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
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick