Stuart Freeborn: Film make-up artist whose creations included Yoda, Fagin and the '2001' apes

He tried to spur attention in his skills by passing himself off as Haile Selassie; it led to his arrest

Over nearly six decades Stuart Freeborn was a leading make-up artist, creating a string of distinctive and innovative designs for directors including Alexander Korda, Powell and Pressburger, David Lean, Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas. His most famous creations are the apes in 2001: a Space Odyssey, and Yoda, Chewbacca and Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars.

Freeborn was the son of a Lloyds insurance broker but resisted following his father as, from a young age, he said, "I felt I was different." He was largely self-taught, studying chemistry to discover materials that were safe to use and practising on himself. He also studied hairdressing and sculpting, giving him a portfolio of skills that equipped him for his unique contribution to the industry.

The family moved to Beckenham in Kent, and Freeborn claimed that after he sent photographs of himself in various disguises to all the studios and heard nothing back, he tried to spur interest by passing himself off as Haile Selassie. When he was arrested, the story came to the attention of the producer, Alexander Korda, who gave Freeborn a break on Rembrandt (1936). He also worked on another biopic, Herbert Wilcox's Victoria the Great (1937).

He got to grips with colour on the now overlooked horse-racing musical Wings of the Morning (1937) – the first Technicolor film shot in Britain, which featured Henry Fonda and the tenor John McCormack – and Korda's more famous The Thief of Bagdad (1940). By then he had married his wife Kay, also a make-up artist, and they frequently collaborated.

Service in the RAF was shortened by haemophilia and Freeborn returned to the industry, joining Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). Three years later he got his first screen credit on Launder and Gilliat's noirish spy drama I See A Dark Stranger.

Most of Freeborn's make-ups had so far been relatively naturalistic, but with David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) (where his name was misspelled Freebourne) he created a nightmarish Fagin, whose grotesquely Jewish appearance contributed to the film being delayed for release and then censored in the US. Freeborn was always uncomfortable with the decision as he had also proposed a more measured design, which Lean rejected. He also worked on Lean's 1850s real-life courtroom drama Madeleine (1950).

During the making of Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Freeborn was involved in a car accident of which he was the only survivor, and spent several hours laying undiscovered and unconscious in the jungle before being rescued. It also meant several months away from the set, recovering in hospital.

That year he also worked on Chaplin's A King in New York. When Freeborn planned to use alcohol to remove the thick make-up and prosthetics Chaplin was horrified, fearing that the smell would linger, confirming rumours of his dypsomania.

Freeborn was a master of transforming people into lookalikes, including making Robert Morley in Oscar Wilde (1960), Richard Attenborough into John Christie in 10 Rillington Place (1971) and Simon Ward into Young Winston (1972). The task was somewhat easier in I Was Monty's Double (1958), as the wartime decoy was played by the man himself, ME Clifton James.

On Dr Strangelove (1964) Freeborn transformed Peter Sellers into a balding US president, a bumbling RAF officer and the maniacal former Nazi title character. He had performed a similar task on The Mouse That Roared (1959), in which Sellers' three roles included a Grand Duchess.

The relationship with Strangelove's director Stanley Kubrick continued with 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968), one of Freeborn's most challenging projects. The opening Dawn of Man sequence demanded incredibly realistic ape suits whose faces showed real character and could be controlled by the actors within. The level of detail was such that each hair was individually sewn into the lightweight foam suits. Some thought that, perversely, he had lost out for an Oscar because some voters didn't realise the apes weren't real.

Not all of his transformations were so radical. For the Superman franchise (1978, 1980, 1983, 1987) Freeborn suggested that the hero could be "disguised" by having him and Clark Kent part their hair on different sides.

In the 1970s Freeborn was approached by a young man with an idea for a space drama and, despite his youthfulness and the ambition of the scheme, Freeborn saw something worth trusting in George Lucas. Combining make-up, puppetry and animatronics Freeborn created a gallery of intergalactic creatures that became one of the Star Wars cycle's distinctive features. As with 2001's apes, the seven-foot wookie Chewbacca had individually stitched hair. Freeborn also created the obese slug-like gangster Jabba the Hutt and, for the alien-infested cantena scene, worked with his wife and son Graham, also a make-up designer.

Frank Oz had designed Luke Skywalker's tic-infected and language-torturing mentor Yoda for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) but director Irving Kershner was dissatisfied. Freeborn claimed that his version was "thrown together" and he had little faith that Lucas would like it, but in fact it was hailed as exactly right. He later admitted that the distinctive features were a combination of a self-portrait with a hint of Albert Einstein, topped with some "creature ears". It became one of the most popular characters in the cycle, outshining some of the humans, and Lucas recently licensed Yoda to advertise mobile phones.

Though he declined to give details, Freeborn also claimed that on more than one occasion he had enlarged actresses' breasts for nude scenes.

Stuart Freeborn, film make-up artist: born Leytonstone, London 7 September 1914; married Kay (died 2012: three sons deceased); died London 5 February 2013.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory