NEW YORK, N.Y. – Dick Smith, the Oscar-winning “Godfather of Makeup” who amused, fascinated and terrified moviegoers by devising unforgettable transformations for Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” and Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” among many others, has died. He was 92.
Smith, the first makeup artist to win an Academy Award for lifetime achievement, died Wednesday night in California of natural causes. His death was confirmed to The Associated Press by the president of the Make-up Artists and Hairstylists Guild, Sue Cabral-Ebert, who declined to give further details.
“Our lives have been blessed by our father’s steadfast love and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your kind words in remembrance of him,” Smith’s sons, David and Douglas Smith, said in a statement.
Widely regarded as the master in his field, Smith helped pioneer such now-standard materials as liquid foam latex and make special effects more realistic and spectacular. He was also known and loved for his generosity, whether exchanging letters about his craft with a teenage J.J. Abrams or mentoring future Oscar-winner special effects artist Rick Baker, who in 2011 presented Smith his honorary statuette.
“He took makeup to a whole new level; it’s unbelievable what this man has done,” Baker, whose own credits include “Men in Black” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, said at the ceremony. “His work inspired a whole generation of up and coming artists.”
With Smith on hand, the middle-aged Brando was transformed into the jowly patriarch Vito Corleone, the teenage Blair into a scarred and wild-eyed demon, and William Hurt into a mass of protoplasm for “Altered States.”
Smith and Paul LeBlanc shared an Oscar in 1985 for their work on “Amadeus,” for which Smith spent hours each day turning 44-year-old F. Murray Abraham into an elderly man as Mozart’s rival Antonio Salieri.
“Dick Smith is the best makeup man in the world,” Abraham, himself an Oscar winner for “Amadeus,” later said. “Once I looked into a mirror, at my face, I felt like it was completely convincing.”
Smith also fashioned a mohawk out of a plastic cap and chopped up hair for Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” and created breasts out of foam rubber for Katherine Ross in “The Stepford Wives.” Through foam latex and a newly flexible kind of false eyelashes, Smith managed to capture extreme old age in “Little Big Man,” which starred Dustin Hoffman, in his mid-30s at the time, as a centenarian claiming he had survived the Battle of Little Big Horn.
“Even when the characters were fantastically weird, I always tried to make them believable,” Smith told the Washington Post in 2007. “Actors have to feel like they are the person they are portraying.”
Before breaking through in Hollywood, he was among the first great makeup artists for television. Smith headed NBC’s makeup division from 1945 to 1959, using soldered wire to create a panther mask for a then-unknown Eva Marie Saint and slushed-in latex to enhance the nose of Jose Ferrer for “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
In the 1960s, his experience turning Jonathan Frid into a 100-plus-year-old vampire for the series “Dark Shadows” helped prepare him for “Little Big Man.” His other notable aging projects included Walter Matthau for “The Sunshine Boys” and Hal Holbrook for the 1967 TV special “Mark Twain Tonight!” for which Smith won a Primetime Emmy. Holbrook and Matthau were among those who participated in a 1991 TV documentary about Smith.
A native of Larchmont, N.Y., Smith described himself as an introvert with little interest in special effects until spotting an instructional manual while attending Yale University. He became so obsessed that he made himself up as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, scaring his classmates. He later turned up at a screening of “Frankenstein” as the title character.
After school and serving in the Army, he acted on his father’s advice and took a chance on television. One of his early assignments was applying makeup to Democratic Party leaders at the 1948 national convention.
Out of all the praise he received, Smith liked to cite a compliment paid by Laurence Olivier, whom Smith worked on for a 1959 TV production of “The Moon and Sixpence.” Olivier’s character was based on the painter Gauguin, who died of leprosy. Smith never forgot Olivier’s response after he completed making up the actor. “‘Dick, it (the makeup) does the acting for me,'” Olivier told him.