence, which is all mysterious so when you don’t see anything but shadows. And this one guy, who was an old-fashioned journeyman from Local 706, said he would take the picture, but he had to take his boat up there with him. I said, “Let me talk to the transportation department and see what the Teamsters have to say about it.” I got permission for him to tow his boat up there, but once he got up there, the son of a bitch was nothing but a pain in the ass and he didn’t perform very well. I got a call from Mort Abrams, saying, “Dan, we’ve got problems, and I wish you would come up and solve them!” So, I get on a little airplane and flew to Phoenix and then got on a little Piper Cub up to Lake Powell, and I was taking a hairdresser, Kathy Blondell, with me. I had dinner with Mort Abrams that night, who was kind of Arthur Jacobs’ hatchet man, but I liked Mort and we got along pretty good, because he didn’t lie to me and I wouldn’t lie to him. He wanted me to fire this guy, and I said, “Mort, I’m not in a position to fire him, but I’m going to put my boot up his ass and step on him real hard tomorrow. He’s going to perform and I’m going to lock that boat up!” So, I did all three of those things. I didn’t put the boot up the ass, but verbally I did, so when he got back to the lot, I fired him and had the police escort him off the lot. I’m not a hard guy that way, but when you cross me, you cross me.
JN: Is it true that some of the older make-up artists would try to sabotage the younger ones?
Striepeke: The old-timers knew their time was up. They had a cushy ride for a long time, and a lot of them did shitty work. A lot of them did good work, but they were never really pushed to do excellent work. In those days, motion pictures were black-and-white, a smaller screen and fast lenses, and then they went to work in television and that was a cushy thing, so I know what you’re talking about. I worked on The Ten Commandments, where I was part of a cadre of young guys who were brought in and were not union members, but the union just didn’t have enough personnel to service it. I remember sitting at a table with this old-timer and he was saying (and he called me “punk” all the time), “Well, punk, you’re really going to learn how to do make-up now!” Well, I went past him like a locomotive at a standing stop, and they didn’t like that, because they knew the writing was on the wall that their time had come and gone.
JN: Planet of the Apes seemed to mark that transitional period in the industry.
Striepeke: It was a huge turning point, absolutely!