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When 20th Century Fox acquired the film rights to Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel Planet of the Apes, it set in motion a chain of events that has resulted in nine films, a live-action television series, an animated series, a full line of toys and playsets and massive merchandising opportunities. However, the original 1968 film—inarguably a cinematic classic—still resonates as the crown jewel in the franchise, in large part due to its transformative make-ups. Indeed, when a first screenplay by Rod Serling was commissioned by Fox, the studio had no idea how to create the simian make-ups on leading characters which had to work throughout the entire film.
When initial test footage was filmed in March of 1966, Fox make-up department head Ben Nye and his assistants created versions of the ape characters which signaled progress for techniques at the time but were later scrapped. After the project was greenlit in September 1966, the producers knew that the make-ups would take a decidedly different direction.
Enter John Chambers, a prosthetics veteran who had sculpted medical appliances for returning World War II veterans and had been working in Hollywood since 1945. During pre-production for Planet of the Apes, the producers wondered aloud who had created the realistic character make-ups in The List of Adrian Messenger in 1963, and Fox make-up apprentice Tom Burman informed them that Chambers was the key prosthetics artist on that project.
Before his passing in 2001, Chambers recalled the pivotal moment to this writer. “Tommy Burman was the apprentice, and he’s the one that was responsible for telling them to get me—I was available,” Chambers said. “That’s how it started.”
Now in the throes of a documentary about the 1968 film, entitled Making Apes, Burman describes his early relationship with Chambers. “John Chambers was the person who gave me my first opportunity to work in the film business—I worked on a wax museum project with him,” Burman says. “He recommended me for an apprenticeship at 20th Century Fox, and then eventually he came to 20th Century Fox. We started on Jan. 2  on Planet of the Apes and worked until Sept. 14. It was just he and I on a little 4-foot by 2-foot table to begin that huge film. [During pre-production, Chambers] holds up the script: ‘I am going to win the Academy Award.’ I knew that there was something special about it.”
Through 1967, Chambers and Burman toiled in the Fox make-up lab on what would become the biggest prosthetics film in cinema history to that point. “I knew how to work with foam latex as a propmaker,” Burman says. “Chambers needed somebody who had an understanding of lab work. John could be really tough on you. Being a Marine, I knew how to follow orders. I picked up his methods very quickly.”
Critical to Chambers’ achievements on Apes was the casting of appropriate actors. In 1996, Chambers explained how, in anticipation of the difficulties in transforming actors into apes, a notable production decision was made. “We cast actors with brown eyes to give them a similar look to actual chimpanzees and gorillas,” he said. “We also sought actors with flat noses to fit into the muzzle of the ape appliances. Some were picked at random and their noses were too large. We found that we needed physical actors, and they were usually among ethnic groups.”
At the start of 1967, both leading and supporting actors were lifecasted, ape make-ups were sculpted and realized in foam latex, locations were secured and sets were being constructed. On the lot, Chambers and Burman trained young artists who Chambers specifically sought out. “He didn’t want seasoned make-up artists adding their own touches,” Burman states of his mentor, the exception being veteran artist Daniel Striepeke, a Chambers peer. “He wanted uniformity; paint-by-numbers. The younger guys were so green, so new. They had no idea what they were thrown into.”
Chambers added that he intentionally selected young artists to work on the project. “I took green young men that I saw a certain talent in what they produced in other parts of make-up,” he remembered. “And I said, ‘This guy is an artist.’ That’s how I picked them. Like Ken Chase—he wasn’t a full-fledged artist then—and I put him on the key character of Zaius. I told Kenny at the time, ‘This is going to be something for you, Kenny, and you can do it.’ And he did it! All of these people that worked with me, they made that picture as it was.”
Chase confirms Chambers’ assessment of his status at the time as being tasked to create the orangutan Dr. Zaius on a daily basis. “When he assigned me to do Maurice Evans’ make-up in Planet of the Apes, I wasn’t even a card-carrying member of the union,” Chase reveals. “That was a gutsy thing for him to do because there were a lot of forces at play there. It didn’t matter to John—if you could demonstrate to him that you could do the job, you had it. Planet of the Apes was the beginning of history being made—it was the first major breakthrough in prosthetics.”
Unquestionably, Chambers’ design concepts for Planet of the Apes were unprecedented. For the principal actors, the chimps and orangutans wore T-shaped, three-piece, appliance make-ups which included a brow piece, upper lip and lower lip; gorillas wore a two-piece make-up. The principals’ appliances were removed at the end of a day’s shooting with an alcohol acetone solution that cut the glue and washed out the rubber without damaging it. Chambers’ experimentation led to a foam rubber that allowed the actors’ skin to breathe comfortably. He also introduced pre-painting the appliances.
In the Fox make-up lab, Burman, only in his mid-20s, followed Chambers’ every lead. “Because I was very diverse, I had inklings how to do things and adjusted to John’s methods,” Burman says, “Adjusting rubber, making molds, making teeth. I worked 18 hours a day—I had a lot of responsibility.”
Along with tasks assigned to Burman, Chambers set up a system to create the dozens of slip-rubber shell background masks to be used in master shots. “When we airbrushed with spray guns to paint the masks,” Chambers pointed out, “we found that one artist could do the work of 20. For appliances, after the foam-rubber pieces came out of the mold, we put them on a vacuum-form support, then airbrushed them by lining them up and painting them one by one. At that point, the appliances were ready to be fit onto the actors’ faces using a special spirit gum to attach them.”
