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
News
i100'Geography can be tough'
News
newsVideo targets undecided voters
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
businessHow bosses are inventing unusual ways of making us work harder
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis Stinchcombe, of Broad Plain Boys' Club in Bristol, by a Banksy artwork, titled 'Mobile Lovers', where the sale and handover have been completed at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, where it was on display to the public.
artHuge price will help to keep a 120-year-old youth club in Bristol open
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedy... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
Life and Style
Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, dropped out of Stanford University just before graduation to develop his app
techAnd yes, it is quite a lot
Life and Style
Cooked up: reducing dietary animal fat might not be as healthy as government advice has led millions of people to believe
healthA look at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

DevOps Engineer - Linux, Shell, Bash, Solaris, UNIX, Salt-Stack

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: A fast growing Financial Services organisation b...

Trade Desk FIX Analyst - (FIX, SQL, Equities, Support)

£50000 - £60000 per annum + excellent benefits: Harrington Starr: An award-win...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

Charles Dickens: A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind