Updated Feb. 13, 2013

Stuart Freeborn obit: Freeborn and Peter Sellers
Freeborn and Peter Sellers on the set of Dr. Strangelove

Stuart Freeborn, whose pioneering work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and the early Star Wars films earned him a place in make-up history, has died at the age of 98.

Born in 1914 in London, England, Freeborn designed and applied make-up for scores of film classics, including three starring British actor Sir Alec Guinness: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Oliver Twist and Star Wars. Freeborn’s additional film credits include The Mouse That Roared, The Alphabet Murders, Murder on the Orient Express, the Superman trilogy and The Omen, for which he created vicious fiberglass-and-foam rubber dogs covered in synthetic fur. For Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Freeborn transformed Peter Sellers into three different characters using a bald-cap technique that he would replicate in later work.

But space may have been the final frontier for Freeborn, who created several fantastical creatures for 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Star Wars franchise. He has described his work on 2001, another Kubrick film, as one of the most challenging of his career, requiring masks for multiple actors over nearly three months. He faced an additional headache working with the live chimps Kubrick wanted for realism.

Freeborn did extensive make-up design work and creature creations for the original 1977 Star Wars, among them the seven-foot apelike Chewbacca; he also worked on Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983). In 1978, he shared a Saturn Award with Rick Baker for Best Make-Up for Star Wars (1977). In 1984, he shared another, with Phil Tippett, for  Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. That same year, he and Tippett were nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Film Award for Jedi.

Stuart Freeborn obit: Freeborn in 2001: A Space Odyssey lab
Freeborn in 2001: A Space Odyssey lab

British make-up artist Nick Dudman, who trained with Freeborn and assisted him on the Yoda character for The Empire Strikes Back before doing make-up design for the Harry Potter film series, said, “His main contribution was that he took on quite a few people over the years and taught them—he was one of the few make-up artists who did. I certainly owe him my start in the industry. As teacher, initially, he was quite difficult. He would tell you how to do something, but would hold something back. But once you proved yourself, his enthusiasm would get the better of him—he was like a little school kid. He loved passing it on.

“He was certainly one of the most inventive, creative artists we’ve had in this country, so he was a pioneer. He pushed the technology of what we do, much in the way Dick Smith did, so in that way he was quite unique. The length of time he spent doing his job was such that his knowledge was completely unique, and because of that, his contribution was unique. He comes from a period where you had to invent everything yourself.”

Fellow artist Neill Gorton, of Doctor Who fame, agreed.

Stuart Freeborn obit: Freeborn with Chewbacca head
Freeborn with Chewbacca head

“To understand just how good Stuart Freeborn was you just have to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and watch the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence and remind yourself that this was work created in 1967,” he said. “That’s 45 years ago! Not only did he and his team create an ape with a hand-tied stretch-fur suit and animatronic mask, he created a whole troop of them, and they were the first to do anything like this on this scale! When the film was released, most people who saw it didn’t know they were fake. It was assumed they were chimpanzees and not men in suits.

“That’s how I always saw Stuart’s work; Stuart did real. Others did make-up effects, prosthetics and animatronics, but Stuart did real. His character make-ups always look real. His Fagin on Alec Guinness for Oliver Twist pushed the limits into almost caricature but still felt real, as did the numerous characters he created for Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove and on the other movies he did with Sellers. Even his most unbelievable creations—an 8-foot, apelike, spaceship-flying sidekick and a big-eared, diminutive, mystical green goblin-type character—somehow passed for real, and we, the audience, just accepted them as living, breathing entities. That’s what Stuart did.”

Added Dudman, “We won’t see anyone like him again.”

For more on Freeborn, see Issues 6, 35 and 75 of Make-Up Artist magazine at makeupmag.com/backissues/. To see the comments on his work, or add your own, go to  our Facebook page.

Freeborn’s work will be celebrated at IMATS London 2013 with a special display in the Make-up Museum.

Stuart Freeborn obit: Freeborn with Alec Guinness as Fagin
Stuart Freeborn making up Alec Guinness as Fagin in Oliver Twist
Stuart Freeborn obit: Alec Guinness as Fagin
Guinness as Fagin
 Stuart Freeborn obit: Tony Randall
Tony Randall as Hercule Poirot in The Alphabet Murders; make-up by Freeborn
Stuart Freeborn obit: Lee
Stuart Freeborn obit
Freeborn (left) holding a mask creation
Stuart Freeborn obit
Freeborn at work
Stuart Freeborn obit: Freeborn with Issue 6
Freeborn with Issue 6 of Make-Up Artist magazine
Stuart Freeborn obit
Eye appliance created by Freeborn for Top Secret!