An Industry Tribute To Dick Smith

Cannes Film Festival

Todd Wawrychuk

When Rick Baker introduced Dick Smith as the “Godfather of Special Effects Makeup,” the packed Samuel Goldwyn Theater erupted into a frenzied applause and a standing ovation.  Baker, who worked with Smith on “The Exorcist,” was the moderator of the evening, ushering in the various stages of Smith’s career with clips and panels.

The tribute began with Smith’s work on television.  He got his start with NBC after experimenting with makeup and applications while a student at Yale.  In 1945, Smith was hired to help provide accurate color hues to the makeup used in the early black and white broadcasts.   In 1961, Smith’s landmark use of foam latex was aired in an episode of the supernatural program “Way Out” entitled “Soft Focus.”  Smith created a half blank, melted face that appeared on the lead actor to illustrate the climatic moment where a magic solution is splashed on a photo, resulting in the face being partially erased.

As the program moved to the first panel, “Actors on Smith,” Hal Holbrook, who played Mark Twain in “Mark Twain Tonight!” a 1967 television special that earned Smith an Emmy for makeup, and Linda Blair, star of “The Exorcist,” joined Baker on the stage.   Holbrook commented on how Smith’s old age makeup application enhanced his performance, and made the four-hour long application durable.  Blair took the microphone proclaiming “Dick, if there were more like you, the world would be a better place!”  She explained how Smith made the process for her, then an 11-year-old girl, to have appliances all over her body, and multiple life casts that sometimes were completely redone on director William Friedkin’s request. 

“His ability to walk me through what he was doing made it bearable,” said Blair.

After an extended scene from “The Exorcist” that highlighted Smith creations including a rotating head, bloated cracked lips, and seared flesh, Baker invited the next panel to the stage.

Andrew Clement, Shane Mahan, and John Rosengrant presented “Dick Smith, Educator and Mentor.”    Each panel member read about Smith’s makeup in publications like “Monster Makers Handbook” as children.  They spent their youth emulating Smith’s secrets, such as the invention of a synthetic blood made out of Kyro syrup and food dye.  Clement was the first of this group to study directly with Smith in New York, and is currently working with Smith to update a Makeup Artists Handbook.  Rosengrant and Mahan described the expertise they acquired by working with Smith on “Starman.” 

“There was so much to learn about the scientific measures of makeup,” said Rosengrant.  “Dick is very precise, in a way we had never been.”

“We failed the bowl test!” said Mahan.  “We had resin left in our bowls, and Dick came into the shop and said ‘Don’t you have any clean bowls?’  It was very mortifying.”

Prior to the evening’s third panel entitled “Dick Smith, Innovator,” clips from the films “Altered States” and “The Hunger” were shown.  Joining Baker on the stage were Carl Fullerton, Mike Elizalde, Alec Gillis, and Tom Woodruff, Jr. 

Fullerton, having worked with Smith on both “Altered States” and “The Hunger,” described Smith’s problem-solving process as “frightening at times.  He was constantly coming up with new challenges.  I couldn’t out-work him, even as a young man.”

Woodruff recalled the difficulty that came with the primitive man makeup in “Altered States.”  There was a last minute actor change, and a solution for applying realistic body fur had to be developed for the new body type.  Through the creation of a body cast, cut fur, wax and latex, an application was developed.

“It was ingenious.  It was low-tech, it served the purpose, and it was brilliant,” said Woodruff. 

Selections of behind-the-scenes footage provided by Smith’s son were then screened.  In addition to watching Smith at work, the clips also gave a sense of his interaction with actors, such as Marlon Brando, David Bowie, and William Hurt.  He provided advice such as this tidbit given to Dustin Hoffman for the movie ‘Little Big Man,’  “Hold your lip in if you want to sound old, don’t use a funny voice.”

The final panel, “Dick Smith, Artist” featured Greg Cannom, Kevin Haney, and Kazuhiro Tsuji.   These three artists shared their deep admiration of Smith and the innovations he brought to the world of makeup. 

Tsuji, who first discovered Smith when he saw the Abe Lincoln makeup that Smith formulated and applied to Hal Holbrook for “North and South,” brought along a four foot bust of Smith’s head that was displayed in the auditorium’s lobby.  Cannom said “When I get stuck in a situation, I think, ‘What would Dick do?’ and this helps me create the nuances and character.”  Haney shared fond memories of Smith playing practical jokes on sets that involved crafting and painting particular body parts in highly suggestive manners.

After the evening’s second standing ovation, Dick Smith arrived on stage.  Smith proceeded to discuss the makeup that amazed him, such as Baker’s work on “Coming to America” in which Eddie Murphy was made up to look like an elderly white Jewish man.  Smith proceeded to say that he’s “passed the baton” to a new generation of artists.

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