Naturally, with a project of Apes’ size, Chambers’ organizational tasks were formidable. “I was having trouble finding people capable of working in my system,” he said. “Every individual thought he was a fabulous artist, which was great, but I couldn’t afford to have da Vinci and Michelangelo; I had to have uniform make-ups, so I knew that we had to take it out of their hands.”
In winter 1967, 20th Century Fox’s make-up department was turned into ‘Ape School’ where nascent artists created the three main make-ups on the show: chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas. The late Larry Abbott had been Charlton Heston’s hairstylist and joined the team, which had already included Burman and Chase. Other young artists included the late John Inzerella, Leo Lotito Jr. and Maurice Stein, who passed away Feb. 28, 2018.
Another crucial aspect of the apes’ make-up was the wigs, created by the late Josephine Turner. Chambers conveyed that Turner’s hairpieces were applied to the actors following the main make-up process. “She was marvelous, very savvy,” Chambers recollected. “She ventilated the hair onto a fine mesh, flesh-colored base. We created a pattern that allowed her to design separate hairpieces for our make-ups. One was a wig, and there was a piece for each of the sideburns that came down under the jaw.”
Chambers’ pioneering techniques were a great success on Apes and raised the bar for how large-scale make-up shows were produced thereafter. Though information is regularly divulged in present-day interviews, in the 1960s make-up departments were secretive places with locked doors and little sharing of techniques among artists. But Chambers fought to change that culture on Apes and other projects of his at the time. “When you went to work at MGM or Universal, there were labs, and those doors were closed,” Chase divulges. “If you were just a run-of-the-mill make-up artist, you weren’t able to go behind those doors. It was very secretive and not available to everyone. John changed that.”
As principal photography commenced in the spring of 1967, Burman made sure that the make-up team had everything they needed for the shoot. “Everything was laid out like paint-by-numbers: an appliance, a back-up appliance, a vacuum form that the appliance would sit on, a base-coat, a highlight and a shadow,” Burman details. “They also had a hackle to lay their hair in, with the hair and wool all mixed and ready to go. Their hairpieces were laid out, and they had the appropriate flat spirit gum. Because of Chambers’ detailed organization, it wasn’t as hectic as it sounded.”
With the film’s opening scenes being shot in Lake Powell, Utah, and different locations in Arizona comprising much of Apes’ exteriors, the all-encompassing ‘Ape City’ scenes were filmed at the 20th Century Fox Ranch in Malibu Creek State Park, a location in Calabasas, California. The film’s ending sequences were shot in Zuma Beach, California, west of Malibu. All interiors were subsequently filmed on stages at 20th Century Fox’s main lot on Pico Boulevard in western Los Angeles. As many as 60 make-up artists and more than 40 hairdressers worked on shooting days with the full ape cast. Often, they fit background performers with pullover masks, first coloring around the actors’ eyes so that their skin was not exposed. On choice shooting days, 160 extras wore background masks. Ape costumes by designer Morton Haack complemented the make-ups.
From 1944 to 1967, Ben Nye ran the 20th Century Fox make-up department until his retirement that May. Ben’s son, Dana Nye, returned home from college in spring 1967 and went to work for Dan Striepeke, who became Ben’s successor and was a key artist and supervisor on Planet of the Apes. “I worked for six weeks on the film—from June 15 to end of July of 1967,” said Dana Nye. “I started working prep on the background apes. Lee Harman and I put spring-loaded mouth systems into latex chimp masks for the extras. After we worked on this for two weeks, they tested them, and they didn’t work very well. Then, the show moved out to the Fox Ranch in Malibu Creek State Park. This was an exciting experience for me.”
At the Fox Ranch, Dana Nye created make-up for background chimpanzees and the many human characters who served as extras. “The chimps wore these prosthetic pieces that John Chambers had made in the lab,” said Nye. “My job was to paint their eyes black and put body make-up on the humans. My dad made all of the body make-up—he had been making his own formula for 20 years. I took my work very seriously; it was clear that this was going to be a seminal moment in motion picture history. The team of artists who were there were at the right time at the right place. They went on from that and worked for 20 years or more in the industry.”
Dana Nye eventually joined the make-up union, moving to Paramount where he worked for the next 16 years. “I loved the craft and went on to make professional cosmetics for the artists. That part of my career has been equally satisfying and rewarding,” he said.
Production on Apes ran from May 21 until Aug. 10, 1967. When production wrapped, Chambers and Burman took down the project in the Fox make-up department. To great acclaim, Apes was released on April 3, 1968. Though no formal Academy Awards category existed for make-up in 1968, Chambers received an honorary Oscar for Apes, one of only two in history issued for make-up—the other going to William Tuttle for 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.
Though Fox produced four Apes sequels, Chambers’ involvement was lesser than it had been on the first film. “I was there for three of the sequels, assembling the molds and getting appliances ready,” he noted, “but Werner Keppler supervised make-ups in all four sequels.”
Burman worked on the first two sequels, Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Escape from the Planet of the Apes. In the 1970s, Chambers and Burman had an independent prosthetic make-up business together. Secretly at the time, Chambers also served as an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency, helping stage events documented in the 2012 film Argo. Chambers’ make-up concepts were utilized for the Apes television series, though he was not active on the crew.
Looking back on the totality of Apes, Chambers was humbly receptive of the praise he received for his work. “For its time, for my experience, for my ability, and everything concerned, I think we tried hard,” he said.
In retrospect, Burman was also reflective about his landmark work on Apes and its summative importance in movie history. “I think that it was a whole new experience for people back then,” Burman states. “It was one of those things: producers, writers and directors changed the way they thought about film. It still holds up after 50 years.”