Exclusive Video: Artists Praise Smith

Updated Aug. 7, 2014

Groundbreaking make-up artist Dick Smith—whose work on films including The Exorcist, Little Big Man, Taxi Driver, The Godfather and Amadeus earned him the nickname “the godfather of special make-up effects”—died July 30 in Los Angeles after complications from a broken hip. He was 92. Along with his talent and ingenuity, Smith was known as an artist who generously shared his knowledge.

Dick Smith working on Jack Palance for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Dick Smith working on Jack Palance for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Born Richard Emerson Smith on June 26, 1922 in Larchmont, N.Y., Smith entered Yale University as a pre-med student, intent on becoming a dentist. But in his sophomore year he read a book about the tricks Hollywood make-up artists used during the filming of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). He soon began to do make-up for the Yale drama group and decided to pursue a career in theatrical make-up when he graduated.
Smith was make-up director for NBC from 1945-1959, the first staff make-up artist to work in television. While working in the New York studio, he developed new materials and shades of color (critical to the television industry’s adoption of the RCA color system), and pioneered such techniques as the use of foam latex and plastics in quick changes for both color and black-and-white TV shows. Smith directed TV make-up for the Democratic National Convention in 1948 and made up Franklin Roosevelt. He also trained a staff of make-up artists for the network.

Dick Smith posing with Issue 38 of Make-Up Artist magazine
Dick Smith posing with Issue 38 of Make-Up Artist magazine

Some of Smith’s best-known film work includes the Ratso make-up for Midnight Cowboy, Dustin Hoffman’s age make-up for Little Big Man, Marlon Brando’s age make-up in The Godfather, special make-up effects in The Exorcist, Robert DeNiro’s make-up in Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter, demonic make-up for The Sentinel, special make-up effects for Altered States, mummy and age make-up for The Hunger, age make-up for The Sunshine Boys, special make-up effects for Poltergeist, age make-up for Prizzi’s Honor and age make-up for Amadeus.

For that last film, he shared an Oscar with Paul LeBlanc for Achievement in Makeup. He also shared an Oscar nomination with Ken Diaz and Greg Nelson for Dad. Smith’s work on the 1967 TV special Mark Twain Tonight! earned him an Emmy Award.

Michael Key and Dick Smith
Michael Key and Dick Smith

He gave back to his industry, developing PAX paint and multi-piece appliance make-up and authoring the Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook, which inspired many young make-up artists, including Rick Baker and Richard Taylor. He also created Dick Smith’s Advanced Professional Makeup Course, which became a vital part of many professional make-up artists’ education (according to Smith’s son David, the course has more Oscar-winning graduates than any other make-up school or training program in the world). Smith consulted for several films and schools, was a longtime Make-Up Artist columnist and made several speaking appearances at the International Make-Up Artist Trade Show.
In 2009, Smith was honored with a retrospective at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater.  “A Tribute to Dick Smith: The Godfather of Special Makeup Effects” was hosted by Baker and featured many of Smith’s colleagues, protégés and friends speaking live onstage about Smith’s many accomplishments. For more on the event, see our online coverage and Issue 79.

Dick Smith receiving honorary Oscar in 2011
Dick Smith receiving honorary Oscar in 2011

Two years later, Smith received an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards for his life’s work; he is the only make-up artist to receive that honor. At the event, held Nov. 12, 2011 in Hollywood, director J.J. Abrams and actress Linda Blair were among the guests paying homage to Smith’s accomplishments. Follow the link for coverage of the historic event. And on Feb. 15, 2014, IATSE Local 706 presented Smith with its Make-up Artists Lifetime Achievement Award at the Make-up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild Awards. A campaign to establish a star in Smith’s name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was still in progress at press time.

Smith was preceded in death by his wife Jocelyn. He is survived by his sons David and Douglas, who issued the following statement: “Our father leaves a deep and lasting imprint on the make-up profession on multiple levels. His pioneering techniques and materials have become so universal that artists entering the profession accept them as part of the craft’s eternal bedrock. He changed the profession’s prevailing culture of secrecy to one that is more open to the free exchange of ideas. As it does in the hard sciences, this culture of cross-pollination ultimately resulted in great benefits for all of the practitioners of special make-up effects.”

A memorial service will be held Aug. 17 at 10 a.m. at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater (8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, Calif. 90211). Casual dress is encouraged, and complimentary parking will be provided at 8920 Wilshire Blvd. and 9025 Wilshire Blvd. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests making a donation to one of Smith’s favorite charities: Amnesty International or the Southern Poverty Law Center.

For more on Smith’s career, see Make-Up Artist issues 25, 56 and 62. A special tribute will be held at IMATS Vancouver, Aug. 9, and we’ll have quotes from artists and filmmakers in Issue 110. Also, you may share your memories of Smith on our tribute website, dicksmith.makeupmag.com.

Below is some great video of Smith at the 2010 International Make-Up Artist Trade Show (IMATS) in Los Angeles, courtesy of Jill Rockow.